God's Little Daughters: Catholic Women in Nineteenth-Century Manchuria

Alice Crowther

Christian Virgins, women who took vows of chastity and devoted their life to prayer and work but lived with their family and not in a religious community, were a specificity of the Catholic Church in China. From the early 17th century there are recorded examples of young Chinese Christian women who chose to remain celibate. The Dominican mission in Sichuan first instituted a rule for Christian Virgins in the 1740s. After this regulations were repeatedly issued to exercise control over who might become one of these women and the conduct and pattern of their lives. In the 1880s stipulations in force included that the family of a Christian Virgin would give their consent and a donation of 300 diao. Ji Li estimates this as the cost of 6000 kg of rice, or of 20 thatched cottages, limiting the possibility to women from wealthy families. She was to be given, that great rarity, ‘a room of [her] own’ apart from the rest of the family. She had to be 25 years old or older when she would first make her vows publicly before the church altar, and a dark blue veil would be placed on her. Her vow of chastity would be provisionary only and renewed every three years. To take an active part in teaching the catechism and basic literacy, or other duties which brought her into more contact with foreign priests, she had to be at least 30. The number of women involved was always small but, according to the parish records for the Manchuria Mission examined by the author, in 1887 75 Christian Virgins are recorded and by 1905 229.

In the Archives of the Missions Étrangères de Paris, Li has found a group of letters that capture a moment of conflict between this tradition and a new missionary intention to establish convents, a project facilitated by the first arrivals of European women, including nuns, in China. Writing in 1871 to their priest, Dominique Pourquié (Father Lin) (1812–71), who has returned to France to recover from an illness (the letters arrived in France after his death) three women from the Du family of Santaizi village in Liaoning Province – Philomène (the eldest daughter), Colette (the second daughter), and Marie (the eleventh child) – explain their doubts about how best to act and their reluctance to join a new convent in their village. They also write of their difficulty in understanding the new priest’s teaching, of how they feel they are sinful (too ‘proud’ and too ‘weak’), of how it might be possible to become a saint, of a desire to enter the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A transcription of these three letters would have been of great interest, and the one reproach that can be made of this richly-meditated book is that it only reproduces inch-high images of the three letters and provides a translation of one letter and translated citations from the other two but without giving the original text. Especially because of Li’s interesting but short discussion of what the letter’s idiosyncrasies reveal of how these women had learned to write. She notably mentions frequent substitutions of rarer but homophonic characters for very common words (e.g. 祈 (to pray) written for 起 (to rise)), alongside correctly written characters from religious vocabulary.

There is much rich material woven into this examination of the interaction between gender and literacy in 19th century Catholicism in China. A discussion of the opportunities for schooling and the access to literacy of rural women in 19th century China helps to situate the Du letters in the context in which they were written. The catechism and the regulations of the Manchuria Mission, and the history of the various regulations for Christian Virgins are also analysed in detail, and missionary reports and parish records are used to retrace the process by which Christianity became embedded in the communal life of villages. Li highlights the slow development of participation in the sacraments, with an annual confession being the most widely practiced obligation. Two useful appendices give the names, birthplaces, dates of birth, departure for China and of death of the Missions Étrangères de Paris missionaries sent to Manchuria, and the names and dates of ordination of the 19 Chinese priests ordained between 1840 and 1898. Several archival photos of the churches built in Manchurian villages are included.

The Du letters that are the midvein of this book were felicitous in their discoverer because Li brings great sensitivity to her reading of them, tracing the recurrence of terms like ‘pride’, ‘weakness’, ‘indifference’ in both the Du letters and in the vocabulary of contemporary European Catholics, as well as how the characters included in the catechism became the basis of the language the Du women used to articulate their thoughts and sense of self. As well as archival work, Li does not forget the continuing living influence of the history of Catholic tradition in villages of northeast China where significant numbers of families had converted to Catholicism in the 19th century, and she has been able to trace and enter into contact with descendants of the Du family, who remember Christian Virgins among older generations who had been referred to as ‘Great-Aunts’ (姑奶奶).