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Response to Review of Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East

One of the delights and privileges of working on the Jesuit mission to China has been the opportunity to learn from and engage with sinologists. A self-confessed novice in the field of late Ming history, I could not have entered into this project with greater humility; I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and openness of China specialists who have offered me advice, assistance and encouragement at every turn. Of course, I never imagined for one moment that I would be able to teach my grandmother (still less Dr Laamann) how to suck eggs: my objective was not to offer ‘Ming experts’ a ‘path-breaking study in their field.’ But nor was I content to write the history of the Jesuit mission from a relentlessly European vantage-point. Only by informing myself about Chinese material culture, gender relations, intellectual life and rituals, for example, could I begin to gauge the impact of the Jesuit presence. For this reason, I considered it vital to immerse myself in the scholarship on the late Ming, but I hope my status as consumer rather than producer in this field has always been clear.

I also hope that my debt to other historians, as indicated in both the acknowledgments and the extensive endnotes to my book, is sufficiently recorded. In common with many serious academic publications, especially those aspiring to reach a wider readership, Mission to China does not have a separate bibliography; but that in no way effaces my dependence on other historians and their works, not least the inspiring scholarship of Nicolas Standaert. In my notes, I refer to his two-volume Handbook of Christianity, his article on the Jesuit mission in the Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits, and his recent monograph, The Interweaving of Rituals.

Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East may not be the most exciting title for a book, but it does at least give a good sense of the contents. So I don’t feel that I need to apologize when Laamann complains that ‘Mission to China is more concerned with the missionary experiment itself’. He also laments the fact that my book provides ‘only a cursory description of other Jesuits in the field’. Well, obviously, a book about Matteo Ricci is going to be mostly about Matteo Ricci, though Laamann might have mentioned that my study is pioneering in the attention it plays to Ricci’s much less familiar companion Michele Ruggieri. As for Adam Schall von Bell, he did not arrive in Beijing until 20 years after Ricci’s death, so his low profile in my book is inevitable. But I do object to the idea that I characterized this later missionary as being ‘less intelligent’ than Ricci. That quotation, which is clearly labelled in my text, comes from the Chinese commentator Yang Guangxian. Indeed, Laamann has a habit of attributing to me the opinions of agents from the past. His claim that ‘the author’ never ceases ‘to identify with Ricci’s repulsion against China’s … castrati’ is a case in point, and entirely mistaken.

Laamann asserts that ‘there is a complete lack of Chinese sources, or even a reference to the latter’ in my book. Obviously, my access to Chinese sources was limited by the fact that I do not read Chinese, and so I am dependent on translated texts, often embedded in secondary sources. I make no bones about this. But Laamann’s claim is without foundation. In fact, I make considerable use of the anti-Christian writings published in the 17th century (the quote from Yang Guangxian is an example); among other sources, I draw on the Confucian Analects, The Book of Odes, Wen Zhenheng’s Treatise on Superfluous Things (1615–20) and the comments of Xie Zhaozhe (1567–1624) regarding male homosexuality, not to mention a 16th-century collection of anecdotes regarding the benefits of alcohol consumption. Chinese pictures, buildings and other cultural artefacts are also discussed. The last word in my book is given to the Kangxi Emperor.

Finally, I would like to respond to Laamann’s claim that my ‘knowledge of Chinese religion is rather weak’. But seeing as he provides no evidence for this accusation, I shall just have to defer to his expertise.

There is much that is generous and appreciative in Dr Laamann’s review. In particular, I am flattered that by the time he got to the end of the book, he was wishing (or ‘almost’ wishing) for a longer study. I hope that forums like this one will enable historians of east and west to continue to engage in dialogue and to learn from each other’s approaches.