Friday, 11 July 2008

Norman Girandot's study of James Legge, The Victorian Translation of China (2002), ends - typically for an academic work - where you want it to start.

Girandot's 'Conclusion' brings the book's topic into contemporary focus, comparing (in a book about an early comparitivist) post-Tiananmen China with the way China was understood by 19th century scholars, religionists, diplomats, missionaries, and the bourgeoisie.

Perhaps this is welcome in an age where every new piece of data in the public sphere is immediately appropriated, processed, and made to fit a worldview.

Girandot spends little space on Legge's missionary work. He concentrates on the period after Legge left missionary work, around 1880, and turned into a scholar, taking the first sinology chair at Oxford University.

Legge's missionary work is placed in a position of contrast with his translations of Chinese classics. In fact, after finishing in Hong Kong, he often refused to participare in missionary activities. The bent is clear: he sought other avenues of contact and community.

These debates may seem odd now - why on earh would a liberal and empathetic approach be censured so strongly as to verge on slander? - but then we live in the shadow of the highly irreligious generations that began to operate in the early 20th century.

Although they seem surprisingly familiar, describing a liminal moment similar to ours. A point of contact; the book ends 100 years after Britain's first royal emissary (Macartney) returned from China.

By the 1910s scholars such as Legge had become anachronistic oddities, and he has remained so since. The tough-guy approach taken by Macartney also (his journals were finally published in the 1970s) predominated among religionists tasked with spreading the gospels.

The two camps were the muscular Christianity of the Protestant and Catholic missions, and the 'comparativist' academics and writers such as Max Muller. It seems pretty certain that Muller recruited Legge, a Scottich Nonconformist who would get on with the job of translating and leave front-office work to Muller.

Unlike Muller, Legge never gave up teaching. A "mere translator", he understood the detail that was cogent, and practised daily with commendable results. A touching inclusion is a photo of Legge's 'final blackboard' taken by his students (he had two by this time!).

Words such as these were left mainly to Muller:

There is no specific difference between ourselves and the Brahmins, the Buddhists, the Zoroastrians, or the Taosze. Our powers of perceiving, of reasoning, and of believing may be more highly developed, but we cannot claim the possession of any verifying power or of any power of belief which they did not possess as well.

This kind of reasoning had led, 80 years earlier, to abolition of the slave trade in England. Muller himself did not subscribe to the idea that the Chinese were "childlike, helpless, poetical" compared with "muscular" Christians. According to Legge, the more

a man possesses the Christian spirit, and is governed by Christian principles, the more anxious will he be to do justice to every other system of religion, and to hold his own without taint or fetter of bigotry.

Girandot spends time, also, looking at the World's Parliament of Religions. This fascinating event was prepared by two American orientalist missionaries.

The ecumenical gathering took place alongside the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 and attracted not only Western religionists but also delegates from the two major Asian satellites: China and India.

The driving motivation for the parliament was a version of the liberal form of comparitivism and missionary inclusivism I have been tracing in relation to both Muller and Legge.

Thus writes Girandot. He points particularly to a Chinese delegate, Pung Kwang Yu. Resistance to missions is felt in his animus, channelled through Girandot. Not only did missions "too often fail to respect Chinese customs, particularly the practices of filial piety and ancestral sacrifice", but they were too "zealous". But:

Expressing the elitist perspective of a Ruist scholar-official, Pung adds that missionaries should also 'turn away from the low and vulgar' and by so doing the 'wicked will disappear' and 'those that had in former times avoided the sight of a missionary and had resisted his efforts to the utmost will turn around and vie with one another in inviting him to teach them'.

Which suggests that the Imperial Chinese powers that were (foreign rulers, remember) felt that adopting Christianity would be to admit fraternity with the disenfranchised. It also suggests that early missionaries, despite stepping on the toes of the elites, aimed to address issues of particular importance to society's weakest.

Girandot humorously labels Pung "doll-like, but distressingly clever". As for our tools, Girandot labels "such things as origins, terms, and beliefs" "Western regimes of knowing". Post-colonial studies teams possibly retain this opinion, I'm not sure.

On the other hand, Girandot also flags a point made by Muller that a "fundamental cross-cultural act" is "the creative and transformative juxtaposition of 'this and that' and 'other and it'." In Legge's day, such insight was rarely available. According to Girandot:

What was alarming among conservative missionaries in China about Legge's work on Confucianism - and even worse, his later work on abominations such as Buddhism and Daoism - was the comparitivist's weak liberal tolerance, jellyfish sympathy, limp charity, or effeminate indifferentism that perverted the manly spirit of Christianity bent on conquering the world for Christ.

Sounds alarmingly like Andrew Bolt comparing John Howard and Kevin Rudd on the ABC's new talk show Q and A yesterday.

There's little question that Girandot admires his subject. His book, nevertheless, is not without humour.

It can profitably be read by students not only of China and the history of Western contact, but also by those interested in the movement from a religious mindset in the 19th century, to the 20th century's secular bias.

Legge also had relations in Australia.

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