February 19, 2007
From pulp fiction to Protestant missionaries, Gothic horror painted lurid images of China
BY carol clark
"The temple is dark and very dirty. Cobwebs hang from the walls. The place is never washed, and but rarely swept. The group of idols stands before them. The images with fierce or grinning faces, streaked with red paint and blackened by smoke from candles and incense sticks, look at the worshippers with staring immovable eyes. Sometimes long rows of these images glare and stare in hideous fashion."
This Protestant missionary's 1921 account of a visit to a temple in China, and many similar accounts written by British missionaries in the early 20th century, reads less like a religious tract than classic horror fiction. In fact, it especially resembles the lurid, Gothic writing in the Fu Manchu stories cranked out by British writer Sax Rohmer, "who specialized in horrible images of Chinese," noted Eric Reinders, associate professor in Emory's Department of Religion, in a recent lecture presented by the East Asian Studies Program.
To illustrate the similarity, Reinders cited the following passage from a 1913 Rohmer novel "The Devil Doctor," when the British protagonist first encounters his Chinese nemesis: "From a plain brass bowl upon the corner of the huge table smoke writhed aloft
-- smoke faintly penciled through the air from the burning perfume on the table
-- grew in volume, thickened, and wafted towards me in a cloud of grey horror. It enveloped me, clammily. Dimly, through its oily wreaths, I saw the immobile yellow face of Fu Manchu."
Reinders, who is interested in how religion and stereotypes relate to cultural politics, was also a featured speaker this month at a University of Alabama symposium titled, "(Mis)Interpretations East West: Representations of China, Japan and the West." He is the author of "Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies: Christian Missionaries Imagine Chinese Religion"
"Protestant missionaries in China were funded by hundreds of little groups, so they were constantly writing back to their home churches as part of their fundraising efforts," Reinders said. "They had to portray non Christian life as really horrible. Otherwise, why would people want to give money for the cause of conversion?"
The colorful reportage of the missionaries included such gripping passages as this one from 1905: "We heard of a horrible discovery in the north of the Prefecture. A huge procession following a brand new brass idol; blood-stained, it attracted notice, and suspicion was aroused. Inside the idol a hollow place was found full of eyes and mutilated parts of the human body!"
Horror narratives aim for a visceral, gut reaction and signal a strong sense of "othering," according to Reinders
-- the process of emphasizing the difference between us and them.
But unlike Rohmers, who demonized his fictional Fu Manchu as supremely evil, the missionaries balanced their accounts of "demonic" idol worship with happy stories about individuals who were "saved" through conversion.
"The conversion stories are the 'yang' side of the 'yin' horror narratives," Reinders said. "The missionaries wanted to convey that the Chinese are ultimately like us and, while conditions are bad, there's also hope. Some missionaries trivialized the Chinese, they belittled them, but they couldn¹t utterly demonize them or they would have no soul to save."
Religious stereotyping, and dividing populations into groups of "us" and "others," who must be altered or "saved" in some way, remains a critical problem today, Reinders said, citing the conflict between Christians and Muslims.
Stereotypes, both positive and negative ones, are part of a natural way of thinking for humans and it is naive to think that they can be eliminated, he added.
"You have to pick your battles. You can't erase all the false information in the world, but you should focus on reducing false information and generalizations that lead to violence. Right now, it¹s very important for us to concentrate on representing Arabs and Muslims as real, ordinary people with faces and lives to live."