"Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology" by David E. Mungello

(This is a slightly expanded version of my book review on Amazon.com)

I read David E. Mungello's Curious land: Jesuit accommodation and the origins of Sinology a few years ago, almost by accident. The book sat on a library table, waiting for reshelving, and the cover looked sort of ... curious. I wondered for a short while if this is just one of many lightweight popular-history books that, basically, regurgitate the same well-known facts in different order. But once I opened the volume, I saw that it was full of names and events I had not heard about. So I checked it out, just to see if it will be interesting enough to read throughout. As it turned out, not only was it interesting enough - the subject area it discussed was just so interesting, that I have read another dozen books on related topics since then!

There are many good and not so good books about contacts between Europe and China, but, as I said, it seems that many of them give you a pretty superficial review of the same basic points, spiced with a few more or less familiar anecdotes. "Curious Land" is very different. For one, D.E. Mungello strictly focuses on the subject matter (Jesuits in China, and their European contacts) and the time period (from the Jesuits' arrival to China, i.e. ca. 1580, until 1700). Which means that many other stories - such as the Portuguese' arrival to Chinese coast and their early exploits, or the Spanish Dominican and Augustinian friars' attempts to bring gospel to China are not covered in this book; nor is any of the post-1700 history. (If you are interested in any of this, The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800 by the same author can be recommended for a much more concise and "non-specialist" overview of the "big picture" and for more literature pointers. C.R. Boxer's works, and in particular his South China in the Sixteenth Century (1550-1575) - an annotated translation of the narratives of Galeote Pereira, Gaspar Da Cruz, and Martin De Rada - are perhaps the best coverage of the early Portuguese and Spanish contacts; this last book would give you a good idea of what the first Jesuits to work inside the "mainland" China, Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci, may have read about the country on their way there).

More importantly, having delimited his topic so precisely, Dr. Mungello manages to provide a really in-depth study of what the Jesuits saw in China, how they understood it, how they presented it to the European audience, and what was the reaction of Europe's scholars. He explains in detail the "accommodation" policy developed by the Jesuit China Mission's founding father, Matteo Ricci, and promoted by several generations of his successors. The policy tried to make Christianity acceptable to Ming China's literati by declaring that Confucianism and ancestor veneration are, in principle, compatible with Christian faith, because they really are just a system of moral and political beliefs (fully compatible with Christianity) and civil rites (which, with certain reservations, can be accommodated in a Christian's life as well). This truly Jesuitical (hey, I have chance to use this word!) view of the Chinese world affected of course both what Jesuits said and did in China (e.g., not talking too much about Crucifixion and Resurrection until a prospective convert was ready) and what they said about China in Europe. The "accommodationist" ideology (and its later, Qing-era development, known as the "Figurism") may have been quite successful in making Christianity a truly widespread religion in China, but it came under attack from influential Christian purists in Europe, and was eventually disallowed by the Pope, drawing the period of flourishing Jesuit activity in China to an end.

Nonetheless, over a century of Jesuits' study of China, its language, philosophy, history and culture resulted in the creation of a tremendous intellectual capital, quite influential with a number of European thinkers of the period, from Leibniz to a group of rather obscure scholars in the Prussian capital Berlin. While the story of the latter group may be just a vignette in the overall story of the Sino-European intellectual contact, it certainly is worth telling, and Dr. Mungello's does it very well too.