Jesuit Mission

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Jesuit Mission


Early Contact. To Europeans the sixteenth century was an age of conquerors and of the Counter-Reformation. Ignatius Loyola founded the Jesuit order in 1534, principally in an effort to convert pagans to Christianity. Francis Xavier, a Spanish Jesuit, arrived in western Japan in 1549 and marched on Kyoto. The Jesuit mission, led by Xavier, began to go to China in the late sixteenth century. Xavier died near Guangzhou in south China in 1552. In the following decades, through the knowledge and enthusiasm of Jesuit missionaries, the Christian Church was resolutely reestablished in China during the Ming dynasty (1326-1644). Their achievements resulted in the arrival of Dominican, Franciscan, and other Christian missionaries in almost all the Chinese provinces.

Macao. Immediately after establishing the Ming dynasty, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and his successors closed the Chinese door to foreigners, and there was almost no relationship between China and the West for the next 150 years. At the beginning of the sixteenth century Portuguese merchants came into view at the mouth of the West River in southern China. Since piracy was prevalent at that time, the Ming government, considering all foreigners pirates and adventurers, prohibited them from living on the mainland, but they were allowed to construct provisional houses on an island at the mouth of the river and to live there each summer in order to carry on a profitable trade with the natives. Since they proved useful in repelling pirates who infected the area, they were finally permitted to establish a more permanent village at Macao, to the west of the West River estuary. Thereafter, Macao became the missionaries’ main base for their activities in East Asia, as well as a large and prosperous trading post for the profitable trade with China and Japan.

First Efforts. Following the traders, Jesuit missionaries soon played a dominant role reestablishing the Christian church in China. Dominicans, Franciscans, and Augustinians (who came mainly from the Philippines, a Spanish colony) made the first efforts to break open the door to Christian influence. Missionaries penetrated China by traveling the sea route to southern China rather than along the overland Central Asian trade routes as they had in the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) times.

Rivalry. A rivalry developed between Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. The Spanish had succeeded in spreading Christianity to the Philippines where many Chinese resided. With the assistance of Chinese converts the Spanish made several attempts to penetrate into China. The aforementioned rivalry, as well as antagonism from merchants who were afraid that missionary activity would cause the abolishment of their hard-won trade concessions with Ming authorities, frustrated the first missionary efforts.

Success. While all of his predecessors had failed, the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci succeeded through persistence and adaptation. Ricci’s enthusiasm, determination, and learning opened the way for the founding of a Christian mission on the mainland. With diplomacy and perseverance he gradually won the companionship of scholars and magistrates. Dressing in a Buddhist monk’s robe, which was the custom of missionaries in Japan and the Philip-pines, was not working in China. Ricci realized that he had to adopt Confucian dress and manners and study the classical culture of China in order to win over the highly educated Chinese scholars. With assistance from scholars and

officials, he entered Guangdong in 1583 and went on to Suzhou in 1589, Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi, in 1595, and later to Nanjing.

Beijing. Ricci, who became friends with the Chinese literati, increasingly extended Christian influence, but he realized that unless he won recognition from the emperor, he could not establish a permanent mission in China. Therefore, Ricci endeavored to obtain permission for himself and his colleagues to reside in Beijing. Despite strong opposition he finally got oral authorization to live in the capital, and he entered Beijing on 4 January 1601. Gradually, he and his colleagues obtained a reputation for scholarship, won over several famous scholars, converted many Chinese, and founded a Christian church.

Evangelization. Step by step, Ricci was successful in defining a method of evangelization that highlighted the similarities between Chinese classical traditions and Christianity; he supported negative views against Buddhism, Daoism, and popular beliefs; and he pleased scholars with the science, technology, and arts of the West. The missionaries also tried to impress the Chinese with mechanical curiosities such as clocks. Due to their scientific and technical knowledge Jesuits were appreciated at court and among high-ranking civil officials. The services they provided to rulers—as mathematicians, astronomers, cartographers, interpreters, painters, and musicians—allowed Jesuits to keep their positions in the central government.

Spread of Evangelization. The first Jesuit missions were established along the road that Ricci followed from Macao to Beijing, including major cities in the Guangdong, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Hebei provinces. They thereafter spread to most provinces by the end of the Ming dynasty but were more plentiful in the lower Yangzi River area and in Fujian, where the Dominicans and Franciscans were also active. Several missionaries arrived in China by the Burma Road or through Central Asia, such as the Portuguese brother of Goez (Benedict de Goaes), who departed from Agra, the capital of the Mogul dynasty, in 1602 to find out whether Marco Polo’s Cathay was really China. Goez traveled through Kabul, Samarkand, and the oases of the Tarim basin and finally arrived in Gansu in 1605.

Curiosity. Undoubtedly, Chinese reactions to the Jesuit missions varied. In the countryside missionaries aroused curiosity about their strange manners and practices. For example, the funeral of a Christian attracted a large crowd and incited astonishment. The missionaries looked like a variety of Buddhist priests; Christianity was able to take root in the countryside partially through a sort of syncretism between Christian beliefs and Chinese traditions. Thus, several themes of Buddhist and Daoist hagiography appeared in the biography of Father Etienne Faber, a missionary in Shanxi in the latter part of the Ming period. Faber was believed to be able to ward off attacks by man-eating animals; to heal the sick; to defend against an invasion of grasshoppers by spraying them with sacred water; to exorcize haunted houses; and to predict the accurate date of

his own death. It was said that his corpse did not decompose, his tomb was spared by a flooded river, and that after his death he was changed into the god of the local soil.

Converts. Jesuits were able to gain impressive results with some scholars. The most famous intellectuals who converted to Christianity were the “three pillars of the evangelization.” Born in Shanghai, Xu Guangqi, who won hisjinshi degree in 1604, was one of the first men to communicate with the Jesuit missionaries. Hired as a tutor by a wealthy family of Shaozhou, he first met Father Lazarro Cattaneo, then Matteo Ricci, in Nanjing in 1600. Baptized and christened as Paul by another missionary, Jean de Rocha, Xu Guangqi lived in Beijing between 1604 and 1607 and there received training from Ricci. After his death a small church was constructed close to his home in the suburbs of Shanghai.

Yang Tingyun. Also a scholar and civil servant, Yang Tingyun, born in Hangzhou, was a censor at Beijing in 1600. He was in charge of transportation on the Grand Canal and management of the Suzhou region. Interested in Chan Buddhism during a period of retirement at Hangzhou in 1609, he met Cattaneo and then Father Nicolas Trigault in 1611. Converted by them to Christianity, he was baptized and christened Michael in 1612. He established Shengshui Hui (Association of the Holy Water) and wrote a book on Christian doctrine. In 1615 he wrote assorted essays on the sciences, geography, European philosophy, and Christianity; in 1621 he published an essay in which he tried to show the advantages of Christianity over Buddhism. In 1621, the year he passed away, Yang constructed a Christian church in the city of Hangzhou.

Defense of Christianity. Li Zhizao, also a native of Hangzhou, met Ricci shortly after he arrived in China. Fascinated by geographical questions, Li studied Western sciences and cartography. He received training from Ricci between 1604 and 1610, and he translated various scientific and religious books. Going back to Hangzhou in 1611, he requested that Fathers Cattaneo, Fernandez, and Trigault give sermons in the city. During the first “persecution” of Christians in 1616 and the second one in 1622, Li defended the Christians of Hangzhou. In 1625 he wrote a note on a Nestorian stela (an inscribed pillar), identifying Nestorianism with Christianity. Trusted by both Xu Guangqi and Father Longobardo, Li created a new calendar in 1629, a year before his death.

Difficult Dialogue. By presenting the excellence and supremacy of the sciences and inventions of Europe, the missionaries believed that they were also demonstrating the superiority of Christianity. Aside from a small number of literati and high-ranking civil officials in close contact with the Jesuits, who were convinced of the relationship between the ancient Chinese traditions and Christianity, most Confucian scholars were antagonistic to the foreign faith. They thought the growth of Christian communities among ordinary people interrupted public order, and they regarded Christianity as full of overgenerous and conflicting ideas. Missionaries found it difficult to explain clearly the central ideas of their faith to persons with dissimilar ideas about the world and religion. The Chinese had a different approach to religion that required total faithfulness and implied the reality of truth. The Chinese were not familiar with inspiration because their essential concept was that of an immanent order simultaneously cosmic and human, natural and social. Thus, dialogue between Christians and Chinese included deep disagreements.

Criticism. Christians in China were blamed for damaging morals, demolishing statues and sanctuaries belonging to the Chinese cult, and harming society. Beginning in the early seventeenth century, Confucians published these criticisms in brochures that attracted many readers. One of the first anti-Christian essays was the Poxiechi (Compilation of Disproved Heresies), published in 1639. Chinese intellectuals who were antagonistic to missionaries negatively regarded Christianity as a combination of Buddhism and Islam, or other religions.

Consequence. Jesuits in Beijing made themselves so helpful to the Ming ruler that, despite strong resistance and short periods of persecution, they survived to strengthen their mission. They gained permission to construct churches in several cities throughout the provinces. More appeasing attitudes of the Ming court in the early decades of the seventeenth century helped Dominicans and Franciscans to establish missions in southern China, but their methods frequently proved embarrassing to the Jesuits. Their rude manners, alien customs, and prejudiced attitude toward native beliefs incited the distrust, abhorrence, and scorn of many Chinese. In addition, Jesuit efforts were damaged by the Pope, who declined to authorize their moderation of Catholic doctrine or their tolerance of some Confucian rituals so as to avoid affronting potential converts. As a result, with the collapse of the great Ming empire many priests and Chinese converts disappeared. However, their records became a significant source of knowledge about China in the West and contributed to the European Enlightenment.


Jacques Gernet, China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures,translated by Janet Lloyd (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christian Missions in China (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge / New York: Macmillan, 1929).

A. C. Moule, Christians in China before the Year 1550 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge / New York: Macmillan, 1930).