IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia

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Europe in China III

The third meeting of the research group Europe in China was entitled 'Between Ming and Qing: The Jesuits, Dynastic Decline, Internal Strife, and the Establishment of a New Order in Seventeenth Century China' and took place at Technische Universišt Berlin, 22-26 April 1998. Although this title was broad enough to include several topics, one might ask whether anything new can be said about a period that has been fairly well studied for a long time. Like former meetings, however, this one again turned out to be innovative in several respects.

By N. Standaert


At the first level of innovation were the discussions on lesser known people or texts: e.g. the bizarre role of Buglio and Magalhaes at the court of the rebel king Zhang Xianzhong (1644-1646), who organized a large-scale massacre of the Sichuan people, or the problem of Christianity's foreign origin as discussed by the Chinese Christian Zhu Zongyuan. Three papers were devoted to Mingli tan, the first Chinese translation of Aristotle's Isagoge Porphyrii and Categoriae. Although this text had very little success in the seventeenth century, it came to the attention of scholars like Hu Shi, Ma Xiangbo, and Chen Yuan in the early twentieth century. Among the texts scarcely studied before were treatises on music and medicine as well as Chinese and Manchu memorials to the Throne concerning Christian-related topics. The Manchu interpretation of Christianity is a whole field open for further investigation.

At another level of innovation was the question of whether the transition between Ming and Qing was a change from success to failure, or from interest in to indifference to Christianity. The first point is to understand better what success means, since the diminishing of elite converts ran parallel to an enormous increase in conversions at the middle and lower levels of society. Most participants thought that the transition between Ming and Qing itself was not responsible for this change. Two interpretations were advanced: the disinterest in religious subjects either had already started around 1630 (since a detailed analysis of the prefaces written by elite scholars shows a sudden decline around that period) or it occurred around 1670 when Qing scholars moved their interest from learning from the West, mainly scientific subjects, to rebuilding their own Confucian tradition.
The conference delved deeply into the process of appropriation of European ideas. It appeared that these were appropriated, some said digested, in very different ways, by very different people at very different times. Through questions like how they were accepted (did Christianity provoke the acceptance of new ideas or were they already present in China?), a whole new view of the reception by the Kangxi Emperor was presented: for him the appropriation of Western learning became an instrument of control which implied aspects such as loyalty, confidence, and a new relationship to the Classics and to specialists or simply to specialists. It was also noted that Chinese as well as Western missionaries participated in the construction of myths about each other's cultures (Western learning having its origin in China or the Chinese learning having its origin in the West). The purpose of these myths should be studied in more detail: they often functioned as a rhetorical means to argue for or against the acceptance of Western learning.
One final paradigm for discussion was the question of language and translation, which was touched upon in many papers. Apart from the question of plurality of languages in this early contact between China and the West (different European languages, Chinese, Manchu, but also the regional languages and specialized languages), much attention was devoted to the question of categories: how some basic categories like science, religion, medicine, and music as understood in the seventeenth century might well be different from what are understood in present-day usage. Instead of a simple explanation of the tension between understanding and non-understanding in the seventeenth century, participants were made aware of the complexity of the dialogue involved, a complexity that was not very different from the dialogue at the conference.
A selection of the papers will be published.
N. Standaert is attached to the Department of Eastern and Slavic Studies, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, e-mail: oriental.studies@arts.kuleuven.ac.be.
Europe in China is a research group sponsored by the European Association of Chinese Studies. Its primary goal is the study of the interaction between Chinese and European cultures in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mainly from a Chinese perspective, and based on Chinese sources. The group was established in 1990, held a first colloquium in Paris in 1991, and a second one in Rome in 1993. The organization of the third meeting was in the hands of Michael Lackner and Catherine Jami.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia