Rise And Fall in the East

The Visitorby Liam Matthew Brockey

Belknap Press. 528p $39.95

In 2009, Liam Matthew Brockey published his fascinating Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724. Here he greatly expands his territory, covering the larger picture of the Jesuit Asian missions not only in India, China and Japan, but also those of East Africa, which once formed part of the Jesuit Province of India, with its headquarters in Goa.


As in his first book, Brockey examines not only the great questions of mission strategy, European imperial expansion, encounters with cultures very different from those of Europe and so forth, but also with the nuts and bolts of the administration of these enterprises. Here he does this through an examination of the career of André Palmeiro, S.J. (1569-1635), who in 1617 was sent as visitor (a kind of inspector) first to the Province of Malabar, later to the Province of Goa and ultimately to the Province of Japan and the Vice-Province of China.

In Brockey’s telling, Palmeiro was a man of firm convictions who had a clear sense of his task, which was to ensure that Jesuit missionaries lived up to the discipline and spirit of their faith and their order. Aware that at first he knew little about the missions and less about the cultures in which they worked, he was willing to examine mission practice and to listen to the missionaries themselves as they sought to come to terms with their tasks. In India he was confronted with the example set by the Italian Roberto de Nobili, S.J., who not only immersed himself in Sanskrit and two South Indian languages, but dressed as a holy man in an attempt to win over high caste converts. Palmeiro generally approved of his approach, and his contact with this kind of cultural accommodation served him well when Rome moved him to Macau as visitor of the East Asian missions in 1624. There his predecessor Alessandro Valignano, S.J., working with Matteo Ricci, S.J., had already developed a kind of accommodation to Chinese cultural ways that was to become rather more controversial than de Nobili’s.

This, of course, is a well-worn topic, familiar to many as an example of Jesuit open-mindedness, tolerance and even modernity, which by the early 18th century would be condemned by Rome—the enlightened Jesuit development of the China mission thus thwarted by Eurocentric narrowness. Brockey, however, is quick to warn us that this view is little better than parody (reading history backward, he calls it) by lifting the story out of its setting and placing it in a modernity that had yet to be developed and thus turning the Jesuits into clichés for our own times.

Yet the problems of accommodation were (and remain) very real, and no Asian scholar I have read has dealt with them as intelligently and sensitively as Brockey does here. As de Nobili immersed himself in Indian languages and culture, Ricci mastered Chinese and presented himself as a xiru, “Western learned man,” or as Brockey puts it, “Western Confucian.” This not only meant translating Christian words and ideas into terms drawn from the Chinese classics (Shangdi, “Lord Above,” or Tianzhu, “Ruler of Heaven,” to stand for “God,” for example), but it also meant adopting ways at variance with Jesuit simplicity. Jesuit dress was plain, simple black; but Chinese scholars wore luxurious silk and changed their robes to suit the needs of different occasions.

As Brockey rightly points out, these questions are those of translation, broadly conceived. Nor, it might be added, are they simply pre-modern or religious problems. Today, for instance, it’s easy enough to discover from the dictionary that “human rights” is renquan in Chinese, or that “democracy” is minzhu zhuyi. But of course the real question is how far Chinese understandings of those terms coincide with those of a foreign audience. As Brockey points out, in Japan, rather than taking over classical terms like these, the Jesuits often turned to neologisms, thus insisting on Christian difference and uniqueness rather than appealing to an imagined sameness drawn from antiquity (“Christian,” for example, became Kirishitan). Eventually, after a conference near Shanghai in 1628, the visitor banned the use of Shangdi, to the delight of some and the distress of others. (In 1877, a Protestant Shanghai Missionary Conference was to seek—unsuccessfully—a solution to precisely the same questions). It’s impossible in a brief space to do justice to Brockey’s analysis of this and other questions.

By this time, whatever the successes of the Jesuit mission in China might have been, a great disaster was overtaking the missions in Japan. Though earlier this had seemed the great success story of the Asian missions, in 1614 Christianity was proscribed, and the Tokugwa shogunate moved to eradicate it.

It was a long battle that saw the arrests of many missionaries (primarily Jesuits, but also Franciscans and Dominicans) and their converts and that saw the devising of sadistic tortures and long-drawn out executions, lasting for days. Though Palmeiro the visitor never got to Japan, having arrived too late in Macau, the horrors endured there by Christians remained with him, and his death in 1635 may have been hastened by the news that the Jesuit Crístóvão Ferreira renounced the faith after prolonged torture. Western readers may be familiar with this period from Shusaku Endo’s searing novel Silence (1966), to which Brockey pays tribute, which inspired James MacMillan’s Third Symphony and, after many years of promise, will finally be brought to the screen by Martin Scorsese this year.

What are we to make of all this? Brockey insists that it is wrong to see the Jesuits and their mission as an advance guard of European modernity or of a new sense of globalization. For all his willingness to examine other cultures, Palmeiro considered it his task as visitor to insist on the Christian and specifically Jesuit nature of his charges, which in those days meant a Eurocentric and specifically Catholic view. Furthermore, by the time of his death, great changes were taking place in maritime Asia. Above all the Portuguese empire, on which the Jesuits depended (often uncomfortably), would see the rise of powerful new challenges, particularly from Dutch imperialism, followed by that of Britain and France.

Indeed, during the great Shimabara rising of 1639, the Dutch, eager to ingratiate themselves with the Tokugawa, helpfully bombarded the Christian rebels. Granted, remnants of the Jesuit missions lived on in India above all, in Indochina and in China itself, at least until the middle and late 18th century. But the dissolution of the Jesuits in 1773 meant that when they were restored in 1814, and a new wave of missionary activity came in the 19th century, much of the enterprise would have to be reconstructed on new terms.

Brockey’s is a fascinating and rewarding book. Two tiny quibbles. First, though there are a few maps, there is no listing of the pages on which they appear. Second, on page 431, the abbreviation VOC rather suddenly appears. No doubt any real scholar would recognize that it stands for Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or [Dutch] United East India Company, but I didn’t, and it took me some hunting to find out.

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