27 August 2018

The Russian clerical rôle in demystifying China

Archimandrites Hyacinth (Bichurin, l) and Peter (Kamensky, r)

My hat is off, deeply, to Fr Dionysius (Pozdnyaev), the rector of the Russian Orthodox mission in Hong Kong, for having spearheaded the translation project of a book on Archimandrite Peter (Kamensky), The First Russian Sinologist. The book comes as part of a Chinese-Russian-English translation project on Orthodox missionaries in China, and though brief, it is deeply valuable both from a historical and from a philosophical-theological perspective. It is written in the style of a Russian hagiography, but it presents an important side of the history of European Chinese scholarship of which is not commonly-known. Personally, I found it deeply fascinating and indeed surprising, as it resonated with my experience of both being an expat in China and being tugged inexorably in the direction of the Orthodox faith. It also addresses several intellectual directions and questions I’d been clumsily groping toward on this blog. The Sinological work of Archimandrite Peter is of a great pivotal importance not only for Russian understanding of China, but also for the rest of the West’s understanding. Though his primary mission and concern was religious rather than scholarly, he can nonetheless justifiably be considered a kind of proto-Sa‘îd, a man who was devoted to understanding and explaining China on its own terms, and along the way deflating various Western European orientalist constructs and fantasies about China, which had been en vogue throughout the 18th century.

The Russian Missions in Beijing were primarily focussed on the descendants of the Albazinian Cossacks, who had been captured by the Kangxi Emperor in 1685 and later resettled in Beijing. This volume from the Orthodox Church in Hong Kong is particularly valuable also for its treatment of the Albazinians, of whose history I was aware only in the broad strokes, though I did at one point help the Holy Dormition Church in Beijing with the translation of some historical materials related to them. The Cossacks who were defeated and surrendered at Albazin to a superior Qing force were not only spared by the order of Kangxi, but in fact welcomed by him and respected for their brave resistance; the Kangxi Emperor apparently took pains to woo them to his service. Those who took his offer – which was most of them – were enrolled in the Bordered Yellow Banner and accorded the rights and honours of Manchu bannermen. They were given a disused Buddhist lamasery in which to celebrate Divine Liturgy; their Orthodox priests were in fact originally called ‘lamas’. Most of them took Chinese surnames: Yakovlev became Yao 姚; Dubinin, Du 杜; Romanov, Luo 羅; Khabarov, He 何; Kholostov, He 賀. And they intermarried with Manchurian women, gradually adopting Manchu and Chinese customs as their own – this was the situation which faced the Russian missionaries there.

In any event, the Russian Mission was chartered by Tsar Peter the Great to serve this population; however, it soon developed several additional purposes, including missionary ones, diplomatic ones (the Russian Mission often being the primary go-between between the Tsarist and the Qing governments), and scholarly ones. In particular, the last decades of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th saw an immense broadening and deepening of the significance of this mission with the work of Archimandrites Hyacinth (Bichurin) and Peter (Kamensky).

Some background on the state and purposes of China scholarship in Europe, and the phenomenon of chinoiserie, would not be amiss here. The first people to bring knowledge of China back to Europe were the Jesuit missions, the most famous of which was headed by Matteo Ricci, who arrived in China about 100 years before the Albazinians did. The Jesuits are not to be wholly despised: they deserve ample credit for facilitating a massive cultural and scientific exchange between China and Western Europe. But it can’t be denied that they had, and have, a certain agenda in how they presented – nay, advertised – China to a modernising Europe. The Jesuits facilitated and encouraged the development of European chinoiserie, which flourished in cities and in aristocratic circles throughout Western Europe – Germany, Spain, England, Poland and France – as well as Russia. As Archimandrite Peter’s biographer notes:
[18th century] Europe was marked by the vogue of everything Chinese, in large part formed by French Jesuit missionaries. However, their works showed China as a fabulous, visionary world partly [reminiscent of] the town of Kitëzh—a messianic town veiled from the eyes of those who aren’t enlightened by faith and purity. Russia, closely connected with Europe, was not immune to such a vogue. Catherine the Great, for example, was in correspondence with Voltaire about Confucius…

The ancient doctrine of Confucianism was understood as cursorily as Chinese art was delicately adapted for the enjoyment of the aristocracy. Amusing bucolic scenes and grotesque ornaments
à la chinoise made by European artists were as far from real China as Confucius’ quotes translated by Russian sentimentalists were far from the original ones. Bizarre rococo fantasies materialised in theatrical performances and masquerades, bamboo bridges and tea-houses, pavilions and towers that decorated English, French, Polish and Russian palace gardens were only the extravagant inventions of these very Europeans. This artistic world, surprisingly combining the antique with Chinese, and rocaille with classics, became ingrained in Russian culture in the second half of the 18th [and]the beginning of the 19th centuries.
On a brief personal aside, I should note here that I have a rather complex relationship to 18th-century chinoiserie, and not a wholly negative one. Yes, I’ve griped about Voltaire and his self-serving coöptation of Confucius – but I’ve also expressed a certain admiration, both political and æsthetic, for Bill Hatchett’s equally self-serving coöptation of Ji Junxiang for the purposes of mocking Horace Walpole. There is a great deal of chinoiserie, fantastic and ‘extravagant’ though it may be, that may have an artistic and even intellectual merit in its own right.

But, of course, the problem with chinoiserie, which is the problem with all orientalism, is that it renders a living, breathing non-Western tradition of [art, handicraft, music, literature] senseless and silent in the service of a Westerner’s fantasy of the same. And that fantasy often comes saddled with a great deal of intellectual baggage; when the reality fails to live up to that fantasy, violent recrimination is often the result. And no, I’m not talking about Keziah Daum; there’s an important and very serious difference between wearing a dress because it’s pretty, and indulging an untrue and harmful fantasy. The fetishisation of the Asian-feminine; the ‘othering’ of the Asian mind; the paranoid fear of being overrun by a faceless horde from the East – all of these ‘types’, though they have roots further back, seem to find their first sprouts in this period. And the Society of Jesus, for the purposes of promoting their missions abroad, absolutely did have a significant rôle in cultivating both the ‘Shangri-La’ and the ‘Yellow Peril’ fantasies, particularly in France.

Perhaps it was inescapable on account of gæography, that the task of promoting a clearer and truer picture of China would fall to the Russians. Both Archimandrite Hyacinth (Bichurin) and Archimandrite Peter (Kamensky) already had a certain breadth of perspective which allowed them to be more generous and sympathetic: Hyacinth himself was a member of a Central Asian minority (the Chuvash people), and Peter was an avid linguist, versant in Ancient Greek and Latin, who had already undertaken translation and lexical work in the Tatar, Chuvash and Mari languages. As the head of the Ninth Russian Mission in Beijing, Archimandrite Hyacinth was exceedingly scrupulous, perhaps even a touch too much so, in his promotion of Chinese materials: he recommended that Russians interested in China studies ought first to undertake studies of Russia’s ‘near abroad’: Tatarstan, Qazaqstan, Dzungharia, Mongolia and Tibet. One of Archimandrite Hyacinth’s lasting accomplishments and legacies in China scholarship was his thorough and psychologically-astute volume on Chinese Grammar, which historian Christoph Harbsmeyer has described as ‘deserving of careful comparison’ with the work especially of his contemporary Pierre Abel-Rémusat, and generally ‘sadly neglected by Western sinologists’.

As for the student Pavel Kamensky, though he may have started out his studies and life in Beijing with a somewhat sentimentalised understanding of China, he was very quickly disabused of it, though to his credit he did not succumb to the violent disillusionment that would characterise much of Western Europe (and, indeed, later Solovyov). But, with a typically-Slavic candour, he did leave some ‘unflattering estimations’ of prior missionary-based works on China; for example:
[The] Chinese notes of Jesuit [Jean Joseph Marie] Amiot are a body without a soul. Though he was a repertory of learning, these works really are not only good for nothing but also harmful. He … explained nothing. Moreover, he absolutely dishonestly tried to complicate the things that had been explained before. Hiding behind Chinese names he wrote such bogus stories that were unheard-of in China despite its dateless antiquity. The senseless contradictions that you can see in every line can prove my words.
As his biographer put it:
Acquaintances with real China, its philosophy, culture, state structure, religious and everyday life gave Pavel Kamensky an opportunity to keep a sensible view on China for life. This view was far from the romanticisation of China’s image and mythologisation of its spiritual traditions, but at the same time far from an ignorant neglect of Chinese culture.
In addition, upon his return from Beijing Pavel Kamensky immediately set about making recommendations for the Mission’s reform, including setting standards for competence and specialisation for new missionaries before they entered China, and greater cultural sensitivity among the missionaries for (northern) Chinese customs and dietary restrictions. His proposals attracted attention, and he apparently had to be pressured into undertaking the head of the Tenth Russian Mission (and with it, the tonsure, the rank of Archimandrite, and the monastic name of Peter). Sadly, he was bound to butt heads with his predecessor in the office Archimandrite Hyacinth, whom the newly-tonsured Archimandrite Peter apparently lambasted for his lukewarm missionary work. For his part, Archimandrite Hyacinth reciprocated with a bitter grudge against his successor, and complained about the new Mission head’s purported lack of scholarly rigour and poor linguistic attainments in Chinese and Mongolian.

However, Archimandrite Peter was no slouch in scholarship himself. Though his primary focus was on re-catechising and re-evangelising the descendants of the Albazinians (which he did with great affection and care), he nonetheless compiled the first Russian translation of the Analects and adding to the Russian store of knowledge dozens of Chinese gazetteers as well as more important classical Chinese works on gæography and law. Archimandrite Peter was a keen and insightful reader of the Chinese Classics, and if he was unsparing toward contemporary European commentaries on them, it was largely on account of his familiarity with the originals. However, he was also to exclaim, late in his life:
Oh, China! You carried away so much of my priceless time. I spent 27 years dealing only with your mechanical tasks, yet I’m comforted by it because I lost this time fulfilling my office. If not, I could not bemoan it with any tears. These Chinese activities, day and night, not only prevent your accumulation of knowledge but deprive it through their permanence.
Russia herself is in a rather unique position. Poised between the West and the Far East – as we can see in this very history of thought! – Russia has a dual perspective, being both the object of Western orientalist fantasy, and the subject of fantasies it borrows from thence. And Russia has often been faced with the temptation to orientalise herself for various reasons. The good common sense of people like Archimandrite Peter (Kamensky) has been a valuable gift along multiple dimensions.

It seems there was something almost providential in Russia’s realist approach to China studies in the very early days of the 19th century, well before the revival of the field in Western Europe and America under Legge, Waley, Gabelentz and Julien. But it is more than a frustration and a shame, to compare this pivotal rôle played by these two remarkable Russian scholar-monks, with the bleak and dismal state of China studies in Russia today. Particularly given the unique confluence of gæostrategic, œconomic and cultural interests between the two, it seems a scandal to think that the academic and political work in Russia needed to sustain and inform this opportunity is sorely flagging.

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