Matteo NICOLINI-ZANI. Christian Monks on Chinese Soil: A History of Monastic Missions to China. Translated by Sophia Senyk and William Skudlarek, OSB. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016. pp. 408. $39.95 ISBN 9780814646991(print), 9780814646007 (ebook). Reviewed by Liang ZHANG, Institute of Religious Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, P. R. China.


Almost ten years ago, when I did some leisure reading, an essay, briefly describing the story of Trappist Monastery of Our Lady of Consolation in Yang Jiaping, attracted my attention. That’s my first time to learn about Trappists and their monastery in China, and through that literary essay, which seemed to be the only text in Chinese referring to this topic at that time, a quite superficial impression of Trappists and their legends in China were left in my head.

Now, Matteo Nicolini-Zani, a monk of the Community of Bose, and the other two admirable translators with their distinguished book not only clarify the history of the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Consolation, delineate Trappist life in mainland China, but far beyond that, present a historical panorama of Christian monasticism in China. To cope with this challenge, he spent ten years in collecting relevant materials including different archives from the Carmelites foundations in China, the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and the Benedictine Abbey of Sint-Andries in Bruges; some Chinese materials from the library of the theology faculty at Fu Jen Catholic University and the Little Brothers of John the Baptist in Taizhong. Thanks to his endeavors, some priceless historical pictures and documentations which are perfectly translated into English can be shared with readers of this book.

Based on these abundant documentation and other materials, Matteo Nicolini-Zani elaborates this historical research with five chapters following the time-line. Although more focusing on the period between roughly 1869, the year of the founding of the first Carmel on Chinese soil, and 1955, the year when the last foreign nuns were forced to leave China, he doesn’t skip the first stage of the history of Christianity in China. In Chapter One, he gives a brief account of the Church of the East and its missionary adventure in China during the period between the 7th and the 13th centuries.

Starting from the chapter two, Nicolini-Zani takes his lens on various Christian monastic foundations in China in different chapters: Chapter two for the Carmelites and the first foundation in China, which was established in 1869 in Shanghai by its small group of French nuns; Chapter three for the Trappists and its two best known monasteries separately located in Yang Jiaping and Zheng Ding; Chapter four for the Benedictines and its three different congregations of monks and two different families of nuns; Chapter five for the “truly” Chinese monastic communities which were made up entirely of Chinese by their founder, Fr. Vincent Lebbe, a Belgian priest but applying for the Chinese citizenship in 1927.  

The structure of this book seems clear and simple, but actually, its “common thread running through this historical research”, as well as Nicolini-Zani’s principal intention, “beyond the reconstruction of the main events relating to the monastic foundations in China, is to highlight the willingness of foreign monks to encounter the cultural and spiritual realities of China and the degree of acceptance by the Chinese of the form of monastic life that was presented to them by the missionaries.” (pp 32.) This is challenging and profound. For completing this task, Nicolini-Zani pays attention to the reflections of the key figures who were involved in the relevant historical events. At the pioneering stage he is aware of the necessity of indigenizing the monasticism in China, and in his analyses, without separating these reflections as “isolated” thoughts, he reveals the relevance among them through subtle historical details; these are hided under the thick materials, and always keep the connection between the history and the reality.

Besides the study of foreigners, Nicolini-Zani takes special consideration of some Chinese monks who play the role of intermediaries between Chinese cultural and Christian message and should to be the important performers in the process of indigenizing the monastery in China. Except for Lu Zhengxiang (Dom Pierre Célestin), a Chinese Benedictine priest studied for his political and diplomatic activities and his dramatic life, many other Chinese monks, their practices and thoughts, are seldom mentioned, even in the relevant Chinese studies. At this point, Nicolini-Zani’s endeavor is meaningful and will illuminate further researches on this issue.

With this book, Nicolini-Zani reminds us again that the encounter between different cultures can happen not because they are existing in one space but because various connections, visible or invisible, concrete or abstract, beyond space and time, link them together.