This project situates the beginning of China's modern conception of "religion" in the context of the nineteenth-century mission encounter. Rather than taking religion as a stable and ready-made notion imported from the West via Japan, it emphasizes the local knowledge of religion generated jointly by the Christian missionaries and his Chinese observers. This process of knowledge formation was closely linked to the cultural imagery of Christianity. How was Christianity represented in the missionaries' writings in Chinese? How was it understood by the non-converts? The politics of representation and reception had long-term impact on how "religion" has been conceived in modern China.
The Protestant missionaries produced a large body of works on church history, Christian doctrines, and their meanings in Chinese. Meant to spread the Christian Gospel, these works inevitably communicated their conception of religion, as well as its place in Western societies. In addition, writings on non-religious subjects, such as history, geography, and government, often touched on the public functions of religion. Both the religious and non-religious texts were circulated beyond denominational boundaries, and contributed to a master-narrative about Christianity and, more generally, religion. This narrative, furthermore, was juxtaposed with the missionary's public conduct in the volatile world of nineteenth-century China. Being the rare Westerner who traveled across the globe to preach among the Chinese, the missionary himself became the representation of not only his religion, but also the religious culture of the West. How he positioned himself in relation to non-religious affairs, such as diplomacy, politics, and education, became a factor in determining the public imagery of Christianity.
The missionary, however, was not the only one to write about Christianity in nineteenth-century China. Due to the increasing number of legal and social controversies over the rights of Christians, members of the governing elite started to take an interest in the Western religion. They produced texts to give background information about Christianity, as well as anecdotal accounts about the missionaries and the Chinese converts. The content thus often went beyond issues of theology and church history, and included characterization of Christianity from an outsider's viewpoint. This group of literature has hitherto not been examined by modern scholars. However, they are highly informative of how Christianity was received. While this reception drew heavily on the missionary's narrative, it inscribed new meanings into the missionary's representation. As such, it revealed the complexity in Christianity's cultural imagery, and how, through the creation of such imagery, the globally circulated knowledge of religion was localized into the specific intellectual milieu of nineteenth-century China.