Christianity with a Chinese Face – Late Ming & Early Qing Dynasties (Part 2)

Back in Part 1 of this article, I’ve discussed about the beginnings of Catholic Christianity’s reintroduction into China during the late Ming Dynasty. During this era, the renowned Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier had attempted to bring Catholic Christianity into the land of China, but failed to do so, since he died on Shangchuan Island before he could ever reach mainland China. Nevertheless, it was Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri who succeeded in breaking through the Chinese cultural barrier and pioneered the Jesuit missionary activities in Ming China. In this part of the article, I will be discussing more about their contributions to the expansion of Catholic Christianity in Ming China.

While studying the Chinese language and customs in Macao, Fathers Ricci and Ruggieri frequently travelled to major cities in Guangdong Province (广东省, Guăngdōng Shĕng), such as Guangzhou (广州, Guăngzhōu) and Zhaoqing (肇庆, Zhàoqìng). There, they established good relationships with the local Chinese authorities and officials. They tried their best to establish Jesuit missionary centres in these cities. Finally, in 1583, they were officially granted permission to settle in Zhaoqing upon the invitation of the city’s governor, Wang Pan (王泮, Wángpàn). This permission was granted by the Governor-General of Guangdong and Guangxi, Guo Yingpin (郭应聘, Guō Yìngpìn). At that time, Zhaoqing was the administrative capital of Guangdong Province and the seat of the Governor-General.

Map of China & the locations of key places in Matteo Ricci's mission

The six years that Fathers Ricci and Ruggieri spent in the city of Zhaoqing was indeed productive. Upon settling there, they established a Jesuit residence which attracted many members of the public. Besides, they also adopted the dresses of Buddhist monks, shaving off their heads and beards at the same time.

The Jesuit residence that the two missionaries set up in Zhaoqing became a magnet of attraction for many scholars and members of the public in those six years. This was because of the “strange” books, paintings and contraptions that were found there. When entering China, Fathers Ricci and Ruggieri had brought along with them many books, oil paintings, scientific instruments and mechanical gadgets from Europe, of which these items were never before seen by the Chinese at that time. Filled with intrigue and curiosity, many Chinese frequently flocked to the residence to learn more about these items, which included mechanical clocks, sundials, glass prisms, oil paintings, astronomical devices, mathematical tools, musical instruments, geographical apparatus, maps and books on geography, architecture and astronomy.

Amongst all those items, the thing that intrigued the Chinese the most was a map of the world. Chinese maps at that time featured only the land of China and a few other nearby nations which were known to the Chinese. In other words, almost the whole map was filled with China. The Chinese of that era believed that China was at the centre of the world (hence the name Middle Kingdom) and all other nations around it were uncivilized. Hence, upon seeing Ricci and Ruggieri’s map of the world, they were surprised to see that China only occupied a small portion of the entire world and that there were so many other nations and regions that were unknown to them. Following this, Father Ricci redrew the world map, adding in Chinese the names of various places around the world. This new work was known as Yudi Shanhai Quantu (舆地山海全图, Yúdì Shānhăi Quántú) in Chinese and copies were distributed to the Governor of Zhaoqing, his friends and many members of the public.

Yudi Shanhai Quantu (舆地山海全图, Yúdì Shānhăi Quántú), a renowned map by Matteo Ricci

Besides this, there was also a painting in the residence which frequently aroused the curiosity of the Chinese. This was a painting of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. The two missionaries never failed to explain the true meaning of the painting to all the Chinese who inquired about it.

As time passed, the Chinese also became interested to learn more about the meanings of the religious paintings and Bibles which Fathers Ricci and Ruggieri had brought along with them. Due to this increasing interest for Christianity, the missionaries then printed Chinese leaflets containing a summary of the Christian teachings and a compilation of the Ten Commandments known as “The Ten Commandments of the Lord of Heaven, as Transmitted by our Ancestors” (祖传天主十诫, Zŭchuán Tiānzhŭ Shíjiè). Officials, scholars and commoners were extremely glad to accept copies of these. Gradually, thousands of copies were distributed in the Chinese society, thus enhancing further the reintroduction of Christianity into Ming China.

Indeed, success was great for the two missionaries in Zhaoqing. Many scholars and commoners expressed their desire to accept Christianity. Father Ruggieri, who concentrated his missionary efforts more amongst the commoners, managed to baptize many families in the villages within the region.

Matteo Ricci (利玛窦, Lì Mădòu) (1552 - 1610)

Nevertheless, in 1588, Father Ruggieri returned to his homeland of Italy, upon the order of Father Alessandro Valignano, who was overseeing the Jesuit missionary activities in Ming China at that time. Father Ruggieri was sent on an important mission – to obtain the approval of the Pope in Rome to send ambassadors to the Ming Emperor for the purpose of seeking the Emperor’s permission for preaching Christianity in China. Father Valignano believed that only with the Emperor’s approval will Christianity be more secure in China. Nonetheless, the mission failed due to the high turnover of the papal seat at that time. Father Ruggieri never returned to China after that, being asked by his superiors to remain in Italy.

After residing in Zhaoqing for six years, Matteo Ricci was finally expelled from the city in 1589 by the new Governor-General of Guangdong and Guangxi, Liu Jiwen (刘继文, Liú Jìwén). Nevertheless, the Governor-General granted him the permission to move to Shaoguan (韶关, Sháoguān), which is located north of Zhaoqing within Guangdong Province. In Shaoguan, Father Ricci built his residence and a church according to Chinese architecture. He also continuously received numerous visitors, both from the educated and the common classes of society. All of them were interested to learn more from him about the Western sciences, mathematics, geography and even Christianity.

It was also in this city that he decided to adopt the dress of Confucian scholars in the Ming imperial court, instead of the Buddhist monks’ dress that he has been wearing all along. This was because many people had the misconception before this that Father Ricci was preaching a new form of Buddhism rather than Christianity.

Indeed, by the time Father Ricci settled in Shaoguan, he had already become very influential within the Chinese society, especially amongst scholars and government officials. He had many friends from these upper classes who had either accepted Christianity or remained non-Christians but held high regard for the Jesuit missionary.

A painting of Matteo Ricci depicting him in the robes of a Confucian scholar

By this time also, Father Ricci had started to seriously appreciate the fact that for Catholic Christianity’s position to be truly secure in China, the Emperor’s approval and blessings had to be sought. For this very purpose, Father Ricci began his journey towards Beijing (北京, Bĕijīng), the capital of Ming China, where he hoped to seek an audience with the Ming Emperor and obtain his blessings for Christianity to be freely preached in China. Of course, this wasn’t an easy journey for the determined missionary, especially due to the fact that he was a foreigner and that the Ming Dynasty was facing various problems at that time which would eventually lead to its downfall.

For a start, Father Ricci attempted to make his way to Nanjing (南京, Nánjīng) in 1595, but he failed to obtain permission to settle there. Hence, he decided to settle temporarily in Nanchang (南昌, Nánchāng), the capital city of Jiangxi Province (江西省, Jiāngxī Shĕng). He was warmly welcomed in Nanchang by three distinguished figures, namely the Prince of Jian’an (建安王, Jiàn’ān Wáng), the Prince of Le’an (乐安王, Lè’ān Wáng) and the Governor of Jiangxi, Lu Wan’gai (陆万垓, Lù Wàn’gāi). As a sign of goodwill, the Governor granted him the permission to build a Jesuit residence and a church in Nanchang, thus enabling the missionary to gradually establish another Chinese Christian community there.

The time spent by Matteo Ricci in Nanchang proved to be one of the most important periods of his lifetime in China. It was during the three years he spent there when he produced one of his most celebrated and successful works that gained widespread attention amongst the Chinese. This work was none other than “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven” (天主实义, Tiānzhŭ Shíyì), which succeeded in not only drawing a large number of Chinese to accept Catholic Christianity, but also in sparking keen interest towards the religion amongst numerous Chinese who chose to remain as non-Christians, including an Emperor. For more information on the contents of this widely celebrated work, feel free to read Part 4 of this article.

A statue commemorating Father Matteo Ricci in Beijing

Once he had established a stable Chinese Christian community in Nanchang, Father Ricci decided to continue his journey towards the Ming capital of Beijing. Therefore, in 1598, he left Nanchang and journeyed towards the great capital, only to meet with failure in requesting for an audience with the Ming Emperor due to a war between China-Korea and Japan at that time. He was also unable to stably settle in Beijing, as he was constantly harassed by powerful court eunuchs in the capital. Following that, the great Jesuit missionary decided to head towards Nanjing for the time being.

Despite the fact that Father Ricci had failed to settle in Nanjing in 1595, he was now granted full permission and freedom to establish himself there, not without the help of his good friend, the Nanjing Minister of Rites, Wang Honghui (王弘诲, Wáng Hónghuì). Minister Wang greatly supported and protected Father Ricci throughout his stay there, besides introducing him to many eminent Chinese scholars and officials.

The time spent in Nanjing was indeed most fruitful for the determined Jesuit missionary. He received a great number of visitors to his house everyday, whereby they were all interested to learn from him about the Western sciences, geography and even Christianity. In this great Chinese city, he befriended many influential scholars, powerful court eunuchs and prominent government ministers, thus enlarging his sphere of influence in Ming China. A great number of Chinese scholars also expressed interest towards Christianity, and many were baptized by Father Ricci, along with their families.

Scholarly life in the Ming Dynasty

His hope of settling in the Ming capital of Beijing finally realized when he once again set off for the city in 1600. Father Ricci embarked on his final journey to Beijing, accompanied by a Spanish Jesuit missionary, Father Diego de Pantoja (庞迪我, Páng Díwŏ). The great missionary was, by now, more bold to make a final attempt to settle in Beijing, since he had the support of numerous influential officials, court eunuchs and scholars whom he befriended.

After much difficulty, Father Ricci’s missionary life in China reached its utmost peak when he was invited to the Ming imperial court the following year by Emperor Wanli (万历皇帝, Wànlì Huángdì). Father Ricci, however, was not granted an audience, since the reclusive Emperor Wanli refused to meet anyone except his closest family members and ministers. Despite that fact, Father Ricci was allowed to present his gifts to the Emperor, which included Ricci’s world map, a harpsichord (an old keyboard musical instrument), mechanical clocks, a painting of Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms, a prayer book and a cross embedded with gems.

Emperor Wanli was favourably disposed to the prominent Jesuit missionary. Father Ricci’s gifts greatly pleased the Emperor, and both Father Ricci and Father de Pantoja were officially granted residences in the imperial palace. Moreover, they were granted a generous amount of royal salary, which was used to fund Jesuit missionary activities in Ming China. The two missionaries also received the honour of having portraits of themselves painted by Chinese painters, under Emperor Wanli’s order.

Emperor Wanli (万历皇帝, Wànlì Huángdì) (1563 - 1620)

No doubt, Emperor Wanli was immensely fascinated with all of those gifts. Father Ricci’s map of the world interested Emperor Wanli so much that the latter requested a copy of it to be made immediately. The harpsichord and clocks also fascinated the Emperor greatly, in which he requested the missionaries to teach the court eunuchs to play the harpsichord and guide them in the maintenance of the clocks. Even the portrait of Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus wasn’t an exception. Emperor Wanli’s interest in the portrait led him to instruct one of his painters to make a copy of it using Chinese artistic style.

After living in the imperial palace for some time, Father Ricci was permitted to leave and secure a private residence nearby, in which he would be able to attain more freedom in meeting people. The generous amount of royal salary from the Ming imperial government was still sustained, thus the Jesuit missionary activities in China never lacked funding. In this residence, he spent the last years of his life attending to visitors who ceaselessly came from all over China to learn more about Christianity and the Western sciences, besides authoring numerous scientific and religious works in Chinese.

When Matteo Ricci died in 1610, he left behind a great legacy in both the propagation of Catholic Christianity and the dispersion of Western sciences in Ming China. Doubtless to say, Father Ricci viewed his life with utmost satisfaction. He believed that a great miracle had occurred in China, on the grounds that Christianity succeeded in gaining a strong foothold and commanding unbroken interest towards it in a land that virtually knew nothing about the gospel before the arrival of the great missionary. In 1608, he could report that Beijing itself consisted of more than 2000 Christians, who predominantly hailed from the scholarly classes. In the same year, he could also report that Jesuit missionary activities were thriving not only in Beijing, but also Nanjing, Nanchang, Shaoguan and Shanghai (上海, Shànghăi). Father Ricci’s legacy was continued by subsequent Jesuit missionaries, who worked tirelessly in propagating Catholic Christianity in Ming China until the extent that by the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, there existed more than 150,000 Chinese Christians in China and Jesuit missionary centres were operating in thirteen of the fifteen Chinese provinces of the era.

A stamp produced by the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) commemorating Matteo Ricci's arrival in Ming China

In the next part of this article, I will be covering on the activities of the Jesuit missionaries that succeeded Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri in China, as well as their achievements and influences in the Middle Kingdom.

1) Knight, K. (2009), Matteo Ricci, New Advent, viewed 14 January, 2010,

2) Catholic Dictionary (2007), Ricci (Matteo), Catholic Dictionary, viewed 14 January, 2010,

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