“For the sake of China’s Millions!” – Christianity in the Late Qing Dynasty (Part 1b)


Sichuan Province

Location of Sichuan Province in China

The southwestern province of Sichuan, being a remote province far from the imperial capital and coastal ports, saw a relatively later introduction of Catholic Christianity into its boundaries. Nonetheless, its remote location also proved to be an advantage for the slow but steady propagation of the gospel, as repressive actions against Chinese Catholics and Western missionaries were often more lax without strict supervision from the imperial court in Beijing. In addition to that, tireless and continuous efforts by not few well-trained Chinese priests and missionaries also helped propel the spreading of the gospel throughout the province, as well as into the neighbouring province of Guizhou.

One outstanding name that deserves mention in the history of Catholic Christianity in Sichuan is none other than Andrew Li/Li Ande (李安德, Lǐ Āndé) (1692 – 1774). At a time when Catholic Christianity in Sichuan was still largely Western in outlook and practice, Andrew Li/Li Ande (hereafter I shall refer to him as Father Li) grew as a spiritual leader and rector under the tutelage of several prominent Western missionaries in China such as Jean Basset (白日升, Bái Rìshēng) (1662 – 1707) and Jean-François de la Baluère (梁宏仁, Liáng Hóngrén) (1668 – 1715). Hailing from the province of Shaanxi (陕西, Shănxī), Father Li was recruited into a life of mission by Father Basset himself, thereafter travelling extensively throughout several parts of southern/southwestern China in their missionary efforts. Father Li spent several years of his young adulthood studying in a seminary in Siam before being officially ordained a priest.

Before beginning missionary activities in his own right in Sichuan, Father Li had been actively involved in missionary activities under the Paris Foreign Missions, in the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Huguang (湖广, Húguăng) (present-day Hubei and Hunan). In 1734, upon arriving at Chengdu (成都, Chéngdū), the capital of Sichuan Province, Father Li set up his own missionary base by purchasing a modest house. His initial years of mission in Sichuan was not exactly smooth sailing, having faced subtle opposition from other Catholic missionaries who did not want him to interfere with spiritual affairs in their missionary territories.

The capital city of Chengdu during the Qing Dynasty

As a result of such subtle opposition, Father Li shifted the focus of his missionary activities temporarily to the peripheral vicinities surrounding Chengdu, particularly Pengshan (彭山, Péngshān) and Leshan (乐山, Lèshān). Together with Father Joachim Enjobert de Martiliat (马青山, Mă Qīngshān) (1706 – 1755) and Lin Chang (林常, Lín Cháng), a Chinese catechist, they succeeded in establishing strong Christian communities in those regions, doing much in spreading the gospel, strengthening and educating the Chinese Christians spiritually.

Leshan as seen in modern times 

In the subsequent years of his life, Father Li manifested his enthusiasm for the spreading of the gospel in various ways. His proficiency in Latin made him an instrumental figure in translating many Catholic works in Latin into Chinese, thus opening more doors for Chinese Christians especially in Sichuan to have access to a better understanding of the gospel. Being a Chinese himself and thus having a better understanding of the Chinese psyche and culture, Father Li was also an advocate of spreading the gospel and teaching the Word of God in a way that is suited to local customs and practices. He was responsible for drawing up protocols for Christian funerals and other rites, integrating suitable elements of Chinese customs into them. Besides, he often emphasized the importance of proper instruction and spiritual education for the Christians under his care, teaching them the Word of God and prayer with patience and understanding. Despite his firmness in teaching the Word and administering holy sacraments in the Church, he showed much understanding and compassion, and his heart always reached out to those in need, either physically or spiritually.

As part of his efforts in emphasizing Christian education for the Christians under his care, he became an active writer of many guide books for church rites, prayer, theology and morality. He was also enthusiastically involved in the education and nurturing of young priests, in the hopes that they would one day be able to succeed him in spiritual leadership and mission. He continued teaching, writing and translating even up to his old age, without giving up even in the face of hardships.

Father Li’s successes in the missionary field also meant that it drew flak from provincial authorities who were cautious of anything deemed “Western.” He was arrested, tried or deliberately involved in trouble even for the most minor of reasons. Many a times he was arrested, imprisoned or tortured as part of efforts to compel him to recant his faith or reveal the names of other Christians, but never even for once did he yield. In an account written by Father Urbain Lefebvre (费布仁, Fèi Bùrén) with regards to one of Father Li’s trials, he wrote:

“Andrew Li (Li Ande) was questioned about other Christians and refused to give any names. When he was asked how long he had been a Christian, he said that his ancestors had been Christians. The most remarkable part of his interrogation went as follows; the mandarin said to him, “You are over seventy and you are a Christian, yet you are without honour or nobility. We, however, as you can see, are influential in the empire, and we have rank and degrees, from which you can deduce that everything that your religion promises is vain and unreasonable.” The priest answered, “The Christian religion does not promise a passing or earthly happiness, but it promises eternal bliss to all, and to everyone who adores the true God, follows the commandments, and listens to the voice of conscience.”

(Charbonnier, 2002)

Indeed, Father Li was perseverant for the gospel to the very end, despite facing a severe lack of missionaries or funding to assist him in his spiritual work. During a time when it was extremely difficult for many foreign missionaries to make their way into the interiors of China, Father Li could be said to have effectively led, coordinated and sustained missionary activities in Sichuan single-handedly for most of his priesthood life. His passing in 1774 was thus a loss to the missionary scene and the growing population of Christians in Sichuan at that time.

Father Li’s passing, however, did not mean that his previous labours for the gospel would collapse just like that. The legacy that he left behind was indeed great, as it established a firm foundation for the subsequent unprecedented growth of Christianity in Sichuan. As a result of this, Sichuan became one of the few Chinese provinces at that time to have experienced the most prosperous growth in its Christian population, with an estimated 4000 Christians and 2 priests throughout the province by 1756. This number swelled to 40,000 Christians and 16 Chinese priests by 1802, in spite of the incessant troubles and opposition posed by the provincial authorities and the imperial government.

Catholic church in Moxi (摩西, Móxī), Sichuan

Successes in Sichuan also meant that the influence of the gospel overflowed into the neighbouring provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan (云南, Yúnnán). One prominent name that deserves mention here with regards to this is the renowned Chinese Catholic priest Zhao Rong (赵荣, Zhào Róng) (1746 – 1815), also known as Augustine. He is credited for doing much in spreading the gospel among a minority ethnic group in Yunnan, as well as furthering the gospel and tending to the spiritual needs of Chinese Christians in Sichuan.

Zhao Rong (赵荣, Zhào Róng) (1746 – 1815), also famously known as Augustine

Guizhou Province

Two names to which much credit is due for advancing the gospel in the province of Guizhou are Wu Guosheng (吴国盛, Wú Guóshèng) (1768 – 1814) and Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏, Zhāng Dàpéng) (1754 – 1815). Although the both of them were never admitted into the priesthood, they were active preachers of the gospel who tirelessly shared the Word of God and led many to faith in Christ in Guizhou.

Location of Guizhou Province in China

Wu Guosheng was actively involved in propagating the gospel amongst many in his hometown of Longping (龙坪, Lóngpíng). Due to his vigorous and untiring missionary efforts, he succeeded in multiplying the number of Christians in his hometown to the hundreds, so much so that he even attracted the attention and ire of the local authorities. He was consequently arrested and imprisoned during the final days of his life, whereby he spent much time praying, sharing the gospel and spiritually encouraging those who were in the same prison as him. Even until the final moment when he was executed, he neither retaliated nor complained, and he held steadfast to his faith until he died a martyr’s death.

Zhang Dapeng is another name that is highly venerated amongst Catholics in Guizhou as the symbol of unwavering faith and perseverance in Christ. Having accepted faith in Christ amidst strong opposition from his family and relatives, some of whom were honourable government officials, Zhang persevered and soon became a powerful driving force in the propagation of the gospel in Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou Province. He regularly preached the gospel, and many came to listen to his talks. He was even responsible for running a school for a short period of time, in which he actively taught the gospel to many.

He was responsible for leading many to Christianity in Guiyang, but just like most other missionaries of that era, he was finally arrested and tried in court, after being betrayed by his brother-in-law. Despite being given the offer of release if he apostatized, he adamantly refused and was then sentenced to capital punishment. Zhang thus died a martyr’s death in 1815, thereafter revered by Catholics in Guizhou until this day.

The famous Guiyang Cathedral (贵阳北天主堂, Guìyáng Bĕi Tiānzhŭtáng) in Guiyang, Guizhou Province

General situation of Catholic Christianity in China

Being seen as a tool for Western imperialism and foreign manipulation, the continuous propagation and expansion of the gospel throughout China in the late 1700s and early 1800s meant that the Qing imperial government could no longer sit back and let things go the way they were going. Emperors and imperial officials felt that drastic action had to be taken to curb the spread of the gospel and put an end to all missionary activities throughout the land. This thus resulted in the infamous proclamation against Christianity in 1811, which I have mentioned in the beginning of Part 1a of this article. Under the orders of Emperor Jiaqing, Christianity was declared an evil religion or a cult (邪教, xiéjiào), and was strictly prohibited under the Great Qing Legal Code.

 Emperor Jiaqing (嘉庆帝, Jiāqìng dì) (1760 – 1820)

The 1811 proclamation proved to be gradually detrimental for Catholic Christianity in China. With the exception of a select few Western missionaries whose skills were indispensable in the service of the emperor in Beijing, all Western missionaries were strictly banned from entering China. Those who entered illegally faced the threat of execution or imprisonment. Being declared an evil religion, missionaries who went about spreading the gospel were accused as destructors of local customs and morality. In a book entitled History of Religions in China by Wang Yousan, an accurate description of the state of Catholic Christianity in China in the subsequent decades after the proclamation is provided:

“In the era of Jiaqing and Daoguang, apart from a few officially employed at court in Beijing, Europeans were all forbidden to enter China. Missionaries could but face the danger of death or imprisonment by entering illegally. Those who entered were treated as smugglers or foreign spies. As soon as discovered, they were condemned as troublemakers, propagators of heresy or destructors of local morality. Priests hearing women’s confessions were accused of seducing honest ladies, priests anointing the sick or baptizing children in danger of death were accused of extracting the heart or excavating the eyes to concoct some medicine. The use of Latin at Mass was understood as uttering curses. Sacred vestments, holy pictures, medals, Mass wine, all were seen as magic instruments of sorcery.”

(Standaert, 2010)

The heaviest effects were seen in the imperial capital itself. Seminaries that were established to train Chinese priests and missionaries were forcefully shut down, churches destroyed, and church property confiscated. Many foreign priests and missionaries were arrested and executed or deported out of China. The number of Chinese Catholics started to dwindle, but surprisingly, this was not without continued growth even in the face of persecutions, so much so that the total number of Catholics in China based on historical records hardly changed much in the decades preceding the First Opium War in 1839.

The situation of Catholic Christianity in China was to take a better turn only after the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842. The signing of the unequal treaties, namely the Treaty of Nanjing (南京条约, Nánjīng Tiáoyuē) (1842) between the British and the Qing Dynasty, and the Treaty of Whampoa (黄埔条约, Huángpŭ Tiáoyuē) (1844) between the French and the Qing Dynasty, opened a new era of toleration and acceptance of Christianity in Qing China. Christianity, according to the treaties, was to be protected; missionaries re-permitted to enter China and Christians no longer considered outlaws. Although these treaties hardly did much to change the situation of Catholic Christianity in the interior parts of China, they did, at the least, assure more freedom for the spread of the gospel and the building of churches in the coastal regions. Subsequent unequal treaties, such as the Treaty of Tianjin (天津条约, Tiānjīn Tiáoyuē) (1858) and the Convention of Beijing (北京条约, Bĕijīng Tiáoyuē) (1860), secured more freedom and recognition for Christianity as a legal religion throughout China, thus allowing the gospel to flourish further throughout the Middle Kingdom.

Signing of the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin between representatives of Western powers (i.e. France, UK, Russia and US) and the Qing Dynasty

Such was the situation of Catholic Christianity in Qing China during the late 18th and early 19th century, in which the gospel was brought to various parts of China, both at the coastal and the interior regions, under threats of persecution and hardship. Indeed, under such difficult circumstances, the spread of Catholic Christianity saw a gradual but effective shift from being Western-driven to being Chinese-driven i.e. being driven more by Chinese missionaries and priests as opposed to being dictated by Western missionaries and ideologies. Such a shift proved to be invaluable in further propelling the gospel deeper into the Chinese heartland, so much so that by the end of the First Opium War in 1842, the entire Chinese Christian population throughout the empire numbered anywhere between 200,000 to 300,000 at best estimation.

Having covered the situation of Catholic Christianity in the late 18th and early 19th century Qing China, let us now move on to the next part of this article, where we shall then look at the next big chapter in the history of Christianity in China.

 Mary, Empress of China in Qing Dynasty robes, painted by Chu Kar Kui. A Chinese-style illustration of Mary and the infant Jesus

Main references:
1.      Maclay, R.S. (1861), Life among the Chinese: with characteristic sketches and incidents of missionary operations and prospects in China. Carlton & Porter, New York.
2.      Megenon, E. (2009), Ancestors, virgins and friars: Christianity as a local religion in late imperial China. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Cambridge.
3.      Charbonnier, J.P. (2002), Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000. Les Indes Savantes, Paris.
4.      Standaert, N. (ed.) (2010), Handbook of Christianity in China. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands.

**Contents of this article:
1.      Part 1 – The situation of Catholic Christianity in the late 18th and early 19th century Qing China
2.      Part 2 – Introduction and early expansion of Protestant Christianity in Qing China under Robert Morrison
3.      Part 3 – Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission
4.      Part 4 – Protestant Christian missions in Shanxi Province in the late 1800s
5.      Part 5 – The Boxer Rebellion and the decline of the China Inland Mission in China

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