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Borrowed Gods and Foreign BodiesChristian Missionaries Imagine Chinese Religion$

Eric Reinders

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780520241718

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520241718.001.0001

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Babel Embodied

Babel Embodied

(p.89) Chapter 6 Babel Embodied
Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies

Eric Reinders

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter deals with views of the Chinese language as morally deficient or spiritually impotent. An example of spiritual importance is the mantras. The chapter explains that the repetition of these apparently meaningless sounds reminded missionaries of their heritage of polemics against Catholicism, Anglo-Catholicism, and the trend of ritualism. It analyzes how Protestant anti-Catholicism manifested itself in missionary accounts of China.

Keywords:   Chinese language, missionaries, mantras, Protestant anti-Catholicism, ritualism, Anglo-Catholicism

Whereas in the previous chapter, I examined cases where Chinese language and speech were considered technically defective, this chapter deals with views of the Chinese language as morally deficient (speech without truth) or spiritually impotent. In the latter case, the primary example is mantras. The repetition of these apparently meaningless sounds reminded missionaries of their heritage of polemics against Catholicism, Anglo-Catholicism, and the trend of Ritualism. Speech, they felt, could become empty ritual.

Language without Truth

Ignorance of a foreign culture can lead us to suspect it as an illusion, mere appearance, a façade, Foreign systen1s of meaning make distinctions which we do not see, or they refuse to distinguish between things we consider different. Foreigners see things we don't see, and apparently can't see things which are obvious to us. The framework which allows us to divide the world into categories—to make sense—is itself largely invisible, and the apparent naturalness of our common sense of the world “as it is” gives foreign perceptions a touch of the unreal. The foreign world invites us to fantasize because we may not fully understand why our categories do not fit and the “normally” impossible seems now possible, elsewhere.

Sometimes we enjoy that sense of foreign unreality. Unreality is a pleasure in the space of play. But some interpret appearance as deception, as (p.90) intentional illusion or lies. The Chinese, in particular, were thought to practice deception, to tell polite lies disguised by rituals of acceptance and courtesy. Evariste Hue voiced a common Western perception of the Chinese in very blunt terms: “This speech was completely Chinese—that is to say, a lie from one end to the other”1 Robert Fortune wrote, “Of course I knew enough of the Chinese by this time to doubt every word they told me, unless I had good reasons for believing them to be speaking the truth.”2 Many Westerners perceived Chinese deception to be culrure-wide, institutional, and systematic, a falseness that permeated the fine grain of the culture: “In every institution, in the daily affairs of life, in business, in common conversation, is there not a vein of deception running through the whole?”3 The implicit or explicit racial contrast was to Europeans and/or Americans, and this basic contrast was extended homologously to other oppositions. Among British Protestants, for example, the contrast of deception and truth implicated “the Chinese” and “the British,” heathens and Christians, Catholics and Protestants, and differing stages in the progress of civilization. MacGowan located that contrast with geographic accuracy: “The moment you pass through the Suez canal and have come upon the confines of the Orient, you realize that truth as it is looked upon in the West does not exist in all the vast and glowing regions beyond,”4

“A myriad means 365, a Celestial is a liar, and the Central Flowery Land a myth,” wrote Thomas Blakiston.5 What did Westerners think the Chinese lied about? The most serious specific accusations of deception related to diplomacy, trade, and other interactions with government offices, but deception was thought to permeate the whole culture. “You are in a new land; ” wrote John MacGowan, “and the atmosphere of straightforward honest expression of thought has vanished, and now it seems that, except in the most trivial affairs of life, where concealment is unnecessary, you are in a world where every one has a mask on, and the great aim is to conceal the face that lies behind.”6 Missionaries hoped that the introduction of Christianity would improve the Chinese atmosphere, which seemed especially dense in the realm of religion.

Though Chinese literature was described as lacking imagination, and Chinese culture was commonly viewed as stagnant, mechanical, and repetitive, the Chinese creative faculty was considered most apparent in the arts of deception. As Edwin Dingle reluctantly but confidently asserted in his 1911 travelogue:

In respect of lying, it seems to be absolutely universal.… It seems to be in the very natures of the people., and although it is hard to write, my experience (p.91) convinces me that my statement is not exaggeration. I have found the Chinaman … the greatest liar on earth. I question whether the great preponderance of the Chinese people speak six consecutive sentences without misrepresentation or exaggeration, tantamount to lying. Regretting that I have to write it, I give it as my opinion that the Chinaman is a liar by nature. And when he is confronted with the charge of lying, the culprit seems seldom to feel any sense of guilt.7

Under a variety of circumstances, words don't mean anything: when they are unintelligible babble—or when they are seen as unreliable, unsubstantiated, or fictive, as when we lie. The Chinese were thus thought by some to have a congenital tendency to lie. Again, Chinese speech was belittled, drained of meaning on moral grounds, though a lie is not strictly speaking meaningless. Useless, false, corrupted, and childish speech share attributes such as incompleteness or lack of value, but nonetheless has meaning. Neither the frustration of learning Chinese, nor the acknowledgment of its vast lexicon, nor the supposed tendency to lie, amount to the attribution of literal meaninglessness. We may see the attribution of meaninglessness as an underlying attitude, evident in metaphor, casual remarks, and jokes. Poorly spoken foreign language and hybrids such as China Coast Pidgin inevitably lead to a certain amount of speech being incomprehensible. The implication that Chinese speech was in some ways meaningless took place within the larger context of constant, if flawed, communication. Yet the missionaries identified a particular case of specifically meaningless speech, which they repeatedly investigated, described, and condemned.

Ritual Noise

One category of speech-act—the use of mantras and the practice of repetitious chanting in general—distinctly offended many writers and was denied full conscious meaning. Thomas M'Clatchie, a Church of England missionary, visiting a Buddhist temple, reported in 1845: “In front of the altar was placed a table, on which lay their books used in worship, and not one syllable of which is understood, even by the Priests themselves.”8 This remark may simply indicate priestly illiteracy, but more likely it indicates the use of unintelligible language in scripture and liturgy. Missionaries were correct in saying Buddhist liturgy included words in languages unknown to the Asian practitioners. Such remarks refer to the use of Sanskrit or pseudo-Sanskrit words in Buddhist worship, primarily in the form of mantra and dharani. Many Buddhist scriptures and liturgies (p.92) contain extended utterances with no discernable semantic meaning for the vast majority of their reciters. For example, the chanting of a liturgical edition of scripture might begin with the following mantra, to “purify the mouth”: An xiu li xiu li mo he xiu li xiu xiu li sapo he. Scholars are sometimes able to “reconstruct” the Sanskrit, or “translate” it into English, but not always. In some cases, mantra can be translated into a vernacular, but to do so misses the point. Within a traditional episteme of correspondence, the production of the mantra's sound is the point. It literally resonates with the object or deity named, so that the actual sound rather than the semantic meaning is what is essential. In China, thinking about Buddhist mantra was related to the idea of ganying variously translated as “sympathetic resonance,” “action and response; ” or “stimulus and response.” In its basic formulation, the stimulus of the sound of the mantra results in a response from the Buddha or other being whose essence is distilled into the mantra, It was thought that mantras, or even scriptural recitation, stimulated the natural surroundings—as when barren trees suddenly bloomed. It was not that trees understood normal language—it was that they responded to the sacred sound itself

Some missionaries were aware that the act of chanting mantras was believed to have power in itself William Milne wrote: “I once asked a priest, ‘What advantage can you expect to derive from merely repeating a number of words, with the sense of which you are entirely unacquainted?’ His answer was, ‘True, I do not know the sense—it is profound and mysterious; yet the benefit of often repeating the sounds is incalculable; it is infinite!’”9 The priest gave Milne a reasonable answer in the context of Chinese Buddhist philosophy, which is permeated with a sense of powerful mystery and the limitations of conscious knowledge. True reality is beyond language or conventional understanding. Language was always upaya (an expedient means), and the priest's comprehension of an utterance of the Buddha depended on the degree of clarity or obscurity in his own perceptions. As the practitioner progressed in Buddhist cultivation, previously incomprehensible words of the Dharma would become radiant with insight. An unenlightened practitioner might not expect to “understand” the words, but he would take their great power on faith. The efficacy of the sounds and the attitude of faith in them were attested to in many scriptures.

The revelation of truth in scripture was thus a benevolent manifestation from on high, but even the most lucid sermons of the Buddha relied upon the listener's receptivity. Hence, there were limits to the ability to explain or translate mantras. William Milne commented: “As a sect, (p.93) however, they profess to cherish the most profound veneration for the language of Fân. They ascribe miraculous effects to the use of the written character and of the oral language, and consider both to be of celestial origin.”10

A few missionaries discussed mantras with Buddhists., but one would not expect most British Protestant missionaries to have appreciated the complex theories behind the use of mantras., especially since they were steeped in a thorough critique of the use of “meaningless” liturgical language in Europe. Throughout Protestant Europe, the use of Latin had been rejected in favor of the vernacular, both during the Reformation and during the Victorian movement against Ritualism. This attitude toward religious language helps explain the missionaries' tone of exasperated contempt for the use of mantras.

Though Buddhist rituals usually included mantras, in most cases the mantras were mixed with Chinese passages. The chanting of the Heart Sutra, for example, involved 242 characters of Chinese (interspersed with some conmmon Sanskrit-derived terminology) and ended with the eighteen characters of the dharani. However, the specific case of the use of mantras was taken as axiomatic of Buddhist liturgy in general. The missionary George Smith, having witnessed a Buddhist ceremony., remarked on “their unmeaning sounds,”11 Robert Fortune noted “an unmeaning phrase used by the Buddhist priests at the commencement of their worship, ‘Nac mo o me to fa.’”12 How do we interpret the word “unmeaning” here? The phrase of devotion to Amitabha, which in pinyin is rendered namo Amituo fo, is hardly meaningless to the Buddhist devotee. It is possible Fortune did not know what it meant, but more likely he did not care to find out, or the sheer repetition of the phrase made him feel it was spoken without intention. Fortune had inherited a whole attitude toward ritual which made it very easy for him to dismiss Chinese devotional practice as meaningless. Chinese religion seemed to make a cult of obscurity.

In addition to the use of an unintelligible language, mantras and Buddhist liturgy in general were also objectionable because of the fact of repetition. John Francis Davis wrote, “To the repetition of the bare sounds, without regard to the meaning, they attach the highest importance; hence they occasionally go over the same words hundreds and thousands of rimes.”13 Repetition is rendered absurd if the semantic meaning of the words is imagined as the only worthwhile function of speech, and where meaning is conceived strictly as semantic communication. There are a variety of reasons for repeating utterances: the listener (p.94) does not hear them properly, or he/she obstinately refuses to acknowledge the utterance, or does not know the language of the speaker well. Flaws in the media of communication sometimes require repetition. Repeated utterances are also probably associated with mental retardation or insanity. Missionaries also associated endless repetition with Catholic practices of liturgical repetition, such as in the Hail Mary. In the 1860s many British Protestants objected not only to the fact of repetition but also to the chanting style in Anglo-Catholic Ritualist worship. Many British Protestants found “intoning” or “intonation” (also known as monotoning) to be aesthetically unpleasant, comparing it to dogs howling, but more importantly, they felt it was harder to understand than a plain reading voice. Missionaries in China, familiar with the conflicts in England over liturgy, would have found the almost-monotoned quality of Buddhist liturgy especially evocative of “Romanist” tendencies in the Anglican church.

One of the similarities between Chinese religiosity and Roman Catholicism lay especially in the preference for prayers spoken in languages that were unintelligible to the speaker—in “meaningless” prayer. Indeed, this phenomenon allowed William Milne and others to group together Catholics worshippers with many other species of the bizarre and the damned:

There is something to be said in favour of those Christians who believe in the magic power of foreign words, and who think a prayer either more acceptable to the Deity, or more suited to common edification, because the people do not generally understand it. They are not singular in this belief. Some of the Jews had the same opinion; the followers of Budha, and the Mohammedans, all cherish the same sentiment. From the seat of his holiness at Rome, and eastward through all Asia to the cave of the Jammaboos of Japan, this sentiment is espoused. The bloody Druids of ancient Europe, the naked gymnosophists of India, the Mohammedan Hatib, the Hoshang (Budhist priests) of China, the Catholic clergy, and the bonzes of Japan—all entertain the notion that the mysteries of religion will be the more revered the less they are understood, and the devotions of the people (performed by proxy) the more welcome in heaven for their being dressed in the garb of a foreign tongue. Thus the synagogue, the mosque, the pagan temple, and the Catholic church all seem to agree in ascribing marvellous efficacy to the sounds of an unknown language; and as they have Jews, Mohammedans, and pagans on their side, those Christians who plead for the use of an unknown tongue in the services of religion, have certainly a host, as to number, in support of their opinion. That Scripture, reason, and common sense should happen to be on the other side, is indeed a misfortune to them, but there is no help for it.14

(p.95) Milne's comments show some irony or even sarcasm for those (Protestant) Christians who have a High Church nostalgia for Latin, noting that they join a large crowd: Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, pagan druids, Hindu yogins, and Catholics. This great diversity of non-Protestants (along with a few Protestants who should know better) are formed as a group specifically by their attitude to sacred language, by their practice of dressing up their devotion in foreign garb. Milne accentuates the macabre, making the yogins naked, the druids bloody, and the Jammaboos (yamabushi) live in caves. Geographically, Asia runs eastward from the seat of the Pope.

Mistakenly calling the unknown language Pali, Charles Gützlaff wrote that the monks were “content with repeating the prayers delivered to them in the Pâli, to them an unintelligible language; and they pay their adoration to an indefinite number of images, according to the traditions of their religion.”15 Gützlaff made explicit the parallel of speaking meaningless language and obeisance to icons. Furthermore, he argued, the inherent nature of the Chinese language was in part to blame for the speaking of pious gibberish: “In China, where the peculiarity of the language precludes its being written with alphabetic accuracy, the Pâli degenerates into a complete jargon.”16 That is, as Chinese is not a phonetic script, therefore transliteration inevitably further distorts the accuracy of the sounds, producing “jargon.” (Even a completely accurate, phonetic method of transliteration would not have given mantras semantic meaning in China, though it may have brought them closer to their Indian originals.)

William Milne wrote, “There are, it is true, glossaries attached to some of their religious books, which are designed to explain these technical shibboleth; but the definition is sometimes given in other technical terms equally unintelligible, and from their general ignorance of letters, very few of the priests are capable of consulting such helps,”17 By using the term “shibboleth,” Milne not only meant the distinctive vocabulary by which one might identify the speaker (as Buddhist, say), but he undoubtedly also intended the negative sense of shibboleth as “obscurantist jargo.” “Shibboleth” was an Old Testament reference, a word whose function is to be mispcrceivcd by most who hear it. In one case, a specifically Judaic metaphor was used: at a large gathering, some Buddhist priests “spent about an hour in droning their cabalistic words, aided and timed by the beat of metal vessels.”18 What was meant by “cabalistic”? By the mid-seventeenth century, the English sense of the word had shifted from specifically Jewish connotations to more general meanings: esoteric, unintelligible (to most people), oral rather than written, and non-Christian.

(p.96) Even Christian gibberish appalled the missionary May Griggs. She described visiting a church which no foreigner had visited for nearly thirty years, during which time the religious practice had changed: the church had “gone over to the Tongues Movement,” Mainstream Anglicans were generally suspicious of and hostile to the Pentecostal movement and its practice of glossolalia. Griggs thought it was “pathetic to see how the Christians had been led astray. They professed to be full of the Holy Spirit, to be speaking with tongues., while uttering awful sounds and talking gibberish understood by none,”19

Morally bankrupt, spiritually impotent, meaningless speech was also embodied. Ritual was consistently described as useless., degraded., empty, and ridiculous. It had no power to effect salvation. China was perceived as uniquely engulfed in ritual. Basic to the narrative of mission presented to readers in England was a view of China as a place where much of the culture was a matter of appearance, and all appearances were deceiving. Chinese ritual was presented as a kind of absurd theater, in which “a nation of actors” engaged in stylized fictions full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. Visiting a Daoist temple, George Smith saw a man whose wife was gravely ill making of ferings, “while a priest went through a variety of evolutions, tossings, and tumblings on the floor, to procure a good omen.” The priest “vigorously danced” and made “half an hour's frantic noise, and persevering somersets on the ground” before his “flagelations” came to an end.20 This nearly epileptic episode (perhaps of spirit possession) was contrasted in the Church Missionary Gleaner with a decorous scene of a Protestant Bible class: frenzied dancing contrasted with reading books.

China was at times transformed into a huge kinetic entertainment, as in Evariste Huc's discussion of the Chinese character:

We said just now that they were a nation of cooks, and we might also assert, with truth, that they are a nation of actors. These men have minds and bodies endowed with so much suppleness and elasticity, that they can transform themselves at will, and express by turns the most opposite passions. There is, in fact, a good deal of the monkey in their nature, and, when one has lived some time among them, one can not but wonder how people in Europe could ever take it into their heads that China was a kind of vast academy, peopled with sages and philosophers. Their gravity and their wisdom, exclusive of some official proceedings, are scarcely (p.97) found out of their classical books. The Celestial Empire has much more rescmblance to an immense fair, where, amidst a perpetual flux and reflux of buyers and sellers, of brokers, loungers, and thieves, you see in all quarters stages and mountebanks, jokers and comedians, laboring uninterruptedly to amuse the public.21

China was one big act, one great fictional performance, due to the supposed “elasticity” of the Chinese, contrasted perhaps with the rigidity or solidity of Western Christians. Though as a Catholic, Hue did not associate this sense of theatrical illusion with Catholicism, many Protestant writers did.

We should not be surprised to see Protestant missionaries make Chinese religion into theater. This was not a compliment. In Reformation polemics, representations as such were suspect. Iconoclastic sentiments went beyond icons to problematize the entire visual field. Hence, we find a whole series of corresponding distastes in Reformation polemics: against theater, masks, ritual display, pictures, and visual illusions of any kind. Calvin had objected to the theater because it blurred reality and unreality, good acting more so than bad acting. The Mass in particular was seen as a grand sham, whereas an austere, minimalist aesthetic in worship was seen as a sign of purity. Ostentation and ceremony were thought to signal insincerity. By the time large numbers of Protestants were writing about East Asia, China had been constructed in the Western imagination as a land of limitless ceremonial ostentation, and therefore insincerity and hollow illusion, “a world where every one has a mask on,” as MacGowan put it.

In Islington at the Great Missionary Exhibition, Christians had masked themselves and created stage sets to reveal the falsity (and spiritual need) of China to English audiences. Perhaps they knew that no one would ever be fooled by their illusions of China, and that no one would imagine that Fred Bloggs with the Cockney accent was really a Chinese under that costume. In general, Protestant views of ritual as a mask produced an impulse to unmask. Unmasking appearances to see truth required the rejection of ritual. As Jonathan Z. Smith has pointed out, because ritual is not directly translatable into words, and because Victorian Truth was so much a matter of the Word, ritual action could make no direct claim to the efficacy of Truth.22 Indeed, one of the fundamental principles in Protestant theology is the inefficacy of human action, even that of the Mass. Protestant iconoclasm thus extended to performed icons and spoken words; ritual was “empty,” a mere echo of the true Word.

(p.98) Outside of the missionary context, we see the same attitude even in texts which seem to laud non-Christian religions. Ritual has been romanticized as the residue of an original, spontaneous, mystical “seizure” (Ergriffenheit)—now lost to us. An influential example of this approach in Religious Studies is Adolf Jensen's Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples (1963), which contrasts Ergriffenheit—the “engulfment of man by his environment … the bright flash of insight, the creative moment per se … an uncontrollable psychic event, without rationalism or deliberate intent”23—with the Urdummheit (“primal stupidity”) of subsequent “mere petrifactions, … misinterpreted vestiges, drained of their former significance,”24 rationalized (if at all) by “pseudopurposes”25 in accordance with a “law of semantic depletion,”26 Ritual is thus the “impoverishment” of meaning.27 The great single moment of reality is diluted by its repetition and formalism. We can find an almost exact copy of this view in certain Jesuit and Protestant narratives of China's religious history, which was seen as degenerating from ethical monotheism to superstitious polytheism.

In nineteenth-century Anglophone scholarship on religion and China, the Chinese were regarded as particularly prone to the endless accretions of “mere ritual,” or “mummery,” as, for example, in Samuel Johnson's characterization of 1878: “The Chinese creative faculty remains within the plane of certain organic habits, failing to rise from the formalism of rules to the freedom of the idea.”28 The elaboration of ritual by the Chinese was an example of how “grotesque transformations may befall the higher elements of character when absorbed by an intense interest in concrete details.”29 Again and again, missionaries reported such “grotesque transformations” among Chinese Buddhist clerics.

Some missionaries expressed admiration for the literary products of Chinese culture, taking years to translate Chinese classics, publishing journals in Chinese, and laying the foundations of the Western study of Chinese. Nonetheless, one can also find many variations of the view of the Chinese language as lacking in meaning. The logocentrism of the Protestant missionaries notwithstanding, they were inclined to attribute to Chinese speech qualities of incoherence, babble, gibberish, mumbojumbo, untruth, uselessness, and obscurity. Missionaries were very quick to draw analogies to Roman Catholicism (as they understood it), specifically in the use of unintelligible or much-repeated language. As missionaries learned more of the native religions, the mantra and dharani (religious utterances more or less without semantic meaning) came to typify Chinese religion as a whole.

(p.99) It is not surprising that an unknown language should come to stand for an unknowable language. Unintelligible speech is as much a part of our cultural framework as intelligible speech. Unintelligible speech is not, however, one thing. Seeking a lexicon to express the various nuances and subspecies of a language deficient in meaning, we range freely over a set of metaphors: baby talk and talk to babies, animal noise and speech to animals, foreign speech (and one's experience of being a foreigner), pidgins (imagined as degenerate), involuntary noises (such as a sneeze), scribbles and random markings, the untutored “luis-use” of musical instruments, the tower of Babel, demonic speech, and the ineffectual magic of other religions (liturgical Latin, mantras, alchemy, cabbalah). These perceptions, which cumulatively depict the speaking Other as more bodily than mental, blend into an image of language more or less lacking in truth, sincerity, or rationality. China had distinct characteristics not present in many other cultures encountered by Victorians—the exemplary history of literacy, for example—but in many ways these metaphors suggest the basic unintelligibility experienced by all foreigners fresh off the boat.

In the following chapters, I will focus on one particular body/mind issue that has already come up in various contexts: obeisance. Of all ritual actions, obeisance was the most potent and provocative, the most central to Protestant identity. In representations of the act of bowing, we find a potent set of homologies. For the missionaries and for many others, obeisance was associated with feebleness, Satan, irrationality, sleep, children, and women; with Baal, and with the Pope.