Studying the Past to Decode the Future: The Jesuits' Criticism of Chinese Prognostications

Prof. Dr. Chu Pingyi
Academia Sinica, Institute of History and Philology, Taiwan
Research stay: April 2011 – March 2012

Lectures at the IKGF:

  • Lecture at the Annual Conference 2011: Fortuna at the Crossroad: When Christianity Met Chinese Mantic Practices

Reading Sessions:

  • Fate, Physiognomy, and Almanac in Seventeen-century China: The Christian Criticism, May 25 and June 15, 2011.

Studying the Past to Decode the Future: The Jesuits' Criticism of Chinese Prognostications

This project investigates how the Jesuits and their Chinese converts criticized prognosticative techniques in China. This was one of the key areas of cultural conflict between China and Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, but has rarely been studied. Applying the methodology of controversy studies from the field of Science and Technology Studies, I will discuss how the Jesuits and their converts penned Chinese prognostication techniques, which cultural resources they could mobilize in order to criticize these practices, what were their strategies of persuasion, and how Chinese scholars rebutted their arguments in order to reveal the cultural assumptions of the agents involved.

The Jesuits' criticism of Chinese mantic practices certainly involves different concepts of time in terms of the past, present and future, since prognostication means foretelling the future. Christians in general have an overall picture of how the world and its time will come to an end, however. While criticizing fortune-telling and other superstitions in China, the Jesuits imposed their visions of time and fate on the Chinese. Nevertheless, we should not consider Christian culture as an immoveable ground for these religious devotees. They were, after all, situated in China and seeking to persuade the Chinese. The Jesuits in China had invented a theory about the origin and past of the Chinese. They tried hard to find evidence about these matters in the Chinese classics. The Figurists, in particular, keenly devoted themselves to classical Chinese studies in order to convince the Chinese about what their future would be. I will thus also discuss how the Figurists and their converts integrated evidential studies in order to retell the past of the Chinese, and criticized the Buddhist concept of future reincarnation and the Taoist idea of postmortem immortality. Apparently, the Jesuits' criticism of Chinese prognostication was not only a mundane suasion but also a sacred war among different religions in China.

I will mainly use Chinese materials for this project. Thanks to the efforts of the Jesuit community and European scholars, many Chinese materials have recently been made available. While serving as a research fellow of the consortium, my weakness in European languages will be compensated for by Prof. Michael Lackner, PD Dr. Claudia von Collani and others. By studying the controversy surrounding prognostication, this project will shed new light on how the Chinese and Christians see the power behind human fate, whether the future is intelligible and therefore can be foretold, and how free will is possible under different religio-cultural formations.

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