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The Great Encounter of China and the West 1500-1800

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The Great Encounter of China and the West 1500-1800

The Chinese and European cultures came together for the first time in the fifteenth century when great Chinese fleets traveled throughout the Indian Ocean and along the coast of Africa. These voyages created much concern for China. They lead to a period of isolation for security reasons. By the time the first Europeans arrived in China there was little to no evidence of these voyages. (Mungello 2005) Fallowing that time the Chinese government proceeded with a policy of containment to the trade merchants and missionaries that would visit them in the coming centuries. This paper will server an explanation to why China and Europe at first embraced each other then rejected each others cultures in the time period 1500-1800.

Both cultures were eager and fascinated by the similarities of their moral teachings that had emerged over thousands of years oceans apart. The first contact China had with the West was Franciscan monks in the 1500's. These monks suffered a severe communication barrier with the Chinese. Their goal in China was to spread Christianity. The Franciscans were not to widely accepted by the Chinese because the Chinese saw nothing to be gained by them. The Franciscans were fallowed by the much more successful Jesuits lead by Francis Xavier. Xavier was never able to penetrate into main land China but his successor Father Matteau Ricci was. He saw that the Chinese were an ethnocentric people and fed off this by presenting to them a map of the known world with China being the focal point. This supported the Chinese concept of zhongguo or middle kingdom. The Jesuits philosophy of missionary work was to start at the top of the society and allow their views to trickle down. They first chose the Buddhist monks but later changed their sights to the literati's or Confucian scholars. These scholars were open to the teachings of the Jesuits because the Jesuits worked Christian teachings around Confucian ideals. They would stress that the teachings of Christ and Confucian teachings were very similar using biblical scripture and quotes from ancient Chinese texts. The Franciscans had better luck converting the Chinese peasants because they went with an anti Confucian approach. Peasants in China accepted this because the literali oppression of Chinese peasants that was engrained into their culture.

China rejected Western culture for many reasons. One prominent reason was even though Christian and Confucian teachings were very similar in their moral teachings they were not a perfect fit. In the ancient Chinese Confucian book Analects there was a verse that dealt with the rejection of spirits (chap 11:12). This made it impossible for the Chinese to accept the Christian god. Even though the West thought the Chinese were worshiping a god when they preformed their ancestor rituals. They were not. This practice was more of a remembrance of the teaching of those that came before. They were preformed more out of respect than to worship. The Chinese were not praying to thank their ancestors for favors or to ask for intervention on their day to day lives. The West viewed this practice as the practice or Confucianism and a religion. In actuality the entire construct of Confucianism was born in the West as our method of defining the teachings of the lierali. In China they referred to what we came to call Confucianism simply as the literali teaching. It was not a religion, but more of a guide to living properly. Confucianism taught the way one ought to act in society. This barrier proved to be insurmountable for missionaries in converting the majority of Chinese. The Chinese did not need to be converted. They needed to be Christianized. That is, if they actually needed it. Their literali teaching already provided for them a basis to draw morality. And they did not seem to have a problem answering the questions that Western religion answered. Why am I here? What happens when I die? Where did I come from? These questions were to individualistic. The Chinese were more orientated to a communitarian philosophy provided by the literali teaching. For the Chinese that would ask the question there was Buddhism.

The Chinese also feared the missionaries would seduce their women. It was rare but these fears were founded on fact. Mungello gives us one such example in Bernardo Maria Bevilacqua, O.F.M.

"Bevilacqua appears to have cracked under the stress of such living conditions and began taking advantage of his priestly authority to seduce several young Catholic women.

Some of these young women were virgins and others were recently married." (p. 52-53)

These young women would come to Bevilacqua seeking aid with menstrual irregularities and fears of not being able to conceive. Bevilacqua would claim to have the cure and violate them sexually. One such fourteen year old girl attempted to hang herself. (Mungello 2005) Another missionary were caught in prostitution. Word of this spread causing fear that missionaries were out to get Chinese women.

Another reason for the rejection of Christianity by the Chinese was what the Chinese saw as subversive activity. The Chinese saw Christianity as forced changed to their lifestyle. Chinese men would take on a concubine. This individual was not treated as you would think a sex slave would be treated. They actually became an accepted member of the family. And Mungello suggested that it may have been more of a mean to reproduction than sexual gratification. Chinese families would often sell their daughters as concubines. These daughters were of no value to the family. Sons were much preferred because they would continue the family name and care for their elders as they aged. When a daughter would marry they would leave the family and often take with them a part of the family assets. Christian missionaries would force or attempt to force converts to dismiss their concubines and forbid the sale of women into concubine. Discontinuing this practice was accepted by few and rejected by the majority of Chinese.

Another reason for the rejection of Christianity by the Chinese was they thought the Christian architecture was upsetting the harmony of nature. They found European architecture to be offensive. The crosses on the outside of the church and the towers of the temples upset the Chinese. They thought these symbols would upset the balance of the "cosmic breath." The Chinese also thought they would be unfavorable for the Chinese that lived and worked nearby. This superstition could have been easily avoided by the missionaries by constructing simpler churches. I was surprised in my reading to not find an example of a Jesuit church

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