"A Model for All Christian Women"

Candida Xu, a Chinese Christian Woman of the Seventeenth Century

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Gail King
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
    , December
     2020.
     178 pages.
     $128.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780367682903.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In “A Model for All Christian Women”: Candida Xu, a Chinese Christian Woman of the Seventeenth Century, Gail King presents for the first time a lucid account of Candida Xu’s life, situated in the history of the Xu clan, the sociocultural landscape of China, and the transnational scope of Jesuit missions in the 17th century. Bringing together a rich body of literature—Philippe Couplet’s bibliography Histoire d’une dame chrétienne de la Chine, Xu Zuanzeng’s obituary and writings, Xu family records, and sources related to Chinese and European cultures and histories—this book is the most extensive study of Candida Xu to date. Through her skillful presentation and artful integration of sources, King successfully establishes a foundation for understanding Candida Xu’s cultural setting and her life as a Christian woman. She brings Candida Xu to life, vividly telling the story of this “unique Chinese woman who lived her particular life situation in the lower Yangzi River valley for seventy-three years of the seventeenth century” (14).

King recognizes the limitations of her sources, however expansive, acknowledging that “no matter what, no matter how many or how extensive the sources, we can never show a person in his or her entirety” (14). For King, Candida Xu serves as “a window into another time and culture and the life of a Christian woman in that culture” (14). Candida Xu (1607–1680) was one of the foremost Chinese Christian women of the 17th century. Baptized as an infant and given the Christian name Candida, she was married at the age of sixteen, had eight children, and was widowed in 1653. With a large private income accumulated through selling the fine handwork she and her household had made, Candida Xu financed churches and chapels, provided living stipends for all the missionaries to China, supported local church activities, helped establish an orphanage, financed the printing of Christian publications in Chinese, and aided the poor and the sick.

Throughout the book, King masterfully tells Candida Xu’s story—her roots in the Xu lineage, her childhood and married life, her widowed years, and her lasting legacy, through a language accessible to a popular audience with minimal understanding of Chinese culture or history. From one angle, King’s account on the life and religiosity of Candida Xu is not entirely new. Nadine Amsler’s 2018 book Jesuit and Matriarchs: Domestic Worship in Early Modern China (University of Washington Press) devotes a whole chapter on the Xu family network as an example of a Catholic women’s culture and spirituality in light of patriarchal marriage, while focusing largely on Candida Xu. The uniqueness of King’s approach lies in her granting Candida Xu the central stage in storytelling and the coherence of her presentation. The four chapters arranged according to Candida Xu’s various stages of life also represent her development as a Chinese Christian woman of the 17th century.

Throughout this biography, King weaves Candida Xu’s life within the fabric of her time, firmly situating her in the complex historical, cultural, social, religious, and political context both in China and global Catholicism. Thus, King’s coherent narrative not only offers her readers a lucid account of the cultures and histories of 17th-century China and Europe, but also illuminates the particular circumstances that shaped Candida Xu’s life and mission.

Far from a detached account, what King presents through this book is also an exaltation of Candida Xu as an exemplar of faith for all Christian women. A stark integration of academic rigor, provocative prose, and personal fervor, King’s account expresses her intense and unapologetic admiration of Candida Xu as a woman of “compelling religious faith” and “strong will,” who lived “a life of such dedicated intentionality” (104). The style and prose of A Model for All Christian Women demonstrates that King shares Candida Xu’s understanding of “herself and the Church in China as a part of the universal Church” (103). What King offers through Candida Xu’s story is not another account of a distant past, but an occasion for a promising religious and personal encounter among herself, her readers, and Candida Xu—a Chinese Christian woman with a lasting legacy. I do not doubt that this book will be an accessible and rewarding read for scholars and any interested readers who wish to gain new insights into the history of Chinese Catholicism, and particularly the life of Candida Xu.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Simeiqi He is a doctoral candidate in Christian Social Ethics at Drew University.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gail King was born and raised in a small farming town in Colorado in the western U.S. She received a B.A. in East Asian Studies from the University of Colorado, worked as a bookmobile librarian in Colorado for four years, and completed an M.A. and Ph.D. (1982) in Chinese Literature at the University of Chicago. From October 1982 until retirement in May 2019 she served as the Asian Studies Librarian in the Harold B. Lee Library of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

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