Anthony E. Clark's China Gothic is the first academic work focused on Bishop Alphonse Favier (1837–1905) and his relevant ecclesiastical work in the Qing empire during the second half of the nineteenth century. The book represents an extensive examination of the life of the French Lazarist Favier and the influence of the Catholic Church on China in the late nineteenth century. In tracing Favier's activities around Beijing, especially in his capacity as Lazarite vicar apostolic of Northern Zhili, Clark also offers a history of China's suffering under foreign pressure, particularly following the Qing government's forced capitulation to several unequal treaties with foreign countries, which had broad political and social impacts. He draws a number of connections between Bishop Favier's Eurocentrism and the highly nationalistic French Catholic mission, addressing the roles played by both in the church's apostolic work and its diplomatic negotiations with the Qing court. Foreign pressure also affected the mission's architecture, especially following the Boxer Uprising (1899–1901) and the subsequent demands by foreign powers for indemnities from the Qing government.
The book's chapters are organized chronologically and present content from various disciplinary perspectives to provide a comprehensive picture of the life and work of Bishop Favier. Clark details Favier's educational background and professional ambitions, his aggressive diplomatic work vis-à-vis the Qing court, his supervisory role with respect to the vicariate, and, perhaps of most interest to architectural historians, his oversight of the construction of several church buildings in and around Beijing.
Most European clergy in China at the time shared Favier's missionary admixture of nationalism and Roman Catholicism, and, as Clark discusses, architecture served as a visible and public embodiment of these sentiments. Favier's supervision of the construction of several churches and church-run hospitals in northern China is noted throughout the book; these projects include St. Peter's Church at Xuanhua in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province (1868); Beitang Cathedral at Xishiku in Beijing (1887); the Cathedral of the Holy Savior in Beijing (1887–88); the church at Baoding, Hebei Province (no precise date); the nave of Notre Dame des Victoires Church in Tianjin (1896–97); St. Michael's Hospital in Beijing (no precise date); St. Vincent's Hospital in Tianjin (no precise date); and East Church in Beijing (1904). Favier also promoted the establishment of a Trappist abbey at Yangjiaping, Hebei Province, and served as the architect of the French consulate in Tianjin. He was active in both missionary enterprises and secular communities, particularly within the French legation, in Beijing. Favier's active public profile and his support of architectural production converged in particular in the Beitang Cathedral, the project that arguably expressed his Eurocentric stance most thoroughly and deeply.
In addition to the work of Bishop Favier, Clark discusses several churches designed by Belgian architect and missionary Father Alphonse De Moerloose (1858–1932), whose archives are located in Belgium at the Documentation and Research Centre for Religion, Culture and Society and at the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute. Clark does not delve deeply into De Moerloose's history, but given the little surviving evidence attesting to Favier's architectural design background and skills, it seems likely that De Moerloose was an important assistant to Favier in the design of several church buildings following his arrival in China in 1885. In fact, Favier assigned design responsibilities for several of the aforementioned church buildings to De Moerloose, who completed the requisite five years of study at the Sint-Lucas School of Architecture in Ghent before leaving for China, where he spent the next forty-five years of his life. According to archival records, De Moerloose designed the interior of the Beitang Cathedral in 1907, the Cathedral of Xuanhua, and the Trappist abbey. His design approach is relatively easy to discern; a close comparison between the Beitang Cathedral and Notre Dame des Victoires in Tianjin, for example, reveals few similarities, and it is clear that De Moerloose was responsible for the former but not the latter. Notre Dame des Victoires has certain stylistic flourishes typical of French Gothic-inspired design, while the Beitang Cathedral features a more heterogeneous mixture of French, Belgian, and Chinese ornamental elements, especially in its interior.
Clark emphasizes the key role of aesthetics in missionary church production, and despite the challenges posed by questions of authorship and attribution, it is clear that issues of style are essential to an understanding of these buildings and their architectural historical significance. For example, Clark sees the French tricolor of blue, white, and red on the ornament of the Cathedral of Beitang as evidence of the way that Favier's Catholic architectural, liturgical, and cultural preferences invoked French identities and modes of expression. Missionary architects under the influence of the Gothic Revival often considered Roman Catholic liturgical practices and European sensibilities in preparing their designs, though they could not simply reproduce European-derived design strategies. Churches built in China required distinctive and context-specific aesthetic choices; by the same token, unique conditions related to gender and access also shaped these buildings in ways that should not be ignored. Aspirational aims of conversion informed their designs, as did the question of the most effective use of space in relation to the ceremony of the Mass. While missionaries tried to recruit converts in different ways, over time they adapted to imperial-era Chinese culture. Following the expansion of missionary enterprises throughout China over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese Christians came to accept the Gothic style as the most suitable aesthetic for Catholic buildings and a form of visual expression that distinguished Catholicism from other religions active in China. Even today many seemingly “Gothic” churches can be found in rural China, buildings designed not by professional architects but by local contractors.
While China Gothic contributes to the study of both missiology and architectural history in late imperial China, it is important to note that the author's primary field is Sinology, and, as a result, the book does not provide detailed analysis of the church architecture introduced. For example, it does not include a plan of the Beitang Cathedral, its main subject of inquiry. In fact, no architectural plans appear in the book, a lack that limits its analytical potential. One also wishes for a richer discussion of figures like Father De Moerloose, who accumulated much experience working with trained Chinese carpenters to develop his projects. Admittedly, we know little about these carpenters; only one, for example, a figure named Yao Zhengkui, can be found in related scholarship. Nevertheless, Clark's reliance on a number of European- and Chinese-language archival resources, including material located at Annales de La Congrégation de la Mission (Lazaristes) et de la Compagnie des Filles de La Charité in Paris and other archives in Rome, Vatican City, Beijing, Nantes, Taipei, Lisbon, and Taiyuan, is impressive, and his research sheds new light on an otherwise understudied era of architectural production in imperial China.
The importance of the book lies in Clark's extensive archival work, which has yielded new textual and visual evidence of missionary-related activities in Qing China. Some of the book's images represent sources that are considered controversial in China. For example, a painting of a procession during the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1713, which was subsequently reproduced and enlarged in Beitang at Canchikou, ca. 1720, and which is currently held by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, shows four steps leading to the church's main entrance. In the Chinese language, the pronunciations of the words four and death are similar, and the four steps are interpreted as an inauspicious reference to death. To many Chinese scholars, this detail is a telltale sign that the painting was not completed by a Chinese artist. Aside from such controversial sources, however, many of the materials that Clark presents are new to Chinese scholars and represent exciting sources of knowledge for understanding missionary building activity in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China. Hopefully, in the future Western and Chinese scholars will have opportunities to cooperate on the study of Christian architectural history and thus gain a better understanding of the buildings in question.