China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - The Unequal Treaties, Christian Communities, and the Production of the Concept of Religion in Late Qing China

Friday, July 6
10:20 AM - 11:50 AM
Location: Jacaranda I, First Floor

The translation of the modern concept of religion into China resulted from the unequal treaties between the Qing Dynasty and the empires of Britain, France, Russia, and the United States in the late nineteenth century. This paper begins by analyzing various versions of the clauses guaranteeing the freedom to practice religion in the Treaties of Tianjin (1858) and the Burlingame-Seward Treaty (1868), as well as Qing commentaries on them. At first, these clauses chiefly referred to extraterritorial rights for foreign missionaries, but later a more reciprocal and inclusive definition of religious freedom that applied to Qing subjects developed. I connect these treaty obligations to simultaneous Qing efforts to reformulate Confucian orthodoxy and administrative policies pertaining to missionaries and Christian populations. After the Taiping Rebellion and the opium wars, Qing officials increasingly encountered Christian populations and missionaries whose existence—and exceptional legal status under treaty and exemption from communal obligations such as temple maintenance taxes—threatened the Confucian moral-legal order from which imperial authority was derived. Qing memorials, local administrative records, and instruction manuals for dealing with missionaries indicate that Qing bureaucrat-thinkers, desperate to avoid disputes with foreign powers, yet needing to maintain moral authority, eventually placed Christianity outside of the traditional dualistic orthodox-heretical construction. Rather, a vocabulary and paradigm of “familiar and unfamiliar teachings” was emphasized along with new definitions of familiar Confucian notions such as mutual benevolence and propriety. These changes constituted the ideological and administrative prisms through which the concept of religion was translated and reified in China. 

Joshua Sooter

New York University, United States

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2 - The Unequal Treaties, Christian Communities, and the Production of the Concept of Religion in Late Qing China



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