Christianity with a Chinese Face – Late Ming & Early Qing Dynasties (Part 1)

It was during the era of the Yuan Dynasty (元朝, Yuáncháo) (1271 – 1368), the time of Mongol grip over the glorious Middle Kingdom, when China felt a significant wave of Christianity surging over the vast empire. Nevertheless, with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty and the rise of the subsequent Ming Dynasty, Christianity slowly faded and died a sad death on Chinese soil at the mercy of the Ming emperors. It seemed at that time as if Christianity would never again see a rebirth in the land where Confucian classics, Taoist ideologies and Buddhist chants were predominant. Just when almost all traces of Christianity were vanquished from Chinese soil, the great empire once again saw an amazing revival of Christianity. No longer did it bear a “foreign” or Western image this time, but rather a locally acceptable and even respectable Chinese face. Don’t understand what I mean? Well, read more to find out for yourself!

As some of you may already know, the Han Chinese is the dominant ethnic group native to China. In other words, what most people refer to as “Chinese” is actually the Han Chinese. To make matters simpler, I will simply refer to the Han Chinese as Chinese from now on.

From the beginning of recorded history in China, the Chinese people have always been ruled by rulers of their own ethnicity. Never has this pride been yielded to non-Chinese people, with the exception of only two major instances in Chinese history. These two instances are none other than the Yuan and Qing Dynasties. The year 1271 marked the first time when the Chinese were placed under the authority of a non-Chinese power, namely the Mongols, who established the Yuan Dynasty. When the Chinese overthrew the Yuan Dynasty in 1368, power over the Chinese was once again returned into Chinese hands with the establishment of the famed Ming Dynasty (明朝, Míngcháo) (1368 – 1644). Nonetheless, with internal strife and financial disasters, the Chinese-led Ming Dynasty collapsed in 1644, paving the way for yet another non-Chinese government to rule over the Chinese and the entire China. This was none other than the Qing Dynasty (清朝, Qīngcháo) (1644 – 1912), a Manchu-led dynasty of China.

Life in the era of the Ming Dynasty

As the Ming Dynasty progressed after its establishment in 1368, Christianity was gradually eradicated from China as a result of numerous persecutions against Christians by the Ming rulers. By the beginning of the 16th century, Christianity has become more-or-less totally unheard of in every corner of Ming China. By then, whatever was left by the Christian missionaries who entered China during the Yuan Dynasty had virtually disappeared from the great empire. Almost nothing was left of Christianity’s legacy in China, but with a fresh new surge of Christian missionaries into China during the late Ming Dynasty, things were bound to change……

Repeated, albeit failed attempts by St. Francis Xavier to enter mainland China marked the beginnings of Catholic Christianity’s reentry into the Middle Kingdom since the Yuan Dynasty. St. Francis Xavier, the renowned Spanish Roman Catholic missionary, was one of the co-founders of the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious order of which its members are known as Jesuits. He is most famed for his extensive missionary works throughout the continent of Asia, in which he travelled far and wide to spread Roman Catholicism. He is especially famed for his tireless missionary efforts in Goa of India, Malacca of present-day Malaysia, Ambon and Maluku Islands of Indonesia, as well as various parts of Japan.

It was in the year 1552 when St. Francis Xavier made his first attempt to enter Ming China. This attempt, however, failed, and was followed by a few other failed attempts. Nonetheless, before he could successfully gain entry into mainland China via Guangzhou (广州, Guăngzhōu), St. Francis died on Shangchuan Island (上川岛, Shàngchuāndăo) in the same year.

Saint Francis Xavier (1506 - 1552)

After St. Francis’ death, other attempts were made by Catholic missionaries to enter Ming China, some of which succeeded but did not have much impact on Chinese society as a whole. At that time, Jesuit missionary centres have already been established in Macao (澳门, Àomén), which was a major trading centre for the Portuguese during the late Ming era. Despite this, no serious attempts were initiated by these centres to bring Catholic Christianity to the rest of China, since their efforts were mainly focused on local Portuguese communities and missionary activities in Japan.

The idea of bringing Catholic Christianity into the entire Ming China was only seriously considered when the Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano (范礼安, Fàn Lĭ’ān) made a visit to Macao in 1578. He realized that there were no effective missionary efforts undertaken in mainland China and thought that it was vital for Jesuit missionaries to learn the Chinese language and culture in order to successfully bring Catholic Christianity to the Chinese. Having this perception in mind, Valignano then sent a request to the Jesuit Superior in Goa, India for a missionary to be sent to Macao so as to assume the task of learning Chinese in preparation for missionary work in mainland China. With that, Michele Ruggieri was sent.

Present-day Macao (澳门, Àomén), one of the richest cities in the world

Michele Ruggieri (罗明坚, Luó Míngjiān) (1543 – 1607), an Italian Jesuit missionary, arrived in Macao in 1579 to embark on an immense mission to learn and master the Chinese language. Finding that the task was too great a burden for him to carry alone, Father Ruggieri then sent a letter to Valignano, requesting for another missionary to be sent to Macao to share the burden with him. As a result, the Italian Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci (利玛窦, Lì Mădòu) (1552 – 1610) was sent to work alongside Father Ruggieri three years later.

For some time, both of them learnt how to speak, read and write Chinese as was used during the Ming Dynasty. After sufficiently mastering the language, Fathers Ricci and Ruggieri then devised a plan to effectively bring Catholic Christianity into the Ming Chinese society. At that time, different segments of the Chinese society held to different ideologies and principles. Buddhism and Taoism were dominant amongst the common people, while the educated classes were more affiliated to Confucian thought. It was thus agreed between the two missionaries that Father Ricci would concentrate his missionary work more amidst the educated classes while Father Ruggieri would do so amongst the common people.

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

In accordance with this plan, the two missionaries would then have to explore the different segments of Chinese society with more precision. In addition to learning more about Chinese customs and culture, they also picked up and studied works on Chinese religion and philosophy. Since Matteo Ricci would be concentrating his missionary efforts more amidst the educated classes, he embarked on another mission to study and become accustomed with Confucian classics and philosophy. The same was done by Michele Ruggieri with Taoist classics and Buddhist scriptures, which were mainly influential amongst the common people.

Indeed, it was no easy task for the two highly determined missionaries. Unlike most other kingdoms, empires and regions of that era, China was a highly civilized nation and the centre of influence in East Asia. It comprised a people which not only held great pride above all other nations of the earth, but also safeguarded Chinese culture with utter zealousness. No doubt, it was an extremely challenging task to bring Christianity into a nation such as China which so easily harboured suspicion for anything “foreign” and marked them as threats to national security. In fact, Ricci once wrote in a letter to the Jesuits in Europe that he was dealing with “a people both intelligent and learned” in China.

Scholars of the Ming Dynasty

In order to gain the trust of the Chinese and boost confidence in them towards Christianity, Ricci and Ruggieri were prepared to fully adapt to Chinese culture and society, in terms of their appearances, lifestyles and ways of thinking. They became thoroughly accustomed with knowledge of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, besides familiarizing themselves with various aspects of Chinese culture. They even adopted Chinese clothing and Chinese names for themselves. This was especially true for Father Ricci, who frequently wore the same dress as Confucian scholars in the Ming imperial court.

After years and years of extinction in the land of China, Christianity finally underwent a remarkable revival under Fathers Ricci and Ruggieri. As a result of their tireless efforts in spreading the gospel to Ming China, Christianity succeeded in gaining a strong foothold in the Middle Kingdom. Feel free to read Part 2 of this article if you’d like to find out more about their works and efforts in China.

A church in China built based on Chinese architectural style

**Contents of this article:
1) Part 1 – The beginnings of Catholic Christianity’s reintroduction into Ming China
2) Part 2 – Missionary works and efforts of Matteo Ricci & Michele Ruggieri in Ming China
3) Part 3 – Missionary works and efforts of Jesuit missionaries after Matteo Ricci in Ming & Qing China
4) Part 4 – Reactions of the Chinese towards the spread of the gospel
5) Part 5 – Three most prominent Chinese Catholic Christians of the late Ming Dynasty

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