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The Iconoclasm of Obeisance: Protestant Images of Chinese Religion and the Catholic Church

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Western studies of Buddhism emphasize doctrine and meditation, but almost completely ignore devotional practice. Yet, obeisance to Buddha is the primary religious practice of the majority of Asian Buddhists. To account for this disparity, I explore the history of Protestant attitudes towards bowing. In English and German anti-Catholic polemics (and Catholic responses), Chinese and Catholic obeisance are conflated, the lowness of their prostrations emphasized, in contrast to the erectness of Protestant posture in worship. I survey two important encyclopedias of religion (Hastings' of 1914 and Eliade's of 1987), and the work of one of the founders of Sociology, Herbert Spencer, to show the persistance of these perspectives on obeisance.

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century Protestants worked to challenge the Jesuit representation of China as enlightened and originally monotheistic. Chinese religiosity was depicted as passive, lazy, infantile, and mindless, lacking any coherent doctrinal system. At times, the Protestant narrative of Christian history (from original pure community to institutional degeneration into idolatry) was superimposed on Chinese history. Obeisance itself was taken as sufficient proof of idolatry, the deceptive “holy mummeries” of Chinese/Catholic ritual.

These tensions came to a head when King George III of England sent Lord Macartney to have an audience with emperor Qianlong of China, and Macartney refused to bow. A brief analysis of this well-documented mission reveals the confluence of religious, political, bodily, and gender dimensions. Recent treatments of that mission have missed the Protestant/Catholic dimensions of the issue.

Finally I suggest possible extentions of the theoretical concerns of this paper.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religious Studies University of Colorado at BoulderCampus Box 292Boulder, Colorado 80309-0292, USA


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