The Gospel Flows Through the Yuan Dynasty (Part 3)

In Part 2 of this article, I have discussed about Kublai Khan’s affinity and favourable predisposition towards Christianity. I have also revealed to you how both Kublai Khan and Marco Polo have indirectly contributed to the introduction and consequent propagation of Catholic Christianity into the land of China. Hence, in this portion of the article, I will now endeavour to reveal to you some information pertaining to how Catholic Christianity made its first ever appearance in the land of China during the Yuan Dynasty and how it subsequently succeeded in garnering tremendous success amongst the people of China before the Yuan Dynasty came to an end.

As I’ve mentioned in the last part of this article, the Polos’ act of bringing back to Rome a letter from Kublai Khan and intriguing stories about China indirectly led to increasing interest within the Roman Catholic Church to bring Catholic Christianity into China, although no proactive action was initiated after that. Nevertheless, this interest was once again revived by the grandson of Hulagu Khan and the fourth ruler of the Mongol Empire’s Ilkhanate in Persia, Arghun Khan.

A painting of Kublai Khan when he was in his younger days

In the year 1287, Arghun Khan dispatched an embassy from the Ilkhanate to the Pope in Rome, entrusting the position of leadership of this embassy to a Nestorian Christian monk of Mongol descent from China by the name of Rabban Bar Sauma (拉宾扫务玛, lā bīn săo wù mă). In the letter brought by this embassy, Arghun requested, amongst others, that Catholic missionaries be sent to the Yuan imperial court to propagate the religion in China, since Kublai Khan himself was kindly predisposed towards Christianity. Upon receiving the letter, Catholic interest in introducing and propagating Catholic Christianity into Yuan China was revived once again, this time followed by proactive efforts in fulfilling this interest.

A map of Rabban Bar Sauma's journey from Dadu, China to Rome

After receiving the letter from Arghun, Pope Nicholas IV assigned a Catholic missionary of the Franciscan order with the important mission of bringing Catholic Christianity to the Far Eastern land of China. This prominent Catholic missionary was none other than John of Montecorvino (孟高维诺, mèng gāo wéi nuò), also known by his Italian name of Giovanni da Montecorvino.

Pope Nicholas IV (1227 - 1292)

John left Rome in 1289 and arrived in China in 1294, only to find out that Kublai Khan had just passed away the same year itself. The throne of the Yuan Dynasty was thus succeeded by Kublai’s grandson, Temur Oljeytu Khan (元成宗奇渥温铁穆耳, yuán chéngzōng jī wò wēn tiĕ mù ĕr), also known as Emperor Chengzong (成宗, chéngzōng). Emperor Chengzong welcomed John warmly into the Yuan imperial court in Dadu and encouraged him to settle there. Though John did try to invite the emperor to accept Catholic Christianity into his life, the latter refused to do so. Nonetheless, Emperor Chengzong did not hinder John from propagating the religion throughout his Chinese domain, but instead generously encouraged John to do so, especially in the later years of John’s stay in China.

In the subsequent years of John’s stay in China, he was able to garner remarkable success in introducing and spreading Catholic Christianity into the land of China, even more so with the support of the Yuan imperial court under Emperor Chengzong. Within a few years’ time, that is in 1299, John had established a church in Dadu with an estimated total of 6000 members baptized into the Catholic faith. In 1305, he built a second church in Dadu just directly opposite the imperial palace, along with workshops and dwelling places accommodating 200 people.

Temur Oljeytu Khan, also known as Emperor Chengzong (成宗) (1265 - 1307)

Besides all these, John also bought 150 young boys, ranging from ages 7 to 11, from non-Christian parents. These boys he baptized and taught them the languages of Greek and Latin. He also wrote hymns and psalms for them and trained them to sing in the church choir as well as to serve in the church mass. These boys faithfully sang in the choir and were also engaged in writing psalms. Frequently did Emperor Chengzong visit the church in Dadu, and he was greatly delighted to hear the choir chanting and singing the psalms and hymns.

Translation of the New Testament and the Book of Psalms in the Bible was not a simple task. Nevertheless, John undertook this task by familiarizing himself with the Mongol language used in Yuan China at that time. He eventually translated the two portions of the Bible mentioned above into the Mongol language. Moreover, he also prepared some pictures depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible with descriptions in Persian, Latin and Mongol. All these he did to ease the process of educating the Christians in Dadu with the teachings from the Bible.

An excerpt from the modern-day Mongol Bible

For 11 years, John worked alone to preach and spread Christianity in the land of China. Finally, Arnold of Cologne, a friar from the German province of Cologne, was sent by the Pope to assist John in China. Arnold arrived in China in 1304, thereby helping John in his mission of propagating Christianity and tending to the spiritual needs of the Christians in China under the Yuan Dynasty. Throughout John’s stay and mission in China, he received considerable amounts of financial support for his livelihood and spiritual work from Emperor Chengzong.

A depiction of John of Montecorvino (孟高维诺) (1246 - 1328)

John’s long absence from his homeland in Europe led many to believe that he was dead. Therefore, John wrote two letters, dated in 1305 and 1306 respectively, to report on his tremendous progress in propagating Catholic Christianity in China, as well as to update himself on the latest happenings in his homeland. Upon receiving John’s second letter in 1307, Pope Clement V was greatly pleased with the former’s accomplishments, after which the Pope sent seven bishops of the Franciscan order to China in order to proclaim John Archbishop of Dadu. However, out of these seven bishops, only three made it safely to Dadu in 1313, namely Gerard Albuini (哲拉德, zhé lā dé), Peregrine of Castello (裴莱格林, péi lái gé lín) and Andrew of Perugia (裴路加的安得烈, péilùjiā de āndéliè). John of Montecorvino was thus proclaimed Archbishop of Dadu, in which he held this position until his death in 1328.

Pope Clement V (1264 - 1314)

Not only did John establish churches in the capital city of Dadu, he also set up churches and mission centres in other large commercial and coastal cities in China. Such churches and mission centres were set up in the cities of Yangzhou, Hangzhou (杭州, hángzhōu), Quanzhou and Xiamen (厦门, xiàmén). There were also significant Armenian communities dwelling in Dadu and Quanzhou at that time, most of which profess Christianity. John and all the other bishops also ministered to these communities. In fact, various sources state that the church in Quanzhou at that time was donated by a wealthy Armenian lady, who also provided much for the needs of the said church.

Now that there were more bishops sent to assist John in China, he could expand his missionary activity even further. Soon after the three bishops’ arrival in China in 1313, John decided to establish an Episcopal See (the official seat or office of a bishop) in Quanzhou, in which Gerard Albuini was appointed as the first Bishop of Quanzhou. This position was succeeded by Peregrine of Castello in 1318, followed by Andrew of Perugia in 1322. Besides ministering to the local Armenian Christian communities in Quanzhou, the bishops also preached the gospel to the local Chinese communities there, subsequently baptizing many of them into the Catholic Christian faith.

In the final part of this article, I will be covering more on the spread and organization of Catholic Christianity in Yuan China shortly before and after the death of John of Montecorvino in 1328, as well as the ensuing deterioration of both Catholic and Nestorian Christianity in China until their collapse in 1368, when the Yuan Dynasty fell into the hands of the Ming Dynasty.

A Chinese painting depicting John of Montecorvino (孟高维诺)

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