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Florence C. Hsia

“Body talk:

Founding a Jesuit Corpus in Late Imperial China”

Florence C. Hsia, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Neither secular nor regular clergy, neither monks nor friars, wearing no distinctive habit and bound to no fixed residence, somehow separate from the ordinary world and yet living in it, Jesuits occupied a fundamentally ambivalent position in early modern European society, a violation of the body politic for which the French jurist Étienne Pasquier in 1602 termed the Society of Jesus a “Hermophroditicall Order.” For the Jesuits themselves, the order’s expansionist ambitions and the Pauline injunction to ‘be all things to all’ spelled a geographical, cultural, and linguistic sundering of their corporate body, an intrinsic tension within the Society perhaps nowhere more dramatically expressed than in its mission to late imperial China. There, Jesuits vowed obedience to padroado, patronato, and papacy even as they took on Buddhist robes and tonsures, the somber silk garments and long beards of the Confucian learned elite, and the richly embroidered robes of Qing dynasty officials. The Society’s mission to late imperial China provides a window into a world of Jesuit go-betweens negotiating multiple national allegiances, competing imperial ambitions, knowledge traditions, and the shifting boundaries between sacred and profane. This presentation examines some of the processes by which the self of the Jesuit go-between was constructed and disciplined across the complex cultural geography of the Society’s mission to late imperial China, paying particular attention to the graphic presentation of ideal Jesuit bodies and the generic articulation of Jesuit textual corpora.

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