Christianity with a Chinese Face – Late Ming & Early Qing Dynasties (Part 4c)

Imperial Response – Positive

During the late years of the Ming Dynasty and the early years of the Qing Dynasty, Christianity generally received positive responses from the imperial throne. Although none of the Emperors actually accepted Christianity into their lives, many of them supported the Jesuit missionaries, Chinese Christians and churches in various ways. Prominent examples include Emperors Wanli and Chongzhen of the Ming Dynasty, as well as Emperors Shunzhi and Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty.
Emperor Shunzhi (顺治帝, Shùnzhì dì) (1638 - 1661)

Once again, it may be redundant for me to elaborate on how these emperors supported Christianity and contributed to the propagation of the gospel in China, since I’ve mentioned them in Parts 2 and 3 of this article. If you’d like to read more about it, feel free to turn to Parts 2 and 3. Nevertheless, I’ll elaborate here on certain things that I did not mention in Parts 2 and 3.

As I’ve mentioned back in Part 3, Emperor Kangxi’s unwavering support towards Christianity enabled the gospel to prosper even further in the vast empire of Qing China. He provided generous patronage for many churches in China, besides offering protection for Christianity, Jesuit missionaries and Christians in the empire. In 1692, Emperor Kangxi issued his famous Edict of Toleration of Christianity, stating:

“The Europeans are very quiet; they do not excite any disturbances in the provinces, they do no harm to anyone, they commit no crimes, and their doctrine has nothing in common with that of the false sects in the empire, nor has it any tendency to excite sedition…We decide therefore that all temples dedicated to the Lord of Heaven (God) in whatever place they may be found, ought to be preserved, and that it may be permitted to all who wish to worship this God to enter these temples, offer Him incense, and perform the ceremonies practiced according to ancient customs by the Christians. Therefore let no one henceforth offer them any opposition.”

(Source: Wikipedia, Chinese Rites Controversy)

Emperor Kangxi also sent Joachim Bouvet (白晋, Bái Jìn), a French Jesuit missionary in China, as his ambassador to France in 1697. The Emperor requested Father Bouvet to go back to France in order to bring more missionaries to China, besides bringing valuable gifts to King Louis XIV of France. This request was honoured, and Father Bouvet returned to China two years later, bringing with him ten more Jesuit missionaries and precious gifts from King Louis XIV to Emperor Kangxi.

King Louis XIV (1638 - 1715) of France

Imperial Response – Negative

Despite the fact that Catholic Christianity flourished in China under several Ming and Qing Emperors, it started to deteriorate after 1700, mainly as a result of the Chinese Rites Controversy, which I’ve explained in length in Part 4a of this article. Indeed, the Chinese Rites Controversy had raised the anger and resentment of many Chinese officials and scholars, as well as that of the once Christian-friendly Emperor Kangxi.

Although Emperor Kangxi initially supported Catholic Christianity, as stated in the section above, the development of the Chinese Rites Controversy gradually changed his opinions towards Christianity. Throughout the period of his reign, Emperor Kangxi had taken close interest in the controversy.

Emperor Kangxi (康熙帝, Kāngxī dì) (1654 - 1722)

In 1700, Father Bouvet presented a memorial to the Emperor so as to enquire the true meanings of the Chinese’s customs in honouring their ancestors and Confucius. Emperor Kangxi replied by stating that these customs were merely civil in nature and bore no religious connotations whatsoever. Chinese customs held in honour of ancestors were merely a sign of filial piety, in which the Chinese neither “worshipped” their ancestors nor recognized divinity in them. As for customs held in honour of Confucius, they were merely a sign of respect for the great scholar who left a great philosophical legacy for the Chinese.

With such reassurance from Emperor Kangxi himself, Jesuit missionaries in China held firmly to the opinion that these Chinese rites held in honour of ancestors and Confucius were permissible in Catholic Christianity. As such, Chinese Catholic Christians should be allowed to participate in such rites. Nonetheless, Pope Clement XI (1649 – 1721) issued a statement declaring that these Chinese rites were against Christian teachings and should be banned amongst Chinese Catholic Christians. A delegation was sent from the Pope in 1705 to convey this message to the Emperor, but this did not go down well with the Emperor. The delegation was subsequently banished to Macao

An illustration of the Chinese from " Etat présent de la Chine" (The Present State of China) by Joachim Bouvet

To make matters worse, Pope Clement XI issued another decree in 1715 which declared that these Chinese rites were idolatrous and superstitious in nature and as such, should be prohibited amongst Chinese Catholic Christians. Emperor Kangxi, enraged by this decree, felt that the presence of Christianity in China would threaten Chinese culture and the sovereignty of the Emperor over China. The Emperor then issued an edict in 1721, stating:

“Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the Westerners are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China. There is not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works, and their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous. To judge from this proclamation, their religion is no different from other small, bigoted sects of Buddhism or Taoism. I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.”

(Source: Wikipedia, Chinese Rites Controversy)

Despite this anti-Christian edict, no serious action was taken against Jesuit missionaries and Christians in China. Catholic Christianity still flourished fairly well in the Middle Kingdom until the ascension of Emperor Yongzheng (雍正帝, Yōngzhèng Dì) (1678 – 1735) to the Qing imperial throne in 1722.

"Life and Works of Confucius", a work on Confucian philosophy produced in Latin by Jesuit missionaries in Qing China

Emperor Yongzheng’s ascension to the throne marked a gradual decline for Catholic Christianity in Qing China. Intensifying his late father’s anti-Christian efforts, Emperor Yongzheng issued an imperial edict in 1724, which condemned and prohibited Christianity in the empire. Following the issuance of this edict, rapid persecution rained upon Christians and churches throughout Qing China. Countless Catholic missionaries in all Chinese provinces were deported to Macao, leaving Chinese Christians without spiritual guidance. Numerous churches throughout the empire were seized by Qing authorities to be converted into warehouses, schools, town halls or temples. Churches of which the Qing authorities could find no use for were destroyed. Sacred items in the churches were discarded and burned. Ultimately, Chinese Christians were forced to reject Christianity and were banned from becoming Catholic Christians again.

On one occasion, Emperor Yongzheng stated that the Catholic missionaries in China were lucky enough to be expelled from China alive without any bloodshed. Citing his actions of persecuting certain sects of Buddhism by destroying their temples and mercilessly killing their priests, the Emperor remarked that Catholic missionaries were indeed lucky enough to have been treated in a less harsh manner.

Emperor Yongzheng (雍正帝, Yōngzhèng Dì) (1678 - 1735) 

No doubt, Emperor Yongzheng’s persecution of Christians involved no major bloodshed or incidents of extreme violence. Nonetheless, the number of Chinese Christians in the land decreased sharply, and people’s interest in the teachings of Christianity slowly waned. Hardly any Catholic missionaries were officially allowed to remain in China and even if they were, they were not allowed to preach the gospel at all.

By the time of Emperor Yongzheng’s death and Emperor Qianlong’s ascension to the imperial throne in 1735, Catholic Christianity in China had been severely weakened. Chinese Catholic Christians who retained their faith and missionaries who remained secretly in China were forced to go into hiding and to meet clandestinely. Persecution of Christians continued even under Emperor Qianlong (乾隆帝Qiánlóng Dì) (1711 – 1799), and such persecutions normally worsened each time Chinese Catholics or missionaries were discovered by the authorities.

Emperor Qianlong (乾隆帝, Qiánlóng Dì) (1711 - 1799)

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that although Emperor Qianlong constantly launched anti-Christian campaigns throughout China, he personally ordered that Matteo Ricci’s renowned book entitled “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven” (天主实义, Tiānzhŭ Shíyì), which I’ve mentioned before this, be placed in the imperial library together with the Emperor’s collection of the most remarkable works in the Chinese language.

In spite of all the persecutions carried out against Christians in the empire of Qing China, Christianity was never fully eliminated from the land of the Middle Kingdom. Catholic Christian missionaries continued preaching the gospel in China and Chinese Catholic Christians continued meeting regularly, albeit in secrecy. Christian activities and meetings were carried out with extreme caution and alertness so as not to attract the attention of the Qing authorities. Even through tough times, Catholic Christianity survived in the land of China right up to the modern era……

In the final part of this article, I’ve decided to include a special section pertaining to Catholic Christianity in the late Ming Dynasty. Click here to read about the three most prominent Chinese Catholic Christians who lived during the era.

A church in China bearing Chinese architectural style

Main references:
1)     Brockey, L.M. (2007), Journey to the East: the Jesuit Mission to China (1579 – 1724), Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

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