by Janadas Devan (ST, 09 Nov 2007)

HISTORY remembers it as the ‘Rites Controversy’. It consumed Europeans for close to a century and it finally led a Chinese emperor to issue an ultimatum to the Roman Catholic Church.

Despite its centrality, however, general histories of China do not give it much play. John King Fairbank and J.A.G. Roberts mention it only in passing in their histories, and Jonathan Spence not at all. Donald Lach discusses it in detail in his Asia In The Making Of Europe, but disperses his account over several volumes of his monumental work. There are many specialist accounts and an official Church history of the Controversy, but these are not easily accessible to the general reading public.

The following account draws heavily on some of these studies, especially Lach’s. The ‘Rites Controversy’ is interesting not only for its own sake but also for the light it sheds on some contemporary issues – in particular, how different cultures might relate to one another, and the role of religion in secular societies.

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