Henrietta HarrisonThe Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village

University of California Press, 2013

by Carla Nappi on October 10, 2013

Henrietta Harrison

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Henrietta Harrison’s new book is the work of a gifted storyteller. In its pages, the reader will find Boxers getting drunk on communion wine, wolf apparitions, people waking up from the dead, ballads about seasickness, and flying bicycles. You will also find a wonderfully rich account of three centuries of Chinese history. The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village (University of California Press, 2013) explores the modern history of a single Catholic town in Shanxi called Cave Gully by weaving together some of the most important tales and memories of its inhabitants. Through this very local story of lived religious practice, Harrison challenges dominant global histories of Christianity. In contrast to narratives that tell a story of a Christian religion that was alien to Chinese contexts and acculturated or adapted in order t o compensate for this incommensurability, Harrison’s book instead shows the significant commonalities between Christianity and Chinese religious culture and argues that the differences between Catholic practice and local folk religion have actually increased over the centuries. Each chapter of the book begins with a folktale told by the villagers of Cave Gully, following its themes and events through an archive of written sources. The chapters collectively explore a wide range of issues, including local/missionary relations, the challenges and opportunities posed by long-distance travel in the 19th century, the economics of global Christianity, local encounters with the Boxer Uprising, and much more. Harrison shows how people of Cave Gully gradually came to see themselves as part of a global organization, examining the consequences of this transformation within the town and well beyond it. In addition to all of this, it’s also a darn good story.

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