Philip Jenkins

Institute for Studies of Religion

History Department

Baylor University




We have already touched on Christian expansion in China in several earlier classes, and listed several themes in that story, several of the perennial conflicts. These include, for instance, the faith’s association with foreign influences; its challenge to traditional Chinese society and values; its possibly subversive role; and its difficulty in establishing a grass roots presence among ordinary Chinese people. Nevertheless, Christianity kept on surviving through repeated purges and persecutions, and returned even after it seemed to have been altogether rooted up.


Based on The Missionary’s Curse, I will be focusing on one major question: Why do you think Chinese Christianity has survived and flourished under such seemingly impossible circumstances?


You can find a review of the book here.


Just by way of background, you might like to look up material on historical events like the Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution.


Writing The Book


From its title and subtitle, it is obvious that the author is not presenting a straight academic history. In what way? How does her account differ from, say, a standard history of Catholicism in one province or village in a particular period?


And why “Tales”? What is she referring to here? What does she mean by “just-so” stories (p.2)? What older author does she have in mind?


What is her methodology? How does this differ from standard archival or documentary research? What are the advantages or drawbacks of the oral history approach she adopts?


What do we learn about how she went about her research?


This is an example of microhistory, defined as “asking large questions in small places.” What are the pluses and minuses of this kind of work?


How does she use folk-tales and legends? What can such tales reveal, even if they are not literally or precisely true? Can they legitimately be used as historical sources? How can a seemingly simple tale reveal larger historical truths, often without the story-teller meaning to do so?


If you were able to speak to these believers, are there any questions that you would want to ask them yourself, over and above what Harrison asks? Are there issues of belief or practice that might not strike an observer even to ask about?


The Theme


Harrison tells the story of Catholicism in “Cave Gully,” a village in Shanxi Province. She shows how Catholic Christianity became so embedded in the village that it was able to survive and continue despite repeated waves of repression.


She explicitly focuses on Catholicism, which is of course only one component of the Christian spectrum. Do you think her findings would apply to other denominations? What would or would not translate to other Christian traditions?


Harrison shows that while China certainly did not convert overnight to Christianity, many Chinese not only accepted the faith but imported it wholly into their lives and made it Chinese, often in ways that horrified Euro-Americans. What aspects of the religion did they take on board most enthusiastically?


How do Harrison’s findings relate to Sanneh’s arguments about translation and the vernacular principle?


What does the book tell us about processes of acculturation?


What does the book suggest about the ways of writing Christian history, from the top down or the bottom up? How do we see the picture differently when we use a bottom-up approach? What do we learn that we would not see just by going through official documents and church statements?


Which of the stories that we hear in the book particularly impressed or horrified you? Which made the strongest impression?


How have trends in global trade and communication resonated even in this remote village? What have been the religious implications?




Focusing on individuals is always a good way to get into the story and its twists and turns. Harrison particularly highlights some crucial figures, including Bishop Grioglio, Francesco Fazzini, Barnaba Nanetti, Zhao Yuquian, Duan Runcheng, and the “Four Fragrances.” What other memorable characters do we encounter, and what do their stories tell us?




Why do so many of her stories focus on conflicts, especially between local believers and the wider church?


What were the sources of conflict and controversy with missionaries and with the established mainstream church? How far did this result from particular Catholic attitudes to orthodoxy and uniformity?


Why did local Catholics themselves try to counteract missionary endeavors?


What were relations like between Chinese and foreign clergy? What does this tell us about the church’s attitude to promoting local leadership?


How far were conflicts driven by practical matters like money?


Christianity and China


What do we learn about the appeal of Christianity in China? How has it differed in various eras and generations? What is the appeal today?


Why did people become Christian? How did the forces making for religious change differ in various eras?


When Chinese people became Christian, how much did they retain or borrow from older religious ways? How did the missionaries feel about such borrowings or survivals?


Over time, Catholic missionaries varied in the kind of faith they were trying to bring to China. How did they change? Was any package of ideas and practices more or less effective than any other?


How easy was it for ordinary Christians to retain practices from older faiths?


Was Catholic Christianity particularly appealing because its religious practices meshed with traditional religion? What aspects of it were most important in that process?


How might Protestant missionaries have criticized the kind of Christianity that the Chinese were adopting?


What, if anything, do we learn about Chinese Christians’ use of the Bible?


What do we learn about the ways in which Christians presented their religion to outsiders, or defended it from critics?


What do we learn about Chinese Christians’ attitude to their ancestors?


What do we learn about Chinese Christians’ attitude to the Virgin Mary?


What do we learn about the role of women in these Chinese churches?


What are the main differences that strike us between Catholic Christianity in China and the West? How have changes in the West itself made these differences larger over time?


What do we learn about the role of healing, visions and miracles in creating and sustaining faith in Chinese Christianity?


Tell me about the role of famine and hunger in creating and sustaining faith in Chinese Christianity.


What do we learn about ideas of martyrdom in Chinese Christianity?


What analogies can we see between Christianity in modern China and the way the religion established itself in the ancient or medieval West?


How do Christians interact with other faiths?




What does Harrison’s book teach us about the Euro-American missionaries of bygone years? How far did they succeed in their efforts? What do we learn about how they are remembered?


What were the bad stereotypes that Chinese often had of missionaries? Do we find cases where these scandalous images really reflected reality?




Much of Harrison’s book concerns the so-called Boxer Rebellion, a vast and lethal movement with a potent anti-Christian element.


Why does she devote so much attention to it? Why is it so relevant to her case-study?


What do her findings tell us about the larger movement, and attitudes to Christianity in China?


Christians and the State


What do we learn about the modern-day government’s control over remote areas of the country?


How did the Communist regime try to control Christianity?


Tell me about the Cultural Revolution and what that meant for religion?


Repeatedly, Chinese Christians have had to go underground to maintain their faith in times of persecution. How have they done this? What tactics have they used to remain hidden from official view? How successful have they been?


What problems do ordinary Christians face today in co-existing with the Chinese state? What compromises do they have to make in order to survive?


Is Harrison optimistic about the continued health of the Catholic church in China?


And here’s a tough one: assume for the sake of argument that you represented the Chinese authorities. Put yourself in their position for a moment. WHY do you think they felt so strongly about suppressing Christianity in the past, and only barely tolerate it today? Why do Chinese authorities, past and present, so detest the Christians?