As a continuation from the last part of this article, we will now explore the different reactions of the Chinese towards the preaching of the gospel in the late Ming and early Qing era. So, how did the Chinese react to the spreading of the gospel in China? We shall explore this in a few subsections.
General Response of the Chinese
The Chinese of the Ming and Qing Dynasties generally responded well towards the gospel and the Jesuit missionaries. In comparison with the entire estimated population of China at that time, many Chinese held the missionaries in high regard, but only a few actually became Catholic Christians themselves.
A French painting depicting Jesuit astronomers with Chinese scholars
In all the cities that the Jesuit missionaries visited, the Chinese held them in high regard and greatly respected them for their vast knowledge in the sciences, geography, mathematics and philosophy. In addition to that, the Jesuit missionaries were even more respected and admired for their excellent command of the Chinese language and their deep understanding of Chinese culture. Due to such deep respect, many Chinese of all levels of society were extremely interested to learn more about Christian teachings and the gospel, although only a few of them actually received baptism to become Catholic Christians. In the vast majority of the Chinese who did not receive baptism, great interest was aroused amongst them towards the Christian faith.
General interest towards Christianity among the Chinese was further enhanced by Father Ricci’s book entitled “The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven”, which I’ve mentioned in the preceding part of this article. It is widely acclaimed to be one of the ultimate factors that led numerous Chinese to the Christian faith, at the same time arousing interest in the minds of those who remained non-Christians. It became such an influential work during that era that it was even distributed in places outside China, such as Japan and Vietnam.
It was reported that by the time Father Ricci died in 1610, there were more than 2000 Chinese Christians in Beijing alone, many of whom were prominent scholars. In 1617, there were approximately 13,000 Chinese Christians in China. This number swelled to a whopping sum of approximately 150,000 in 1650 and by 1669, Jesuit missionaries could report approximately 300,000 Chinese Christians in the whole empire. By then, Jesuit missionaries were actively involved in spreading the gospel in almost every Chinese city. Although the number of Chinese Christians seem small compared to the estimated population of 150 – 200 million in China at that time, Jesuit missionaries viewed this as a miraculous achievement, since the Chinese literally knew nothing about the gospel when Father Ricci first stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom.
Scholarly / Aristocratic Response – Positive
The efforts of Father Ricci and the other Jesuit missionaries in China met with considerable success among aristocrats, Confucian scholars and government officials in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In fact, it was said that:
“According to the statistics, several thousands of people converted to the Christian religion in the late Ming era. Among them, fourteen were imperial clansmen; forty were eunuchs and maids in the imperial court; four were eminent officials; ten were Nominees for Office (贡士, Gòngshì); eleven were Provincial Graduates (举人, Jŭrén) and more than three hundred were Cultivated Talents (秀才, Xiùcái).”
Many Confucian scholars, high-ranking officials and aristocrats accepted the gospel and were subsequently baptized into the Catholic Christian faith by Father Ricci and the other Jesuit missionaries. Among them were Qu Taisu (瞿太素, Qú Tàisù), Li Yingshi (李应试, Lĭ Yìngshì), Shen Fuzong (沈福宗, Shĕn Fúzōng), Huang Jialue (黄嘉略, Huáng Jiālüè), Xu Guangqi (徐光启, Xú Guāngqĭ), Li Zhizao (李之藻, Lĭ Zhīzăo) and Yang Tingyun (杨廷筠, Yáng Tíngyún).
Qu Taisu, an accomplished Chinese mathematician from a prominent aristocratic family in Suzhou (苏州, Sūzhōu), was a fervent Christian who contributed greatly in helping the Jesuit missionaries to establish centres in China. Li Yingshi, on the other hand, was a military officer of the Ming Dynasty who was an expert in feng shui and astrology before he accepted Christianity. Since he was so deeply involved in superstitious practices in his earlier life, Father Ricci described his willing acceptance of Christianity as an extraordinary miracle. In fact, after accepting Christianity, Li was very active in spreading the gospel among his friends, family members and household servants.
Shen Fuzong and Huang Jialue were scholars who were famous for being the first few Chinese Christians to have travelled all the way to Europe with Jesuit missionaries. Their presence in Europe aroused keen interest among European kings and scholars towards Chinese culture and the spread of Christianity in China. As for Xu Guangqi, Li Zhizao and Yang Tingyun, I will be covering more on them in the next part of this article. All in all, many prominent Chinese in Ming and Qing China who accepted Christianity were responsible for writing countless works to spread and defend the gospel, even in times of persecution against Christians.
There were also scholars and officials who offered great respect for Christianity but chose not to become Catholic Christians themselves. Confucian scholars such as Guo Zhengyu (郭正域, Guō Zhēngyù), Zou Yuanbiao (邹元标, Zōu Yuánbiāo) and Ye Xianggao (叶向高, Yè Xiànggāo) are a few eminent examples. Although they did not become Catholic Christians themselves, they wrote letters, books and poems praising Christianity for its close similarity with Confucian principles and the teachings in ancient Chinese books. They recognized Christianity as “a friend of Confucianism” and even encouraged the spreading of the gospel’s message to other scholars and officials in Ming China.
Scholarly / Aristocratic Response – Negative
Besides obtaining positive response from the Chinese aristocratic and scholarly ranks, Christianity also received its share of unfavourable responses from some prominent scholars and officials, especially those who held more conservative views. Time and again, Jesuit missionaries, especially Father Ricci, had explained the similarities between traditional Chinese religion and Christianity (refer to the previous part of this article). This had also been agreed upon by many Confucian scholars of the era, adding that many Christian elements seem to tally with Confucian principles and the teachings of ancient Chinese books. In spite of all these, Chinese scholars who opposed Christianity felt that the Chinese culture was under threat and denied any assimilation between Chinese culture and Christianity.
One of the most famous scholars who opposed the spread of Christianity in Ming China was Shen Que (沈榷, Shĕn Què), the official responsible for the Nanjing persecution of Christians in 1616. Shen Que, who was then the Nanjing Vice-Minister of Rites, opposed Christianity for what he saw as a threat to Chinese culture and China’s security. He made petitions to Emperor Wanli, pushing for the expulsion of Jesuit missionaries from China.
In his petitions, Shen Que made various false accusations against Christianity based on his shallow understanding towards the religion. He accused Christianity for being a religion that led people to follow a criminal (Jesus) who was condemned to death. He also accused Christians for having secret meetings weekly, practicing magic arts and bribery to mislead people into accepting Christianity, and posing danger towards China’s stability. Having the support of the Beijing Minister of Rites, Fang Congzhe (方从哲, Fāng Cóngzhé), Shen Que arrested Jesuit missionaries in Nanjing, thus disrupting the spread of the gospel in the Chinese key city. A subsequent imperial edict from Emperor Wanli, which agreed with most of Shen Que’s accusations, resulted in the Jesuit missionaries being expelled to Macao. Nevertheless, this bout of persecution against Christians was not very serious, since it was mainly limited to Nanjing only and no death sentences were meted out.
However, a more serious bout of persecution against Christians erupted in 1664, being started by Yang Guangxian, whom I’ve mentioned in Part 3 of this article. Yang Guangxian, a Confucian scholar and astronomer, fiercely opposed Christianity and the Jesuit missionaries. He wrote numerous anti-Christian works, condemning Christianity as an evil religion full of errors and wrongdoing. Along with other anti-Christian scholars and officials, he sought to purge China of Christian influences, thinking that they were threats to Chinese culture.
It may be redundant for me to elaborate on Yang Guangxian’s anti-Christian actions, since I’ve mentioned them in Part 3 of this article. So, feel free to turn to Part 3, if you’d like to read more about it. Basically, Yang’s persecution against Christians resulted in more serious implications, what with 5 Chinese Christians being executed, many Jesuit missionaries expelled to Macao and churches throughout China being forcefully closed for a few years.
1) Wang, X. (1998), Christianity and Imperial Culture: Chinese Christian Apologetics in the Seventeenth Century and their Latin Patristic Equivalent, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands.
2) Mungello, D.E. (2009), The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500 – 1800, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Maryland.