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The history of the missions of the Jesuits in Chinamarker in the early modern era stands as one of the notable events in the early history of relations between China and the Western world, as well as a prominent example of relations between two cultures and belief systems in the pre-modern age. The missionary efforts and other work of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits between the 16th and 17th century played a significant role in introducing Western knowledge, science, and culture to China. Their work laid much of the foundation for much of Christian culture in Chinese society today. Members of the Jesuit delegation to China were perhaps the most influential Christian missionaries in that country between the earliest period of the religion up until the 19th century, when significant numbers of Catholic and Protestant missions developed.

The first attempt by the Society of Jesus (or "Jesuits") to reach Chinamarker was made in 1552 by St. Francis Xavier, Spanish priest and missionary and founding member of the Society. Xavier, however, died a year after on the Chinese island of Shangchuanmarker, without having reached the mainland. Three decades later, in 1582, led by several figures including the prominent Italian Matteo Ricci, Jesuits once again initiated mission work in China, ultimately introducing Western science, mathematics, astronomy, and visual arts to the imperial court, and carrying on significant inter-cultural and philosophical dialogue with Chinese scholars, particularly representatives of Confucianism. At the time of their peak influence, members of the Jesuit delegation were considered some of the emperor's most valued and trusted advisors, holding numerous prestigious posts in the imperial government. Many Chinese, including notable former Confucian scholars, adopted Christianity and became priests and members of the Society of Jesus.

Between the 18th and mid-19th century, nearly all Western missionaries in China were forced to conduct their teaching and other activities covertly.

According to D.E. Mungello, from 1552 (i.e., the death of St. Francis Xavier) to 1800, the total of 920 Jesuits participated in the China misson; of them 314 were Portuguese, and another 130, French.Many Jesuit priests, both Western-born and Chinese, are buried in the cemetery located in what is now the School of the Beijing Municipal Committee.

Clark has summarized:
"When all is said and done, one must recognize gladly that the Jesuits made a shining contribution to mission outreach and policy in China.
They made no fatal compromises, and where they skirted this in their guarded accommodation to the Chinese reverence for ancestors, their major thrust was both Christian and wise.
They succeeded in rendering Christianity at least respectable and even credible to the sophisticated Chinese, no mean accomplishment."

The Jesuits succeeded in planting a Chinese church that has stood the test of time. "By 1844, Roman Catholics may have totalled 240,000; in 1901 the figure reached 720,490". However, one should not overlook the fact that the Jesuit financial policy grievously aggravated the difficulties of that Church. Their missionaries involved themselves in business ventures of various sorts; they became the landlords of income-producing properties, developed the silk industry for Western trade, and organized money-lending operations on a large scale. All these eventually generated misunderstanding and tension between the foreign community and the Chinese people. The Communists held this against them as late as the mid-twentieth century.

The Jesuits in China

Ricci's policy of accommodation

The first missionaries of the Society of Jesus arrived in China in 1565. The Jesuits were men whose vision went far beyond the Macau status quo, priests serving churches on the fringes of a pagan society. They were possessed by a dream - the creation of a Sino-Christian civilization that would match the Roman-Christian civilization of the West.

This unique approach was largely the outworking of two Italian Jesuits, Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). Both were determined to adapt to the religious qualities of the Chinese: Ruggieri to the common people, in whom Buddhist and Taoist elements predominated, and Ricci to the educated classes, where Confucianism prevailed.

This policy was largely devised by the scholarly Ricci. Earlier he had discovered through his studies of Confucius that the Chinese originally had a monotheistic concept of a Supreme Being. He reasoned using this as the basis for presenting the Gospel to them. Ricci sought out friends among Chinese scholars and shared his enthusiasm for Confucius. The more he conversed with them, however, the more aware he became of the need for a special type of missionary to implement his methodology. Furthermore, he saw that this new type of approach would require a special dispensation from the Pope. This was granted. Ricci then wrote to the Jesuit houses in Europe and called for priests - men who would not only be "good", but also "men of talent, since we are dealing here with a people both intelligent and learned".

A few responded, and Ricci began to train them so that they might approach the Chinese authorities, offering the court scholarly and scientific assistance with the deliberate intention of making a Confucian adaptation of their style of life, patterns of thought, preaching and worship. They were determined to completely de-westernize themselves. Both Ricci and Ruggieri felt that it would be possible to "prove that the Christian doctrines were already laid down in the classical works of the Chinese people, albeit in disguise". Indeed, they and their followers were convinced that "the day would come when with one accord all missionaries in China would look in the ancient texts for traces of primal revelation".

Map of the Far East in 1602, by Matteo Ricci
But tension developed between Ricci and his followers and those of Ruggieri. This was inevitable, since both were exploring different segments of the Chinese intellectual tradition. Ricci's thoroughgoing adaptation to Confucianism and his radical rejection of Taoism could not but conflict with Ruggieri's thesis that there was a closer affinity between the Tao of Chinese thought and the incarnate Logos of the New Testament.

Actually, in their deliberate and arduous efforts to restate the Christian gospel in Chinese thought-forms, they were not innovators. They were merely adopting the same approach toward Chinese thought that the early church fathers had adopted toward Greek Philosophy. Their objective was to identify all the elements of truth which the Chinese literary heritage had contained, to supplement them with the insights of the Western understanding of the natural order, and then to introduce what they saw as the wholly distinctive truths of the Christian Gospel.

In 1584 Ricci published his first Chinese book: Tien Zhu Shi-lu (天主實錄 The True Account of God). In it he discussed the existence and attributes of God, as well as his providence. He explained how a man might know God through the natural law, the Mosaic law, and the Christian law. He wrote of the incarnation of Christ the Word and discussed the sacraments.

In his diary, he wrote: "From morning to night, I am kept busy discussing the doctrines of our faith. many desire to forsake their idols and become Christians". His missionary directives were explicit:
Jesuits in China
"The work of evangelization, of making Christians, should be carried on both in Peking and in the provinces… following the methods of pacific penetration and cultural adaptation.
Europeanism is to be shunned.
Contact with Europeans, specifically with the Portuguese in Macaumarker, should be reduced to a minimum.
Strive to make good Christians rather than multitudes of indifferent Christians… Eventually when we have a goodly number of Christians, then perhaps it would not be impossible to present some memorial to the Emperor asking that the right of Christians to practice their religion be accorded, inasmuch as is not contrary to the laws of China.
Our Lord will make known and discover to us little by little the appropriate means for bringing about in this matter His holy will.

When Ricci died (1610) more than two thousand Chinese from all levels of society had confessed their faith in Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, however, Ricci's Jesuits were largely men of their times, firmly convinced that they should also promote Western objectives while planting the Roman Catholic Church in China. As a result, they became involved with the colonial and imperialistic designs of Portugalmarker.

Just as Ricci himself entered China at the age of 30 and spent the remaining 27 years of his life in this country, eventually dying in Beijing, his followers also entered China to stay there for the rest of their life. This level of commitment was necessitated both by logistical reasons (travel from Europe to China took many months, and sometimes years; learning the country's language and culture was even more time-consuming). When a Jesuit from China did travel to Europe, he typically did it as a representative ("procurator") of the China Mission, entrusted with the task of recruiting more Jesuit priests to come to China, ensuring continued support for the Mission from the Church's central authorities, and creating favorable publicity for the Mission and its policies by publishing both scholarly and popular literature about China and Jesuits.

Dynastic change

The fall of the Ming Dynastymarker (1644) and the conquest of the entire China by the Manchu Qingmarker regime brought some difficult years for the Jesuits in China. While some Jesuits fathers managed to impress Manchu commanders with a display of western science of ecclesiastical finery and to be politely invited to join the new order (as did Johann Adam Schall von Bell in Beijing in 1644, or Martino Martini in Wenzhoumarker ca. 1645-46), others endured imprisonment and privations, as did Lodovico Buglio and Gabriel de Magalhaes in Sichuanmarker in 1647-48 or Alvaro Semedo in Cantonmarker in 1649.

During the several years of war between the newly established Qing and the Ming loyalist in southern China, it was not uncommon for some Jesuits to find themselves on different sides of the front lines: while Adam Schall was an important counselor of the Qing Shunzhi Emperor in Beijing, Michał Boym travelled from the the jungles of south-western China to Romemarker, carrying the plea of help from the court of the last Southern Ming emperor Zhu Youlang, and returned with the Pope's response that promised prayer, rather than military assstance.

French Jesuits

In 1685, the French king Louis XIV sent a mission of five Jesuits "mathematicians" to China in an attempt to break the Portuguese predominance: Jean de Fontaney (1643-1710), Joachim Bouvet(1656-1730), Jean-François Gerbillon (1654-1707), Louis Le Comte (1655-1728) and Claude de Visdelou (1656-1737).

Travel of Chinese Christians to Europe

While not too many 17th-century Jesuits ever went back from China to Europe, it was not uncommon for them to be accompanied by young Chinese Christians. Among the first recorded Chinese travelers to Europe was Andreas Zheng or Zhen (Wade-Giles: Cheng or Chen An-te-lo), who reached Venicemarker and Romemarker with Michał Boym in 1652-55. He returned to Asia with Boym, whom he buried when the Jesuit died near the Vietnam-China border. Andreas, along with another Chinese traveller who was called Matthaeus Sina in Latin (not positively identified, but possibly the person who traveled from China to Europe overland with Johann Grueber) contributed to the first European publication of the Nestorian Stele inscription.

Better known is the European trip of Shen Fo-tsung in 1684–1685, who was presented to king Louis XIV on September 15, 1684, and also met with king James II. becoming the first recorded instance of a Chinese man visiting Britain. The king was so delighted by this visit that he had his portrait made, and had it hung in his bedroom. Later, Arcadio Huang, another Chinese Jesuit, would also visit France and initiate the learning of Chinese language there.

Scientific exchange

The Jesuits introduced Western science and astronomy, then undergoing its own revolution, to China. "Jesuits were accepted in late Ming court circles as foreign literati, regarded as impressive especially for their knowledge of astronomy, calendar-making, mathematics, hydraulics, and geography." In 1627, the Jesuit Johann Schreck produced the first book to present Western mechanical knowledge to a Chinese audience, Diagrams and explanations of the wonderful machines of the Far West. This influence worked in both directions:

Sabatino de Ursis (1575-1620) worked with Matteo Ricci on the Chinese translation of Euclid's Elements, published books in Chinese on Western hydraulics, and by predicting an eclipse which Chinese astronomers had not anticipated, opened the door to the reworking of the Chinese calendar using Western calculation techniques.

Johann Adam Schall (1591-1666), a German Jesuit missionary to Chinamarker organized successful missionary work, and became the trusted counsellor of the Shunzhi emperor of the Qing dynastymarker. He was created a mandarin, and held an important post in connection with the mathematical school, contributing to astronomical studies and the development of the Chinese calendar. Thanks to Schall, the motions of both the sun and moon began to be calculated with sinusoids in the 1645 Shíxiàn calendar (時憲書, Book of the Conformity of Time). His position enabled him to procure from the emperor permission for the Jesuits to build churches and to preach throughout the country. The Shunzhi emperor, however, died in 1661, and Schall's circumstances at once changed. He was imprisoned and condemned to death. The sentence was not carried out, but he died after his release owing to the privations he had endured. A collection of his manuscripts remains was deposited in the Vatican Librarymarker.

A page from Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences et les arts des Chinois, 1780.
The Jesuits also endeavoured to build churches and demonstrate Western architectural feats. In 1605, they established the Nantangmarker (Southern) Church, and in 1655 the Dongtang (Eastern) Church. In 1703 they established the Beitangmarker (Northern) Church near Zhongnanhaimarker (opposite the former Beijing Library), on a land bestowed by Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynastymarker to the Jesuit in 1694, following his recovery from illness thanks to medical expertise of Fathers Jean-François Gerbillon and Joachim Bouvet.

In the early years of the 18th century Jesuit cartographers travelled all over the Chinese Empire, performing astronomical observations to determine latitude and longitude (relative to Beijing) of various locations and drawing maps. Their work was summarized in a four-volume Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise published by Jean-Baptiste Du Halde in Paris in 1735, and a map compiled by Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville (published 1734).

The Jesuits were also very active in transmitting Chinese knowledge to Europe, such as translating Confucius's works into European languages. Ricci had already started to report on the thoughts of Confucius, and Fathers Philippe Couplet and Prospero Intorcetta published Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, the life and works of Confucius in Latin in 1687. It is thought that such works had considerable importance on European thinkers of the period, particularly those who were interested by the integration of the system of morality of Confucius into Christianity.

Chinese sciences and technologies were also reported to the West by Jesuits. The French Jesuit Joseph-Marie Amiot wrote a Manchu dictionary Dictionnaire tatare-mantchou-français (Paris, 1789), a work of great value, the language having been previously quite unknown in Europe. He also wrote a 15 volume Treaty regarding the history, sciences and art of the Chinese, published in Paris in 1776-1791 (Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences et les arts des Chinois, 15 volumes, Paris, 1776-1791). His Vie de Confucius, the twelfth volume of that collection, was more complete and accurate than any predecessors.

Chinese Rites Controversy

In the early 18th century, a dispute within the Catholic Church, arose over whether Chinese folk religion rituals and offerings to the emperor constituted paganism or idolatry. This tension was led to what became known as the "Rites Controversy," a bitter struggle that broke out after Ricci's death and lasted for over a hundred years.

At first the focal point of dissension was Ricci's contention that the ceremonial rites of Confucianism and ancestor worship were primarily social and political in nature and could be practised by converts. The Dominicans charged that they were idolatrous; all acts of respect to the sage and one's ancestors were nothing less than the worship of demons. A Dominican carried the case to Romemarker, where it dragged on and on, largely because no one in the Vatican knew Chinese culture sufficiently to provide the pope with a ruling. Naturally, the Jesuits appealed to the Chinese emperor, who endorsed Ricci's position. Understandably, he was confused: missionaries attacked missionaries in his very capital! Should he expel them all?

The timely discovery of the Nestorian monument in 1623 enabled the Jesuits to strengthen their position with the court by meeting an objection the Chinese often expressed - that Christianity was a new religion. They could now point to concrete evidence that a thousand years earlier the Christian gospel had been proclaimed in China; it was not a new but an old faith. The emperor then decided to expel all missionaries who failed to support Ricci's position.

The Spanish Franciscans, however, did not retreat without further struggle. Eventually they persuaded Pope Clement XI that the Jesuits were making dangerous accommodations to Chinese sensibilities. In 1704 they proscribed against the ancient use of the words Shang Di (supreme emperor) and Tien (heaven) for God. Naturally the Jesuits appealed this decision.

The controversy raged on. In 1742 Pope Benedict XIV officially opposed the Jesuits, forbade all worship of ancestors, and terminated further discussion of the issue. This decree was repealed in 1938. But the methodology of Matteo Ricci remained suspect until 1958, when Pope John XXIII, by decree in his encyclical Princeps Pastorum, proposed that Ricci become "the model of missionaries."

In the intervening years the Ming Dynastymarker collapsed (1644), to be replaced by the "non-scholarly" and foreign Manchus. The influence of the various Catholic missionary orders began to wane. Pope Clement XIV dissolved the Society of Jesus in 1773. The withdrawal from China of this dynamic segment of the missionary force exposed the church to successive waves of persecution. Although many Chinese Christians were put to death and the congregation scattered, the church continued to manifest a "tough inward vitality" and kept growing.

Among the last Jesuits to work at the Chinese court were Louis Antoine de Poirot (1735-1813) and Guiseppe Panzi (1734-before 1812) who worked for Emperor Qianlong as painters and translators. From the 19th century, the role of the Jesuits in China was largely taken over by the Paris Foreign Missions Society.

See also



  • Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-521-43519-6.
  • Agustín Udías, Searching the Heavens and the Earth: The History of Jesuit Observatories (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003)
  • Lorry Swerts, Mon Van Genechten, Koen De Ridder, Mon Van Genechten (1903-1974): Flemish Missionary and Chinese Painter : Inculturation of Chinese Christian Art, Leuven University Press, 2002 ISBN 9058672220 ISBN 9789058672223
  • Stephen K. Batalden, Kathleen Cann, John Dean, Sowing the word: the cultural impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1804-2004 Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2004 ISBN 1905048084 ISBN 9781905048083
  • Thomas Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, (Washington, DC: Regenery, 2005), ISBN 0-89526-038-7
  • Wigal, Donald (2000) Historic Maritime Maps, Parkstone Press, New York, ISBN 1859957501

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