Over the weekend I read most of Liam Brockey’s superb “Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724.” Brockey’s book is not only a fast-paced account of one of the greatest adventures ever undertaken by a group of organized Europeans, it is – consciously and unconsciously – one of the better accounts that I’ve read on the difficulties that Westerners face as they interact with, and attempt to become a part of, Chinese civilization.
Though I have by no means mastered the genre, it strikes me that most of the popular literature on the Chinese-Western interaction is focused on the commercial relationships that have developed over the last twenty-five years. Few if any writers have bothered to look back into Chinese history and examine whether lessons learned in, say, the 17th century offer any guidance for today (not that successful commerce should be the only goal of a good history). And this is a shame, because today’s expatriate businesses in China would find much in common with the challenges faced by the Jesuit missions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Language and culture are merely the most obvious examples. Less obvious, but equally important were the “staffing” difficulties faced by the Jesuits as they tried to expand their missions (branch offices, if you will) into China’s interior. Talented Jesuits from abroad (the home office) were in short supply, un-schooled in the language or culture, and suddenly at the mercy of Chinese counterparts – presumably, their subordinates – who not only worked behind their backs, but insisted on indigenizing the branch offices in ways that the foreigners couldn’t understand (and thus, couldn’t approve of).
Now, I don’t want to over-state my case here. There are big differences between the 17th cenutry Jesuit mission to Taiyuan and the difficulties faced by McDonald’s in the same city, today. On the other hand, anybody who wants to understand the history of how Western organizations interact with Chinese civilization should spend a bit of time looking at the Western organization with the longest history in China: namely, the Catholic Church. Thus, a hearty recommendation for Brockey’s book – and Jonathan Spence’s fine 4000-word essay review of it in the New York Review of Books [subscriber only].