16th to 18th Century Asian Christianity

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John C. England


Despite increasing recognition of the extensive bodies of contemporary Christian writing from Asia, writings prior to the 19th century are still largely ignored.  research continues on the collections of texts which are extant from the period before 1500, and its results are appearing in scattered articles and books.[i]  But only a few attempts have yet been made to chart the extent of Christian writing in the 'early modern' period.  There is however a rich harvest awaiting us there. 

            As in the earlier period, so for the 16th-19th centuries, many questions of origin and interpretation require study and many customary assumptions must be questioned.  Although we are still in the "excavatory phase" in studying these materials, it is already clear that presuppositions as to their paucity or insignificance have little foundation.  Similarly, the set of assumptions which categorize these writings as only imitations of western models - and judge them according to the 'correctness' of such imitation - are challenged by a significant body of texts in these centuries, as in the earlier period.[ii]  As one part of a long history of cultural encounter in which 'the East' has often been the major contributor, the 16th-18th centuries show us theologies which can be transplanted/colonizing or those which are incarnational/liberating.  And either may be the work of 'natives' or 'foreigners'.  Indigenous socio-cultural concerns are often more evident than purely 'religious' responses or 'inculturation'.  The context also includes both the 'post-classical' reinterpretations of Asia's major religious traditions (including Christianity) and the attempts by some (including some western missionaries) to absolutize earlier thought forms.  So a wide range of creative contextualization, and, on the other hand, of colonial imposition, can be discovered.

            Our task of reclaiming these writings of our forebears, although of central importance in the reconstruction of Asian's Christian history, requires of us other reorientations also.  Our 'western' fixation on individual authorship or skill, contrasts strongly with the cooperative - and often anonymous - character of traditional intellectual life in Asian countries with its purposes of moral edification.  So writings from this period also often remain anonymous, or have only an uncertain dating, or have intentions or functions that are unfamiliar to us.  This circumstance is only sharpened by the ascription of many 'native' writings to the local missionary or hierarch and by judging them according to one model of Christian 'evangelization'.  Many genres of writing (and of art) are found which may also be unfamiliar to us, and this, along with the contextual elements mentioned above, renders many of our usual critical categories or methodologies dysfunctional.  This means that in interpreting the writings below, cross-cultural and Asia regional methods must be used, recognising the immense diversity of 'literary' forms, of socio-cultural contexts, and of religious agents.

            Such a reorientation would also involve a 'counter-appropriation' (to earlier western appropriations), of indigenous traditions and idioms and a reclaiming of Asian resources for doing Christian theology.  Resources for these tasks are currently multiplying: in the continuing debate on orientalism and post-colonial discourse[iii], the burgeoning literature regarding the rights and contributions of indigenous peoples[iv] and in recent studies of Asian moral thought and of pre-/post-colonial Christian traditions.[v]

            An overview of the 'types of discourse' represented in Christian literary or art forms of the period however - from the hands of 'local' clergy, lay women and men, and from 'foreign' laymen and clergy - could be summarized as follows:

  i)  Local Christians encounter, modify, even reject, western teaching (e.g. India, China, Korea, Japan)- in commentaries, treatises, narratives ...

 ii)  Indigenous verse, drama and art forms express and reshape Christian thought (e.g. Ceylon, Indo-China, China, Japan, Philippines).

iii)  Indigenous religious tradition is restored and reconciled with Christian teaching (India, China, Malaya) - in dialogues, treatises ...

 iv)  Complete integration of vocation, lifestyle and writing can be observed in the works of some authors/artists, and is especially notable in the lives of a number of women.

  v)  Local friends/converts, interpret and collaborate with westerners (almost every country) - in catechisms, grammars, liturgies, manuals ...

 vi)  Chronicle, testimony, apologetic, biography, also appear in letters, diaries, confessions and narratives across the region.

vii)  Exceptional forms extant from some countries include memre, encyclopaedia, babad, pasyon, and Maria-Kannon.[vi]

  For general introduction see Asia Journal Of Theology 12.2, 1998, pp. 433ff.  The listings on this site are from 'research in progress' and additions or comments would be welcomed and acknowledged by the author.

[i].  See England, John C.  'Early Asian Christian Writings, 5th-12th Centuries: An Appreciation' in Asia Journal of Theology, 11.1, 1997, 154-171; and Hidden History of Christianity in Asia, Delhi, ISPCK, 1996, pp. 116-144)

ii].  See England, John C. "Bamboo Groves in Winds from the West" in 'Christen und Gewurze' ... /'Christians and Spices': Confrontation and Interaction of Colonial and Indigenous Forms of Christianity, edited by Klaus Koschorke.  Studies in the History of Christianity in the Non-Western World (Asia, Africa, Latin America) vol. 1.  Gottingen, 1998.

[iii].  See Brian S. Turner  Orientalism, Post-Modernism and Globalism.  London & New York,  Routledge, 1994, 37f.; the series of volumes Subaltern Studies and especially Veena Das "Subaltern as Perspective" in Guha, Ranjit (ed.)  Subaltern Studies VI.  Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989, 310-323; Donna Landry & Gerald McLean (eds.)  The Spivak Reader - Selected Works of Gayatri Chakraverty Spivak.  New York & London, Routledge, 1996, 5ff., 24-28, 202-235.

[iv].  The most complete recent volume for the region is R.H. Barnes, Andrew Gray & Benedict Kingsbury (eds.)  Indigenous Peoples of Asia.  Ann Arbor, Mich., Association for Asian Studies (Mongraph series 48), 1995.  Cf. A.L. Becker & A.A. Yengoyan (eds.)  The Imagination of Reality - Essays in Southeast Asia Coherence Systems.  Norwood, New Jersey, Ablex, 1979; and David Maybury-Lewis  Millenium, Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World.  New York & London, Viking, 1992.

[v].  See e.g. works of J.C. Scott, such as The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia.  New Haven & London, Yale University, 1976; Anthony Reid & David Marr (eds.)  Perceptions of the Past in Southeast Asia.  Singapore, Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1979; Wyatt & Woodside  Moral Order and the Question of Change; the annual volumes of  ATESEA (Association for Theological Education in South East Asia) Occasional Papers, ed. by Yeow Choo Lak, et al. and published in Singapore for the Programme for Theology & Cultures in Asia 1983-1992; and  Doing Theology with Asian Resources: Ten Years in the Formation of Living Theology in Asia ... 1983-1993, ed. by John C. England & Archie C.C. Lee.  Auckland, New Zealand, Pace Publishing, 1993.

[vi].  England in Koschorke, 1998, chapter 4.

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