Wednesday, 8 May 2013

William Edgar Geil and religion in China

Last week saw the release of a film on the forgotten explorer of China, William Edgar Geil of Doylestown.

William Edgar Geil, Central Africa, 1903. Used with the permission of Doylestown Historical Society.
by Robert André LaFleur


We met William Edgar Geil (1865-1925) in last week's post. His preface to a book on the sacred mountains of China helped us to understand Chinese yin-yang, five-phase cosmology. Mr. Geil was deeply affected by that hardy combination of concepts, and he wrote about them with a passion that can only be described as intense. Take a quick look back at that post if you get a chance, and you will see that he not only wrote with verve about 'fives,' but could not help writing them out - literally - on the pages before him. Typing wasn't enough for the man who sought to live out five-phase thinking on the very manuscripts he typed. As you can see from the handwritten curly-cue 5s, he was what we call 'a character'.

William Edgar Geil, Souther Seas 'gazetteer'
Well, I had a chance to spend a few days with Mr. Geil in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania last weekend. It is not every day that a local explorer gets his big day in the cinematic sunshine, and William Edgar Geil was there, after a fashion, to enjoy the world premiere of a documentary about his life. The film features text Geil prepared over 110 years ago, and documents a life of travel that took him not only to the Holy Land and the Greek island of Patmos, but also to the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and Australia, down the entire length of China’s Yangzi River, and, if that were not enough, across the rivers and jungles of equatorial Africa.

And he was just getting started.

After completing his world journey and returning to Doylestown in 1904, Geil settled in for some serious writing. He completed his second, third, and fourth books (following an earlier volume on St. John and 'the isle that was called Patmos') on the south Pacific, the Yangzi River, and central Africa, respectively. He would eventually become obsessed with China, and begin a long and complex relationship with the land and its people. In the decades that followed, he travelled the entire length of the Great Wall, visited the provincial capitals of late-Qing China, and climbed its 'five sacred mountains' (五嶽). He travelled, reflected, took notes, talked to people in his midst, and jotted more notes. From these, he prepared lectures and short articles that, in turn, became full-length books.

The way I like to tell it, William Edgar Geil did everything that professional anthropologists would eventually do…but before there was an organised discipline of anthropology. I like to call him (echoing the title of Ann Beattie’s 1985 novel) The Accidental Ethnographer. He stumbled onto a way of thinking and writing about the world that was systematic and haphazard at the same time. He was a consummate professional with the idiosyncratic interior of a stark amateur. He was all of these things, and he is endlessly fascinating…in his own peculiar way. "He was a complicated guy," notes the director of the documentary on his life, Karl Stieg. I have written about Geil in a similar tone myself, and 'complicated' was just the beginning.

He travelled, wrote, and lectured. He was well known as an explorer and, increasingly, as an American expert about life in China. This is problematic on several levels, and I wish to use the rest of this post to explore a side of this intellectual itinerant that has everything to do with China at the end of its imperial era, and with this series on religion in Chinese life. You see, the William Edgar Geil the explorer and writer was also - and arguably 'more so' - an evangelist. It is likely that none of his work would have been possible if not for a strong, established missionary presence all over the world. The traveller from Doylestown, Pennsylvania needed the missionary stations dotting his travels.

Missionary stations. Think about them.

Whether you are a secularist or a committed missionary, one thing is central - they were (and many still are) there. Anthropologists have had a complicated and quite negative relationship with missionaries in the last ten or twelve decades. My response? They happened; historians also need to engage that 'fact'. Our job is to understand why they came to exist in the first place. We'll take that useful approach in the next few posts, and leave the post-colonial narrative (endlessly fascinating, to be sure) for later posts.

Just know this. Missions cannot be understood apart from broad efforts to colonise, globalise, and 'commodify' the world. With missions came not only messages from the Bible, but also Western cultural influences in dizzying layers of complexity. In China, the early outcome of the conflicts known as the Opium War was, among other indemnities, the ceding to Western powers of several 'treaty ports' - large coastal cities - in China. A further set of conflicts ending in 1860 opened up almost a dozen more of these cities all of the way up and down the eastern coast of China.

Treaty Ports - Fuzhou, Ningbo, Xiamen (Amoy), Guangdong (Canton), and Shanghai (among others). But especially Shanghai. This is where China and the West came face to face. At least that is the way we usually learn it if we study modern Chinese history in school. It's all about the treaty ports…until we begin to realise that they are only the beginning of a much more complete story.

And what do they have to do with missionaries, religion, explorers, and our series of posts on Chinese religion? Well, everything, and it is going to take us a few weeks to sort through it all and find our way back to William Edgar Geil and his hopscotching of missionary outposts in the first decades of the twentieth century. For now, let’s look at the treaty ports from two distinctive angles. These big, productive cities were burgeoning centers of trade and commerce in Qing dynasty China, even before Westerners forced their way in. Once Westerners arrived, they were even bigger and more influential.

Trade networks linked the ports to areas of the 'interior' and, in turn, to each other in a complex combination of kinship networks, nascent 'corporations' and employment conduits. Imagine, for example, a young man surnamed Zhang from a village several hundred kilometers beyond Shanghai. Living in a mountain valley in Anhui Province, he was plucked by an uncle in the city who managed a growing construction operation. It was good work. There were bridges to build, new roads to open, and multi-story homes to create. Young Zhang made the long journey to the impossibly big city, created new friendships, started to make a little money, reinforced ties with his agnatic kin, and started to see his world in a new, urban idiom. Change swirled around him.

Now, at the same time, imagine a young, Western missionary surnamed Smith. He arrives in the very same port city of Shanghai just as Zhang is settling into his new life. Recruited through an equally complex series of kinship and organisational links, Smith spends only a minimal amount of time in the big city before plunging right into the Chinese interior. In our fictional example, Young Smith will find himself on the same mountainside where Zhang’s extended family still farms, trades, and receives a little extra income from their son in the treaty port. Smith settles down with a handful of other missionaries and begins the complex process of learning about local customs and teaching very foreign ones. There is a give and take that is anything but hellfire and brimstone. This is difficult stuff, and no one wants to hear a Western blowhard with a tin ear for local ways. Smith understands this, so he begins to learn the language - not only the complex, written characters that fill texts on signs, in books, and even on the rocky mountainside, but also the local dialect that is understood only by people in neighbouring towns. It will take many decades, but this mountainside will become his home.

It is 1910. Young Zhang now lives in the shining and somewhat decadent city of Shanghai; Young Smith resides in Zhang’s hometown - a tiny hamlet far beyond the lights, the saltwater, and the glare of Western life. Zhang learns new ways; his urban apartment building will become 'home'. Smith learns, too, and the growing settlement will soon house more missionaries, hold a full-scale chapel, and have accommodations for guests. In time, Zhang will move his family to the city. Smith will start a family of his own in the countryside.

And, in just a few more months, William Edgar Geil will write a letter to ask if he can spend a few weeks with Reverend Smith and his fellow missionaries. Everything we know about religion in a changing China flows from there, and we’ll continue to explore the nuances in upcoming posts. @sima1085

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