In This Review

Journey to the East: Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724

Journey to the East: Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724
By Liam Matthew Brockey
512 pp, Harvard University Press, 2007

Brockey's title evokes one of the great works of classical Chinese literature, Journey to the West, an account of the travels of a Chinese monk to India in search of Buddhist manuscripts. Brockey's story is that of the Jesuit missionaries who traveled to China to spread Christianity and Western learning, especially science -- and the tensions that emerged when two great civilizations came together. The Jesuits who arrived were well educated; were in full command of Western knowledge, culture, and literature; and had great organizing skills, which helped them establish Christian communities throughout China. The result was great success in converting Chinese (some 200,000 in all) while maintaining good relations with Chinese officialdom. Brockey has little new to say, however, about the "Chinese rites" question: whether Chinese could practice ancestor worship and adhere to Confucianism and at the same time be accepted as true Christians. The Jesuits took a tolerant position, but the late-arriving mendicant orders insisted that the two were not compatible. When the issue was referred to Rome and the pope ruled against the Jesuits, the Chinese emperor K'ang-hsi decided that the foreign Christians were meddling and closed China to missionaries -- which is where Brockey's book ends.