Christianity with a Chinese Face – Late Ming & Early Qing Dynasties (Part 5a)

(Previous part)

The spread of Catholic Christianity in China during the late Ming Dynasty would not have been so successful if it wasn’t for THREE prominent figures who worked tirelessly in order to ensure that the gospel was available for all to learn and receive. Collectively, these three prominent figures were known as the Three Great Pillars of Chinese Catholicism (中国圣教三大柱石, Zhōngguó Shèngjiào Sāndà Zhùshí).

So, why were these three prominent figures given such a title? Basically, this title is derived from a passage in the Bible, in Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

“James, Cephas and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me.”

Galatians 2: 9a



Apostles James, Cephas (Peter) and John worked tirelessly in spreading the gospel and expanding the early church in Jerusalem in the first century AD. Likewise, the Three Great Pillars of Chinese Catholicism also played instrumental roles in spreading the gospel and expanding the “early church” in Ming China. Hence, it was because of such a similarity that the three apostles were somehow linked to the Three Great Pillars of Chinese Catholicism, thus the latter were given such a title.

The "Three Pillars" as mentioned by Apostle Paul in the Bible
From left: Apostle James, Apostle Peter & Apostle John 

Now, let me introduce to you the Three Great Pillars of Chinese Catholicism. They are none other than:

1.      Xu Guangqi (徐光启, Xú Guāngqĭ)
2.      Li Zhizao (李之藻, Lĭ Zhīzăo)
3.      Yang Tingyun (杨廷筠, Yáng Tíngyún)

In the rest of this article, I will be giving you a brief biography on each of the Three Pillars, as well as their contributions to the expansion of the “early church” in Ming China.

Xu Guangqi (徐光启) (1562 – 1633)

Born in Shanghai in 1562 to a relatively poor merchant family, life has been extremely challenging for the young Xu Guangqi. His father was a merchant, but the family plunged into poverty when Xu’s father was compelled to contribute a large sum of money to fund local defenses against Japanese pirate attacks. Despite hailing from a poverty-stricken family, Xu managed to enter a school and receive proper education, which opened a path for him to help his family out of hardship.

In 1581, at the age of 19, Xu passed the lowest-level (county-level) imperial examination, thus he obtained the licentiate degree, or Xiucai degree (秀才, Xiùcái). He then proceeded to take the provincial-level imperial examination, but unfortunately failed four successive times. He then suffered the loss of his mother in 1592. To add to the grief, he failed another attempt at the examination in 1594. Xu finally managed to pass the examination in 1597, thus enabling him to obtain the provincial degree, or Juren degree (举人, Jŭrén).

A painting depicting Father Matteo Ricci (left) and Xu Guangqi (徐光启, Xú Guāngqĭ)

In 1604, Xu went to the capital city of Beijing to sit for the metropolitan imperial examination, which was the highest-level imperial examination in Ming China. He passed this examination after several attempts as well, subsequently attaining the metropolitan degree, or Jinshi degree (进士, Jìnshì). His excellent achievements in the metropolitan examination enabled him to be exclusively selected to become a member of the Hanlin Academy (翰林院, Hànlín Yuàn), a prestigious academy for Confucian thought of which its membership is limited exclusively to an elite group of Confucian scholars.

Xu rose very quickly up the ladder of academic and political authority. After joining the Hanlin Academy, he was appointed a corrector in the academy in 1607. For the rest of his life, he held many notable and influential positions in the Ming imperial government. Among them were Assistant Secretary of the Inspectorate of Imperial Instruction, senior Vice-President of the Board of Rites and President of the Board of Rites. All these positions, along with many other notable posts, made Xu an extremely powerful and influential government official and scholar.

A bust of Xu Guangqi in Shanghai

Xu’s first meeting with a Jesuit missionary occurred in 1596, when he met Father Lazarus Cattaneo (郭居, Guō Jūjìng) in Shaoguan. Four years later, in 1600, while on his way to Beijing to sit for the metropolitan imperial examination, Xu had the privilege of meeting the renowned Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci in Nanjing. He was greatly amazed at Father Ricci’s wealth of wisdom and virtue, subsequently offering great respect for the Jesuit missionary. It was from Father Ricci that Xu got to learn more about the Christian faith and its teachings.

Despite being knowledgeable in Confucian philosophy, Xu’s interest in Christianity grew by the day. Unlike most scholars of his era, Xu did not simply brush off Christianity as nonsense, but instead made an effort to delve more into its teachings and ideas. After failing an attempt at the metropolitan imperial examination in Beijing, Xu journeyed back to Nanjing in 1603 to meet Father Ricci once again, only to find out that the great Jesuit missionary had already left for Beijing. Instead, Xu met another Jesuit missionary by the name of Jean de Rocha (罗如望, Luó Rúwàng). Xu expressed his interest for Christianity and was subsequently presented with a copy of Father Ricci’s “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven” (Tianzhu Shiyi), which I’ve mentioned in the previous parts of this article. After reading the book and studying the Christian faith diligently, Xu finally accepted Christianity and was baptized in the same year in Nanjing by Father de Rocha.

Father Matteo Ricci & Xu Guangqi

Xu contributed greatly to the expansion of Christianity in Ming China. He was a close friend of Matteo Ricci, a faithful patron of the Jesuit missionaries, a staunch believer of the Christian faith and a firm adherer of Confucian principles. Xu was frequently hailed as the perfect model of harmony between Christianity, Confucianism and Chinese culture. He worked very closely with Matteo Ricci, translating many scientific and religious texts from Europe into Chinese. Xu also assisted in translating several Confucian texts into Latin, so that they may be read in the Western World as well.

Re-enactment of the lives of Xu Guangqi and Father Ricci in a documentary

Xu Guangqi led more than 200 people to the Catholic Christian faith, many of whom were his family members, relatives, friends and servants. His residence became the first de facto Catholic church in his hometown of Shanghai, whereby many gatherings and Masses were held there. Due to the ever-increasing number of people attending such gatherings in his residence, Xu later decided to build a proper church near his residence in order to accommodate all the attendants. Besides this, he frequently donated lots of land and money from his family property for the purposes of constructing churches, orphanages, schools and libraries.

Being considered as one of the greatest Chinese Christians of the late Ming era, Xu faithfully defended Catholic Christianity when it was under persecution in 1616. He wrote a petition to the Emperor on behalf of Catholic Christians in China, stating with numerous evidences that Christianity was perfectly in harmony with Chinese culture and Confucian principles, and that it also encouraged loyalty to the state and the Emperor. He also wrote many eloquent works, explaining how Christianity is in line with and not contrary to many basic principles of Confucian philosophy and Chinese culture. His writings proved to be influential among the scholarly ranks of the late Ming Dynasty.

A stamp issued in honour of Xu Guangqi, issued by the Republic of China (Taiwan)

Not only was Xu a devout believer of the Catholic Christian faith, he was also highly enthusiastic about mathematics, geography, agriculture and astronomy. Being a close friend of Matteo Ricci, Xu often discussed such matters with him. As such, their discussions would often go way beyond the scope of religion. Xu wrote various works on mathematics, astronomy and agriculture based on Western knowledge in such fields. These works greatly contributed to the development of knowledge in such fields among the Chinese. On top of all these, Xu also contributed to the reformation of the Chinese calendar in 1629 using Western knowledge of astronomy and mathematics.

Xu Guangqi died in 1633 and was buried in his hometown of Shanghai. His tomb still stands today in Xujiahui (徐家汇, Xújiāhuì), Shanghai. Even after his death, his Christian legacy was carried on by many of his descendants up to the 19th century, most of whom were devout Catholic Christians.

Tomb of Xu Guangqi in Xujiahui (徐家汇, Xújiāhuì), Shanghai

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