Jesuits and Matriarchs: Domestic Worship in Early Modern China

Aliz Horvath

Nadine Amsler’s book is an ambitious contribution to the existing literature on both the history of Catholicism in late imperial China and the situation of women, produced by scholars, such as Timothy Brook, Dorothy Ko, Susan Mann, and Eugenio Menegon, among others. More specifically, the study aims to link the two abovementioned umbrella themes by juxtaposing the conduct of the Jesuits with women’s religiosity in China. Thus, the book can be of interest to a broad audience, from those studying Chinese history and the situation of women to those focusing on the spread of Catholicism in East Asia and the dynamics of foreign encounters in general.

Amsler’s study places the actions of women’s religiosity in the spotlight, giving significantly more credit to their role in the spread of Catholicism in late imperial China than previously thought. This is of particular importance since the situation of women in late imperial China has generally been considered an extremely difficult topic for research, primarily due to the lack of reliable and detailed sources which often results in the absence of women’s voices from the relevant discussions. Amsler aims to mitigate this problem through a dual approach by treating both the Jesuits and Chinese gentry women as protagonists – albeit still largely through the lens of the former.

The story in the book, based on an impressively broad range of primary and secondary materials in multiple languages, unfolds gradually beginning with an extensive discussion on the external manifestations of the Jesuits’ changing identities and role in China in relation to their masculinity, followed by an overview of the situation of gentry women in China. These parallel threads become interwoven in the subsequent chapters as the focus shifts to the mediators between the protagonists and the question of space in the form of platforms where religious encounters and practice took place in comparison with relevant Western examples. The book shows how Confucian classics, notions, and rituals were used and performed by the Jesuits in their communication with Chinese women as a form of ‘indirect evangelization’, which led to what Amsler refers to as ‘specifically Chinese forms of women’s religiosity’ (p. 66).

A useful technique that the book applies is the utilization of concrete examples, such as the examination of the dissonances between existing and Catholic practices in the context of marriage in relation to the problem of polygyny and divorce, as well as traditions surrounding fertility and childbirth that the Jesuits deemed superstitious. The examples in the book not only effectively delineate where and how Chinese women encountered Catholicism, showing how religion was integrated in their own and their families’ lives, but also serve as effective channels to bring the reader as close as currently possible to the understanding of the mechanisms and realities of female religiosity while further humanizing the analysis.

The book convincingly argues for the multiplicity of means that connected Chinese women to Catholicism, transcending the boundaries of the ‘inner chambers’. Amsler approaches this overarching question by examining the importance of masculinities in the context of the Jesuits and by expanding the meaning of domestic piety to trace the complexities of the role of women in Chinese Christianity. The notion of masculinity is one of the recurring motifs of the study, specifically what the author names ‘literati masculinity’, the manifestation of how the Jesuits adapted to their environment in order to increase the effectiveness of their mission. Complemented by the general lack of female voices, which itself could be interpreted as another form of masculinity, this approach to the Jesuits’ attitude (and ignorance) towards Chinese women is countered and mitigated by the repeated appearance of the figure of Candida Xu, a major patron of the Jesuits’ mission. The detailed discussion of Xu’s ‘activism’ and organizing role is considered here in its broader context: the author not only presents her example as a case study to demonstrate the real impact of women’s religiosity even beyond China, but also argues a curious phenomenon that provided a certain degree of freedom for women to form their own social networks – which may explain why the Jesuits’ otherwise predominantly male-focused teachings may have appealed to them.

Ultimately, the multilayered analysis of the mutual impact of the Jesuits operations and women’s religious practice in China encourages the reader to reconsider the very meaning of religion, since the term appears in numerous forms, such as ‘domestic religion’, ‘fertility religion’, and even as a platform of socialization, particularly in the case of women’s congregations.

Overall, Amsler’s study, while still making the reader wonder about certain issues, such as the question of temporality and changes over time in relation to the effectiveness of the Jesuits’ mission, is still a convincing and multifaceted piece. Further examination of the internal structure of women’s congregations, particularly with regard to the reasons of their cohesiveness would have added to the intriguing discussion on the root causes of these women’s devotion to Catholicism despite the relative lack of priestly attention, but the shortage of available sources may have limited the scope of the analysis. Finally, while the book briefly mentions the Dominicans as counterparts of the Jesuits’ attitude towards the question of virginity, a more detailed comparison of the two orders would have been useful to shed light on how special or standard the Jesuit conduct was.

Otherwise, the Jesuits and Matriarchs constitutes a significant contribution to our understanding of the history of Christianity in East Asia and complicates the state of ongoing debates about the situation of women in late imperial China. Amsler sheds light on the importance of gender as a novel channel to help reconsider the nature of Chinese Catholic communities and raises numerous questions for future research, for example by advocating for a comparative analysis of the global situation of women in the Catholic Church, which unequivocally makes the book thought-provoking and useful for a broad audience.