Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies book cover

In Review

A Mission to China Debriefed

By Patrick Provost-Smith

“This book is about the experiences of British Protestant missionaries in China during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and about the representations of China and Chinese religion they produced. It concerns the relationship of those experiences to those representations.”

What begins as a straightforward depiction of Reinders’s topic quickly emerges as a problem whose intellectual perimeters are far from simple. While it may seem patently obvious to some that modern missionaries have been complicated, complex, and even conflicted historical figures, resistant to simple characterizations or crass caricatures, the contest between praise and blame—missionary hagiography and post-colonial critique—remains deeply rooted indeed.

This has been a dilemma for a number of recent scholarly works from various disciplines that treat aspects of mission history, as a new sense seems to have emerged that takes as its point of departure the simultaneous rejection of the modes of missionary hagiography and of the simple equation of missionaries and world evangelization with the various European colonial enterprises.

Evidence of this tension emerges quickly from the almost apologetic tone of Reinders’s introduction: “Though I have come to admire some of them, I do not imagine missionaries as the great he-roes of hagiography, valiant and pure but also rather two-dimensional. Yet I do not intend that this book should be taken as a simple condemnation of missionaries, despite my calling attention to some of their pronouncements which today strike me (and I assume many of the readers of this book) as egregiously arrogant, racist, smugly dismissive, and otherwise ‘Victorian’ in the worst sense.”

What Reinders’s work then provides is an ambitious and admirable exploration of the religious attitudes of Victorian-era British missionaries in China that attempts to reject what remains a deeply rooted historiographical cycle of praise and blame: missionaries valorized as the heroic agents of God’s civilizing and evangelizing work in the world, or as simple agents of an expanding European hegemony, blamed for their arrogance, racism, and caricatures of other religions. Yet to take as a starting point the refusal of that cycle remains a more difficult task than is often imagined.

Reinders posits the goal of understanding the religious imagination of British missionaries in the Victorian era, and how their emerging views and representations of Chinese religions were constructed. He amasses an impressive range of detail and culls from a wide range of sources to document those attitudes, giving particular attention to the ways in which the experiences of missionaries in China and the religious world of Victorian England mutually informed one another. The accounts of English representations of China and Chinese religions in missionary societies, churches, and public spectacles are amazing, provocative, and indeed all the more evidence of how deeply caricatured China had become to English religious sensibilities. Reinders’s book should become required reading for its documentation. But, to the point of the inquiry, how then to account for British Protestant representations of Chinese religion and practiced religiosity? Of what material is the British imagination of China constructed and how does it function?


Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies: Christian Missionaries Imagine Chinese Religion, by Eric Reinders. University of California Press,  266 pages, $49.95.

British missionaries were no strangers to the multifaceted, complicated, and rapidly changing world that was late Qing China.

Reinders offers two interpretive theses that are rich, engaging, provocative, and well presented. The first is that central to understanding British missionaries’ representations of China and Chinese religion is their lived experience in late Qing China. The experiences of the body (hence the subtitle “Foreign Bodies”)—the strangeness of new sights, smells, and other senses startled by unfamiliarity—thus become areas of inquiry for exploring the formation of certain attitudes and other biases that informed the Victorian religious imagination, and how the missionaries appropriated Chinese religious understandings for their own purposes (“Borrowed Gods”). British missionaries, as Reinders documents in an impressive range of details, were no strangers to the multifaceted, complicated, and rapidly changing world that was late Qing China.

They spent decades in rural villages, among the illiterate, among what even Chinese literati considered the crassly ignorant and superstitious. They also learned Chinese languages, translated sacred texts, built schools, and attempted to train Chinese minds in the ways of Christian history and theology. They wrote neither from a safe geographical distance nor from ignorance, but from amassed experience and direct contact with multiple levels of Chinese society.

The second interpretive thesis is that a formative part of the Victorian Protestant imagination of Chinese religion stemmed from their comparison of it with Catholicism. Thus as British Protestants imagined Catholic ritual life to be empty, formulaic, superstitious, and lacking in proper doc-trine, so they imagined Chinese religious life when they found comparable sensibilities and practices. To Reinders, the primary locus of the comparison between Catholic and Chinese religiosity was acts of oblation—the bow, or more derogatively, the “kowtow.” This perceived debasement of the human in front of an object was the essence of idolatry, superstition, and false religious practice.

Reinders’s exploration of bodily sensibility is rich in detail, and provides a much-needed glimpse into how quotidian experience may inform religious sensibility, and a much-needed corrective to exclusively doctrinal approaches or exclusively intellectual histories. British Protestant missionaries to China, however, were often highly educated, as Reinders’s himself points out, and thus the major tension in Reinders’s undertaking is that the connections between lived experience and doctrine or intellectual history are often tenuous, over-generalized, or occasionally misleading precisely because the latter lacks as careful attention as the former. Hence the accounts provided of how British Protestants imagined them-selves, their Reformation heritage, or even how they read the Bible often verge on the simplistic or reductionistic.

This leads to the second point: Reinders’s account of how the British actually thought of Catholicism, central to his second interpretive thesis, suffers from similar limitations. The description of early Catholic mission to China is similarly weak. Part of the problem lies in Reinders’s perpetual generalization, another part is the unfortunate choice of the term “bias” for exploring the content and limits of religious imagination. It seems to tell the reader two things simultaneously—that the British missionaries wrote from their own experiences and could not have described Chinese society in the way that they did apart from those experiences, and that the British missionaries never escaped their own cultural points of departure or inherited categories of a Protestant Victorian religious imagination.

But what kind of work does the language of “bias” finally do? It seems rather a shorthand for simply saying that British Protestant missionaries were prisoners of their own religious milieu despite their extensive decades of experience in China. Although this is indeed worth saying, it ultimately does not say enough. Ultimately, it is an empty analytic category, akin to how “ideology” is often used in a way that merely gives a blanket account for complex ways of thinking that hides more than it reveals. And here it fails to accomplish what Reinders sets out to accomplish: namely an exploration into the “internal logic” of that same British Protestant religious imagination, an exploration which would require a lot more specificity and more attention to the details of Protestant thought, not just the details of their imaginative production of Chinese religiosity.

Therein lie the limits of Reinders’s admirable work: it documents British Protestant religious attitudes in myriads of examples, but those examples do not do the analytical work that the author needs them to do. He does not present the reader with the promised exploration of the “internal logic” of how those attitudes were formed. In other words, the author’s inquiry focuses on the relationship between what Victorian-era missionaries thought and their bodily-sensory experiences in China, but lacks attention to process—that is, how British missionaries thought and how their attitudes were shaped by their experiences in China as well as their Victorian sensibilities.

The attempt to frame the book theoretically suffers from the same generality: a sentence from Foucault, the insertion of Bordieau’s concept of habitus, adding a concluding sentence from Wittgenstein, or describing the “binaries” of British Protestant thought do not make for a theorized work of scholarship. Theory has to provide useful tools for historical and conceptual analysis, not ready-made categories through which to describe the worlds that one purports to study. Hence Reinders’s book does more to describe than to analyze or probe the layers of representation, and as a con-sequence one may rightfully suspect that some of the description itself suffers from overgeneralization (“British Protestant” is hardly a singular religious sensibility) or at times even caricature.

The research is commendable, the book eloquently presented, and rich and provocative theses are entertained, but without a more determined look into the processes of religious imagination (not just the results), coupled with a more nuanced account of British religiosity, the book risks being closer to the author’s imagination of how Christian missionaries imagine Chinese religion than such an admirably ambitious inquiry demands.

Patrick Provost-Smith is Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity at Harvard  Divinity School.

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