The Gospel Flows Through the Yuan Dynasty (Part 4)

In the preceding part of this article, you have read about how Catholic Christianity was first introduced into the land of China during the reign of Emperor Chengzong and how it spread rapidly, subsequently gaining tremendous success in China, with John of Montecorvino being appointed as the first Archbishop of Dadu (Khanbaliq/modern day Beijing). In addition to that, an Episcopal See (bishopric) was also set up in Quanzhou, along with the creation of the position of Bishop of Quanzhou.

In this final part of this article, you will now be reading more about the spread and organization of Catholic Christianity shortly before and after the death of John of Montecorvino, as well as the subsequent deterioration and collapse of both Nestorian and Catholic Christianity as the Yuan Dynasty came to an end.

Besides John of Montecorvino, Gerard Albuini, Peregrine of Castello and Andrew of Perugia, there were also other Catholic bishops, friars and missionaries entering China during the Yuan Dynasty, though many of their names remain either anonymous or obscure in both Chinese and European historical records. Amongst them was a friar and Catholic missionary known as Odoric of Pordenone (鄂多立克, è duō lì kè), also called Odorico Mattiussi, who is famed for his descriptions of Chinese culture to the Western world at that time.

Odoric of Pordenone (鄂多立克) (1286 - 1331)

Together with Friar James of Ireland, Odoric left Europe for the East in order to preach and spread Catholic Christianity. Having travelled through Persia, India, Sumatra and Champa (Vietnam), they finally reached Guangzhou (广州, guăngzhōu), China in 1322. They travelled through many Chinese cities before ending up in Dadu.

In Odoric’s descriptions of China, he noted the existence of many friars and missionaries in China working in various cities and attaining great successes in these cities. He also noted the existence of large numbers of Christians in Yangzhou, where there were three Nestorian Christian churches as well. Besides, he mentioned in his descriptions Catholic convents and significant Christian communities in the city of Hangzhou, whereby in the same city there was a local high-ranking official who had also accepted Catholic Christianity.

After reaching Dadu in 1325, Odoric stayed there for 3 years, assisting John of Montecorvino in preaching the gospel and managing affairs in the church there. After the 3 years, he and his companion made their way back to Europe. Upon reaching back home in Italy in 1330, Odoric dictated his experiences whilst he was travelling in China, which were then written down and documented. Many sources state that his dictation sounded more like a “tourist on holiday” rather than a missionary, as it did not reveal much about his missionary and spiritual work in China, but rather more on his observations of the structure and culture in many of the Chinese cities. Despite this fact, his dictation, which was documented down, later became an indispensable source of information for the Western world on culture and customs practiced in China, even more so during that time when knowledge about China in the West was scarce.

A Yuan Dynasty painting depicting a horse

China at that time was greatly in need of more bishops and missionaries to assist the existing bishops there in their spiritual work. Hence, Odoric attempted to seek permission from the Pope in order to return to China with a group of fifty missionaries so as to enhance the spiritual work there. Nevertheless, Odoric died in 1331 before he could make it back to China.

In 1328, John of Montecorvino passed away, leaving the seat of the Archbishop of Dadu vacant. His passing was mourned for by both Christians and non-Christians alike in Dadu. He was honoured as a saint by both Christians and non-Christians, as he had not only contributed much to the propagation of Catholic Christianity in China, but also showed much kindness to non-Christians in Dadu and China as a whole. Subsequently, Pope John XXII appointed Nicholas of Botras to succeed John of Montecorvino as Archbishop of Dadu in 1333, but it was said that Nicholas never reached Dadu.

Pope John XXII (1249 - 1334)

By 1333, the Yuan Dynasty throne was succeeded by Toghun Temur (妥懽帖睦尔, tuŏ huān tiē mù ĕr), also known as Ukhaantu Khan (乌哈笃汗, wū hā dŭ hàn) or Emperor Huizong (惠宗, huì zōng) of the Yuan Dynasty. John of Montecorvino’s death had, by then, made a deep impression on the churches and Catholic Christian communities in China. This was because they were left without a spiritual guide and leader, as Nicholas of Botras, who was appointed as John’s successor, never reached Dadu.

In order to resolve this problem, Emperor Huizong wrote a letter to the Pope in 1336, subsequently sending an embassy from Dadu to deliver this letter. In the letter, Emperor Huizong wrote that the churches and Christian communities in China had been left without a spiritual head and guide for 8 years since John’s death. Therefore, he requested that a successor be appointed to succeed John as Archbishop of Dadu, besides asking the Pope to send his blessings. Along with the emperor’s letters, the embassy also brought with them some letters from Persian Christian nobles in the Yuan imperial court. In these accompanying letters, these nobles made a similar appeal to the Pope, adding that the vacancy of the seat of the Archbishop of Dadu had brought embarrassment to Christians in China.
Toghun Temur (妥懽帖睦尔), also known as Emperor Huizong (惠宗) (1320 - 1370)

The embassy from Emperor Huizong arrived at Avignon, France in 1338 and delivered the letters to Pope Benedict XII. The Pope thus responded favourably and dispatched a party of fifty missionaries, headed by John of Marignolli (约翰•马黎诺里, yuē hàn mă lí nuò lĭ). While this party numbered fifty when they departed Avignon, it numbered only 32 by the time it reached Dadu. The party was welcomed into the Yuan imperial court with pomp and splendour, where John performed a ceremonial blessing for the emperor. At the same time, John and his party presented a gift of goodwill from the Pope to the emperor, which was a Western war horse so huge compared to all the other Mongol and Chinese horses that it amazed the emperor himself.

Pope Benedict XII (around 1280s - 1342)

While John and his party were in China, they assisted the existing Christian communities and missionaries there in running their spiritual affairs and administrations. Nevertheless, since John and his party were not granted any authority by the Pope to proclaim a new Archbishop of Dadu, they did not endeavour to revive the archbishopric (archbishop’s office) there. John remained in Dadu for a few years under Emperor Huizong’s generous provisions, after which he moved to Quanzhou and Xiamen before leaving China in 1347 and arriving back in Avignon in 1353.

Whilst still in Dadu, Emperor Huizong had made another request to the Pope through John for more Christian missionaries to be sent to China. Hence, this request from the emperor was conveyed to the Pope when John arrived back in Avignon. Unfortunately, something occurred which totally prevented the Pope from satisfying the Yuan emperor’s request.

The "Palais des Papes", or Palace of the Popes in Avignon, France

The Black Death spread extremely rapidly throughout the entire European continent from 1347 to 1353, claiming the lives of millions in an instant. This major phenomenon was caused by the highly infectious bubonic plague disease, brought about by a bacterium known as Yersinia pestis. It was said that as a result of this fatal malady, the population of the entire European continent was severely reduced by 30 – 60%. Whatever the death toll was, the Roman Catholic Church was severely maimed, with the remaining number of staff and clergy too few to sustain the Church in Europe itself, let alone to dispatch more missionaries to China. As a consequence, the Pope made no response to Emperor Huizong’s request.

Yersinia pestis - the bacterium believed to be responsible for the Black Death

While the Black Death was tearing the European continent apart, a major revolution was also occurring in the land of China simultaneously. The ethnic Han Chinese people, who were native to China, commenced an uprising against the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, which was still under the rule of Emperor Huizong (Toghun Temur) at that time. Tired of incessant suppression and the lack of efficient policies in sustaining the welfare of the people, the Han Chinese eventually launched an uprising against the Yuan Dynasty on a large scale throughout the land.

In the process of rebelling against the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, the Han Chinese seized control of the key city of Quanzhou in 1362. In doing so, they also put to death the last Bishop of Quanzhou, James of Florence. Subsequently, the rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty grew stronger day by day until the dynasty was severely crushed and the Ming Dynasty was established in 1368.

The establishment of the Ming Dynasty had an adverse effect on the spread and development of Christianity in China as well. While still under the Yuan Dynasty, most of the Christians in China were either Mongols or foreigners, namely Persians, Central Asians and Europeans. Few ethnic Han Chinese were actually part of the church or Christian communities in China at that time. On top of that, many of the Christian missionaries working in the various Chinese cities also received continual support and generosity from the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty. As a result, Christianity was closely associated with the Mongol rulers and foreigners in the eyes of the Chinese.

Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) / Emperor Hongwu (洪武), the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty

When the Ming Dynasty was set up, the Ming rulers aggressively and actively expelled all the Mongols and the foreigners who were closely associated with them out of the land of China. Since Christianity was a religion closely associated with the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, it was not spared either. Christianity, both Nestorian and Catholic, were severely suppressed and persecuted against by the Ming rulers, with all missionaries and clergymen driven out of China. Left without proper spiritual guidance and leadership, the local churches in China gradually died a slow and sad death.

As the Ming Dynasty progressed and flourished, Christianity gradually became less and less significant until it became extinct from the land of China. However, shortly before the Ming Dynasty came to an end in 1644, another wave of missionaries entered the glorious Middle Kingdom, this time garnering much more success than it ever had……

A church designed according to Chinese architecture

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