A tale of two missions to explain

A Vision Betrayed:

April 7, 1995

In this attractive book, Andrew C. Ross studies the Jesuit missions in Japan and China from the 16th to the early 18th centuries. To my knowledge no other author has tackled these two subjects in one volume, and it may seem an unlikely undertaking, given the major differences between the two enterprises. True, both missions were staffed by men belonging to the same catholic religious order, the Society of Jesus, but the differences between the two missions were great. The Jesuits reached Japan in 1549 when there was no strong central government and were expelled for political reasons by a powerful central authority in 1614. They entered the centralised kingdom of China in the 1580s, survived the fall of the Ming dynasty, but came to an end in the 18th century when Rome condemned their policy of cultural and religious adaptation to Chinese customs.

At first sight there does not seem a great deal to bring these two stories together coherently, but the author establishes a strong link in the person of the Italian visitor or inspector, Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606). Here again the visitor's influence on the two missions differed considerably. He arrived in Japan in 1579, and had his work cut out to implement his liberal policy of cultural adaptation in a mission that had been founded 30 years earlier. Despite their zeal and good will, it was not always easy for Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, with their colonial heritage, to adapt themselves to an Asian country. Ross cites Valignano's Sumario (1583) in which he sets forth his views on different aspects of missionary work in Japan, but makes no mention of his subsequent Adiciones (1592) which presents a far less optimistic picture. Although he never entered China, Valignano had more success putting his ideas into practice there, for he was able to pick the founders of the mission and they included outstanding men such as Matteo Ricci, famed for his learning in Chinese culture.

Given their scant numbers, the Jesuits achieved remarkable success in Japan and within 50 years the proportion of Christians in the population was greater than it is today. In his ignorance of the language, the founder of the mission, Francis Xavier, started badly by identifying Dainichi with the Christian God, with the odd result that the Catholic missionary for a while was urging his listeners to worship a Buddhist deity. Perhaps as a result of this mistake, the missionaries in Japan played it safe and adopted the policy of using transliterated Latin and Portuguese words, Deusu for "God'' for example, in their preaching to avoid misunderstanding. Although at Valignano's urging, they studied the language and to some extent Japanese culture, there is no evidence that they incorporated Japanese elements into their liturgy. In this respect, they differed from their colleagues in China, who later used Chinese terms for Christian concepts and got permission to conduct the liturgy in Chinese. Many saw no harm in taking part in Confucian ritual, thus incurring the displeasure of Rome and ultimately bringing their work to an untimely end.

The Jesuits' policy of working from the top down in Japan and China brought them into close contact with the countries' rulers. But this policy was not exclusive and there was plenty of unsung work done among the lowest social classes in Japan, including lepers. Ross is not accurate, therefore, when he refers to "the very numerous lepers . . . These the Jesuits chose not to work with directly . . .", as there are many references to these unfortunate people in the Jesuit records. The missionaries collected funds to establish leprosaria and hid in the homes of Christian lepers during the persecution. There are even references to lepers who were martyred for refusing to abjure Christianity.

As far as I know, this information has not appeared in print, but is in the unpublished archives. And this point introduces a problem with the entire book, for A Vision Betrayed depends on secondary sources and seems to contain no new material. The short bibliography is prefaced by the statement that readers wishing to pursue any aspect of the Jesuit story in Japan and China in depth should consult the bibliographies in Paul Rule's book on China and Charles Boxer's classic The Christian Century in Japan. But the latter book was published in 1951 and a wealth of new work has appeared since, including the five-volume account written by the 16th-century missionary Luis Frois. In addition, references in footnotes are few and so it is often impossible to verify Ross's sources. A less fundamental but aggravating problem is the profusion of typos, especially in names. One Christian noble appears in the index in four places owing to the different spellings of his name.

Despite these lapses, Ross's sympathetic account of the two Jesuit enterprises provides a valuable, comparative study (the author is senior lecturer in the history of missions, University of Edinburgh). Rather than attempting a full history, he examines the two missions from the point of view of cultural and religious adaptation. The final chapter discusses the meaning of "mission'' and contains valuable insights. A deeper reading into primary sources might have produced a more nuanced account but would not have substantially altered the overall message of the book - that it was too early to realise the vision of adaptation advocated by Valignano and Ricci.

Michael Cooper, SJ, is editor of Monumenta Nipponica, a journal of Japanese culture published by Sophia University, Tokyo.

A Vision Betrayed:: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742

Author - Andrew C. Ross
ISBN - 0 7486 0472 3
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 216pp

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