Speaking in Tongues

Research Project

Narrative Production of Normative Knowledge for Negotiating Missionary Cases in Shandong, China (1860-1901)

The second half of the 19th century witnessed the rapid growth and expansion of Christianity all over China. In Shandong province, different cultures and religious beliefs both communicated and clashed with one another. From the second half of the 19th century, the Holy See charged the Italian Franciscans and the German Divine Word Missionary Society with preaching the Catholic faith in the province of Shandong. However, some Protestant religious orders – such as the American Northern Presbyterians and the British Baptists – also spread the gospel in the same province. As the birthplace of Confucianism, Shandong had long been ruled by Confucian norms, so when the Christian missionaries arrived, bringing their missionary mandate, a certain cross-cultural empathy and the Christian faith with its own normative structure, the province became a forum where different norms encountered each other. However, this coexistence was neither static nor harmonious, but rather characterized by fierce clashes, as illustrated in the ‘missionary cases’ in Shandong: conflicts between Christian converts and non-converts. 

There was a lot of negotiating between the Chinese and foreign government concerning these missionary cases. Negotiations were built upon the exchange of documents between both sides and led to agreements that in some cases were then translated into concrete solutions for adjudicating the missionary cases on a local level. These solutions, however, did not quite follow the traditional Chinese logic and procedure when addressing similar issues. This project attempts to look at the negotiating documents of the Shandong missionary cases from a normative perspective, and to trace the paths the settlement of the cases took along a historical trajectory, by examining the narrative paradigms of the multiple subjects in the negotiation scenario.

The “Archives of Missionary cases” (Jiaowu Jiaoan Dang) contains the documents generated by Zongli Yamen (Office for the General Management of Affairs Concerning the Various Countries, 1861-1901 and then reorganized as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1901-1911), based on missionary cases from all over China. These archival materials present the narratives of negotiations among the Chinese and foreign officials, including the descriptions of the case plots and the opinions of judges according to local customs or international treaties etc. In order to persuade the other side and influence the judicial decisions, the actors translated their interests, arguments and understandings into a normative language they considered to be convincing. As negotiations proceeded, documents were shuttled back and forth, and a variety of different narratives circulated, were translated and revised frequently until some “consensual” norm was produced, so that the negotiations came to a balance and the case was solved.

By looking at this spatially overlapping nexus of events in a particular period of history, through a lens that focuses the observation on the normative knowledge employed by the actors, a global analysis becomes possible.


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