Rethinking the Rites Controversy: Kilian Stumpf's Acta Pekinensia and the Historical Dimensions of a Religious Quarrel

Modern Intellectual History 19:1-25 (forthcoming)
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The Chinese rites controversy (c. 1582-1742) is typically characterized as a religious quarrel between different Catholic orders over whether it was permissible for Chinese converts to observe traditional rites and use the terms ‘tian’ and ‘shangdi’ to refer to the Christian God. As such, it is often argued that the conflict was shaped predominantly by the divergent theological attitudes between the rites-supporting Jesuits and their anti-rites opponents towards “accommodation.” By examining the Jesuit missionary Kilian Stumpf’s Acta Pekinensia—a detailed chronicle of the papal legate Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon’s 1705-06 investigation into the controversy in Beijing—this article proposes that ostensibly religious disputes between Catholic orders consisted primarily of disagreements over ancient Chinese history. Stumpf’s text shows that missionaries’ understandings of antiquity were constructed through their interpretations of ancient Chinese books and their interactions with the Kangxi Emperor. The article suggests that the historiographical characterization of the controversy as “religious” has its roots in the Vatican suppression of the rites, which served to erase the historical nature of the conflict exposed in the Acta Pekinensia.
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