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Above: Francis Xavier (left), Ignatius of Loyola (right) and Christ at the upper center. Below: Matteo Ricci (right) and Xu Guangqi (left), all in dialogue towards the evangelization of China.
A world map in Chinese (Wanguo Quantu 萬國全圖, lit. "Complete map of all the countries"), developed by the Jesuits, early 17th century.[1]

The history of the missions of the Jesuits in China is part of the history of relations between China and the Western world. The missionary efforts and other work of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, between the 16th and 17th century played a significant role in continuing the transmission of knowledge, science, and culture between China and the West, and had an impact on Christian culture in Chinese society today.

The first attempt by the Jesuits to reach China was made in 1552 by St. Francis Xavier, Spanish priest and missionary and founding member of the Society of Jesus. Xavier never reached the mainland, dying after only a year on the Chinese island of Shangchuan. Three decades later, in 1582, Jesuits once again initiated mission work in China, led by several figures including the Italian Matteo Ricci, introducing Western science, mathematics, astronomy, and visual arts to the imperial court, and carrying on significant inter-cultural and philosophical dialogue with Chinese scholars, particularly representatives of Confucianism. At the time of their peak influence, members of the Jesuit delegation were considered some of the emperor's most valued and trusted advisors, holding numerous prestigious posts in the imperial government. Many Chinese, including notable former Confucian scholars, adopted Christianity and became priests and members of the Society of Jesus.

According to research by D.E. Mungello, from 1552 (i.e., the death of St. Francis Xavier) to 1800, a total of 920 Jesuits participated in the China misson; of whom 314 were Portuguese, and another 130 were French.[2] In 1844 China may have had 240,000 Roman Catholics, but this number grew rapidly, and in 1901 the figure reached 720,490.[3] Many Jesuit priests, both Western-born and Chinese, are buried in the cemetery located in what is now the School of the Beijing Municipal Committee.[4]


The Jesuits in China

Nicolas Trigault (1577-1629) in Chinese costume, by Peter Paul Rubens.
Matteo Ricci (left) and Xu Guangqi (徐光啟) (right) in the Chinese edition of Euclid's Elements (幾何原本) published in 1607.

Contacts between Asia and the west already dated back hundreds of years, especially between the Papacy and the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. There were also numerous traders that traveled between the continents, the most famous of which is Marco Polo. Christianity was not new to the Mongols, as many had been practicing Nestorian Christianity since the 7th century (see Christianity among the Mongols).

Ricci's policy of accommodation

The first missionaries of the Society of Jesus arrived in China in 1565, with a desire of creating a Sino-Christian civilization that would match the Roman-Christian civilization of the West. The two most prominent Jesuits at the time were the Italians Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). Both were determined to adapt to the religious qualities of the Chinese: Ruggieri to the common people, in whom Buddhist and Taoist elements predominated, and Ricci to the educated classes, where Confucianism prevailed. Ricci wrote to the Jesuit houses in Europe and called for priests - men who would not only be "good", but also "men of talent, since we are dealing here with a people both intelligent and learned".[5]

A few responded, and Ricci began to train them so that they might approach the Chinese authorities, offering the court scholarly and scientific assistance with the deliberate intention of making a Confucian adaptation of their style of life, patterns of thought, preaching and worship. They were determined to completely de-westernize themselves. Both Ricci and Ruggieri felt that it would be possible to "prove that the Christian doctrines were already laid down in the classical works of the Chinese people, albeit in disguise". Indeed, they and their followers were convinced that "the day would come when with one accord all missionaries in China would look in the ancient texts for traces of primal revelation".[6]

Map of the Far East in 1602, by Matteo Ricci

Tension developed between Ricci and his followers and those of Ruggieri. Ricci's focus was on adapting to Confucianism and strongly rejecting Taoism, which Ruggieri's thesis was that there was a closer affinity between the Tao of Chinese thought and the incarnate Logos of the New Testament.

In 1584 Ricci published his first Chinese book: Tien Zhu Shi-lu (天主實錄 The True Account of God). In it he discussed the existence and attributes of God, as well as his providence. He explained how a man might know God through the natural law, the Mosaic law, and the Christian law. He wrote of the incarnation of Christ the Word and discussed the sacraments.

In his diary, he wrote: "From morning to night, I am kept busy discussing the doctrines of our faith. many desire to forsake their idols and become Christians".[7] His missionary directives were explicit:

Jesuits in China
Jesuit astronomers with Chinese scholars, Les Astronomes, Beauvais tapestry, 18th century.

"The work of evangelization, of making Christians, should be carried on both in Peking and in the provinces… following the methods of pacific penetration and cultural adaptation. Europeanism is to be shunned. Contact with Europeans, specifically with the Portuguese in Macau, should be reduced to a minimum. Strive to make good Christians rather than multitudes of indifferent Christians… Eventually when we have a goodly number of Christians, then perhaps it would not be impossible to present some memorial to the Emperor asking that the right of Christians to practice their religion be accorded, inasmuch as is not contrary to the laws of China. Our Lord will make known and discover to us little by little the appropriate means for bringing about in this matter His holy will.[8]

When Ricci died (1610) more than two thousand Chinese from all levels of society had confessed their faith in Jesus Christ.

Just as Ricci himself entered China at the age of 30 and spent the remaining 27 years of his life there, eventually dying in Beijing, his followers also entered China to stay there for the rest of their life. This level of commitment was necessitated by logistical reasons: Travel from Europe to China took many months, and sometimes years; and learning the country's language and culture was even more time-consuming When a Jesuit from China did travel to Europe, he typically did it as a representative ("procurator") of the China Mission, entrusted with the task of recruiting more Jesuit priests to come to China, ensuring continued support for the Mission from the Church's central authorities, and creating favorable publicity for the Mission and its policies by publishing both scholarly and popular literature about China and Jesuits.[9]

Dynastic change

The fall of the Ming Dynasty (1644) and the conquest of China by the Manchu Qing regime brought some difficult years for the Jesuits in China. While some Jesuit fathers managed to impress Manchu commanders with a display of western science of ecclesiastical finery and to be politely invited to join the new order (as did Johann Adam Schall von Bell in Beijing in 1644, or Martino Martini in Wenzhou ca. 1645-46),[10] others endured imprisonment and privations, as did Lodovico Buglio and Gabriel de Magalhaes in Sichuan in 1647-48[11] or Alvaro Semedo in Canton in 1649.

The Chinese Jesuit Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-Tsung visited France and Britain in 1684-1685. "The Chinese Convert" by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

During the several years of war between the newly established Qing and the Ming loyalist in southern China, it was not uncommon for some Jesuits to find themselves on different sides of the front lines: while Adam Schall was an important counselor of the Qing Shunzhi Emperor in Beijing, Michał Boym travelled from the the jungles of south-western China to Rome, carrying the plea of help from the court of the last Southern Ming emperor Zhu Youlang, and returned with the Pope's response that promised prayer, rather than military assstance.[12]

French Jesuits

In 1685, the French king Louis XIV sent a mission of five Jesuit "mathematicians" to China in an attempt to break the Portuguese predominance: Jean de Fontaney (1643-1710), Joachim Bouvet(1656-1730), Jean-François Gerbillon (1654-1707), Louis Le Comte (1655-1728) and Claude de Visdelou (1656-1737).[13]

Travel of Chinese Christians to Europe

Prior to the Jesuits, there had already been Chinese pilgrims who had made the journey westward, with two notable examples being Rabban bar Sauma and his younger companion who became Patriarch Mar Yaballaha III, in the 13th century. While not too many 17th-century Jesuits ever went back from China to Europe, it was not uncommon for them to be accompanied by young Chinese Christians. Some Chinese travelers to Europe were Andreas Zheng or Zhen (Wade-Giles: Cheng or Chen An-te-lo), who reached Venice and Rome with Michał Boym in 1652-55. He returned to Asia with Boym, whom he buried when the Jesuit died near the Vietnam-China border.[14] Andreas, along with another Chinese traveller who was called Matthaeus Sina in Latin (not positively identified, but possibly the person who traveled from China to Europe overland with Johann Grueber) contributed to the first European publication of the Nestorian Stele inscription.[15]

Better known is the European trip of Shen Fo-tsung in 1684–1685, who was presented to king Louis XIV on September 15, 1684, and also met with king James II.[16] becoming the first recorded instance of a Chinese man visiting Britain.[17] The king was so delighted by this visit that he had his portrait made, and had it hung in his bedroom.[17] Later, Arcadio Huang, another Chinese Jesuit, would also visit France, and was an early pioneer in the teaching of the Chinese language in France in 1715.

Scientific exchange

Confucius Sinarum Philosophus ("Life and works of Confucius"), by Father Philippe Couplet and Father Prospero Intorcetta, 1687.
The steam engine manufactured by Ferdinand Verbiest at the Qing Court in 1672.

The Jesuits introduced Western science and astronomy, then undergoing its own revolution, to China. "Jesuits were accepted in late Ming court circles as foreign literati, regarded as impressive especially for their knowledge of astronomy, calendar-making, mathematics, hydraulics, and geography."[18] In 1627, the Jesuit Johann Schreck produced the first book to present Western mechanical knowledge to a Chinese audience, Diagrams and explanations of the wonderful machines of the Far West.[19] This influence worked in both directions:

[The Jesuits] made efforts to translate western mathematical and astronomical works into Chinese and aroused the interest of Chinese scholars in these sciences. They made very extensive astronomical observation and carried out the first modern cartographic work in China. They also learned to appreciate the scientific achievements of this ancient culture and made them known in Europe. Through their correspondence European scientists first learned about the Chinese science and culture.[20]

Sabatino de Ursis (1575-1620) worked with Matteo Ricci on the Chinese translation of Euclid's Elements, published books in Chinese on Western hydraulics, and by predicting an eclipse which Chinese astronomers had not anticipated, opened the door to the reworking of the Chinese calendar using Western calculation techniques.

Portrait of Johann Adam Schall

Johann Adam Schall (1591-1666), a German Jesuit missionary to China organized successful missionary work, and became the trusted counsellor of the Shunzhi emperor of the Qing dynasty. He was created a mandarin, and held an important post in connection with the mathematical school, contributing to astronomical studies and the development of the Chinese calendar. Thanks to Schall, the motions of both the sun and moon began to be calculated with sinusoids in the 1645 Shíxiàn calendar (時憲書, Book of the Conformity of Time). His position enabled him to procure from the emperor permission for the Jesuits to build churches and to preach throughout the country. The Shunzhi emperor, however, died in 1661, and Schall's circumstances at once changed. He was imprisoned and condemned to death. The sentence was not carried out, but he died after his release owing to the privations he had endured. A collection of his manuscripts remains, and was deposited in the Vatican Library.

The Beitang Church was established in Beijing by the Jesuits in 1703.
A page from Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences et les arts des Chinois, 1780.

The Jesuits also endeavoured to build churches and demonstrate Western architectural styles. In 1605, they established the Nantang (Southern) Church, and in 1655 the Dongtang (Eastern) Church. In 1703 they established the Beitang (Northern) Church near Zhongnanhai (opposite the former Beijing Library), on a land bestowed by Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty to the Jesuit in 1694, following his recovery from illness thanks to medical expertise of Fathers Jean-François Gerbillon and Joachim Bouvet.[21]

The 1734 map compiled by d'Anville based on the Jesuits' geographic research during the early 1700s

In the early years of the 18th century, Jesuit cartographers travelled all over the Chinese Empire, performing astronomical observations to determine latitude and longitude (relative to Beijing) of various locations and drawing maps. Their work was summarized in a four-volume Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise published by Jean-Baptiste Du Halde in Paris in 1735, and a map compiled by Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville (published 1734).[22]

The Jesuits were also very active in transmitting Chinese knowledge to Europe, such as translating Confucius's works into European languages. Ricci had already started to report on the thoughts of Confucius, and Fathers Philippe Couplet and Prospero Intorcetta published Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, the life and works of Confucius in Latin in 1687.[23] It is thought that such works had considerable importance on European thinkers of the period, particularly those who were interested by the integration of the system of morality of Confucius into Christianity.[24][25]

Chinese sciences and technologies were also reported to the West by Jesuits. The French Jesuit Joseph-Marie Amiot wrote a Manchu dictionary Dictionnaire tatare-mantchou-français (Paris, 1789), a work of great value, the language having been previously quite unknown in Europe. He also wrote a 15 volume Treaty regarding the history, sciences and art of the Chinese, published in Paris in 1776-1791 (Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences et les arts des Chinois, 15 volumes, Paris, 1776-1791). His Vie de Confucius, the twelfth volume of that collection, was more complete and accurate than any predecessors.

Chinese Rites Controversy

In the early 18th century, a dispute within the Catholic Church, arose over whether Chinese folk religion rituals and offerings to the emperor constituted paganism or idolatry. This tension was led to what became known as the "Rites Controversy," a bitter struggle that broke out after Ricci's death and lasted for over a hundred years.

At first the focal point of dissension was Ricci's contention that the ceremonial rites of Confucianism and ancestor worship were primarily social and political in nature and could be practised by converts. The Dominicans charged that they were idolatrous; all acts of respect to the sage and one's ancestors were nothing less than the worship of demons. A Dominican carried the case to Rome, where it dragged on and on, largely because no one in the Vatican knew Chinese culture sufficiently to provide the pope with a ruling. Naturally, the Jesuits appealed to the Chinese emperor, who endorsed Ricci's position. Understandably, he was confused: missionaries attacked missionaries in his very capital! Should he expel them all?

The French Jesuit Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718-1793) was official translator of Western languages for Emperor Qianlong.

The timely discovery of the Nestorian monument in 1623 enabled the Jesuits to strengthen their position with the court by meeting an objection the Chinese often expressed - that Christianity was a new religion. They could now point to concrete evidence that a thousand years earlier the Christian gospel had been proclaimed in China; it was not a new but an old faith. The emperor then decided to expel all missionaries who failed to support Ricci's position.

The Spanish Franciscans, however, did not retreat without further struggle. Eventually they persuaded Pope Clement XI that the Jesuits were making dangerous accommodations to Chinese sensibilities. In 1704 they proscribed against the ancient use of the words Shang Di (supreme emperor) and Tien (heaven) for God. Naturally the Jesuits appealed this decision.

The controversy raged on. In 1742 Pope Benedict XIV officially opposed the Jesuits, forbade all worship of ancestors, and terminated further discussion of the issue. This decree was repealed in 1938. But the methodology of Matteo Ricci remained suspect until 1958, when Pope John XXIII, by decree in his encyclical Princeps Pastorum, proposed that Ricci become "the model of missionaries."

In the intervening years the Ming Dynasty collapsed (1644), to be replaced by the "non-scholarly" and foreign Manchus. At first, the Jesuits were employed and welcome in the court of K'ang-hsi. However, when Clement XI attempted to send Maillard de Tournon as an emissary to control the Jesuit Missionaries and restrict Christian tolerance and practice of Chinese Rites, the request was denied by K'ang-hsi. Further, Jesuit missionaries had to sign a document stating that they agreed to Confucian and ancestral rituals, and those who did not sign were deported. Maillard himself was imprisoned. In spite of this, the Jesuits continued to preach and work in China - but over time, the influence of the Catholic missionary orders began to wane. Pope Clement XIV dissolved the Society of Jesus in 1773. The withdrawal from China of this dynamic segment of the missionary force exposed the church to successive waves of persecution. Although many Chinese Christians were put to death and the congregation scattered, the church continued to manifest a "tough inward vitality" and kept growing.

Emperor Qianlong, by Charles-Eloi Asselin (1743-1805) after Giuseppe Panzi. Louvre Museum.

Among the last Jesuits to work at the Chinese court were Louis Antoine de Poirot (1735-1813) and Guiseppe Panzi (1734-before 1812) who worked for Emperor Qianlong as painters and translators.[26][27] From the 19th century, the role of the Jesuits in China was largely taken over by the Paris Foreign Missions Society.

See also


The Jesuits, such as Johann Schreck, translated European technical books into Chinese.
Left image: a description of a windlass well, in Agostino Ramelli, 1588.
Right image: Description of a windlass well, in Diagrams and explanations of the wonderful machines of the Far West, 1627.
  1. ^ Wigal, p.202
  2. ^ Mungello (2005), p. 37. Since Italians, Spaniards, Germans, Belgians, and Poles participated in missions too, the total of 920 probably only counts European Jesuits, and does not include Chinese members of the Society of Jesus.
  3. ^ Kenneth Scott, Christian Missions in China, p.83.
  4. ^ Article on the Jesuit cemetery in Beijing by journalist Ron Gluckman
  5. ^ George H. Dunne, Generation of Giants, p.28
  6. ^ Leonard M. Outerbride, The Lost Churches of China, p.85.
  7. ^ Johannes Beckmann, Dialogue with Chinese Religion, p.124-130.
  8. ^ George H. Dunne, Generation of Giants, p.44.
  9. ^ Mungello (1989), p. 49
  10. ^ Mungello (1989), p. 106-107
  11. ^ Mungello (1989), p. 91
  12. ^ Mungello (1989), p. 139
  13. ^ Eastern Magnificence and European Ingenuity: Clocks of Late Imperial China - Page 182 by Catherine Pagani (2001) [1]
  14. ^ Mungello (1989), p. 139-140
  15. ^ Mungello (1989), p. 167
  16. ^ Keevak, p.38 [2]
  17. ^ a b BBC
  18. ^ Patricia Buckley Ebrey, p 212
  19. ^ Ricci roundtable
  20. ^ Agustín Udías, p 53; quoted by Woods
  21. ^ Shenwen Li, p.235
  22. ^ Du Halde, Jean-Baptiste (1735). Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise. Volume IV. Paris: P.G. Lemercier.   There are numerous later editions as well, in French and English
  23. ^ John Parker, Windows into China: the Jesuits and their books, 1580-1730. Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1978. p.25. ISBN 0890730504
  24. ^ John Parker, Windows into China, p. 25.
  25. ^ John Hobson, The Eastern origins of Western Civilization, pp. 194-195. ISBN 0521547245
  26. ^ Swerts, p.18 [3]
  27. ^ Batalden, p.151 [4]


  • Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-521-43519-6.
  • Agustín Udías, Searching the Heavens and the Earth: The History of Jesuit Observatories (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003)
  • Lorry Swerts, Mon Van Genechten, Koen De Ridder, Mon Van Genechten (1903-1974): Flemish Missionary and Chinese Painter : Inculturation of Chinese Christian Art, Leuven University Press, 2002 ISBN 9058672220 ISBN 9789058672223
  • Stephen K. Batalden, Kathleen Cann, John Dean, Sowing the word: the cultural impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1804-2004 Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2004 ISBN 1905048084 ISBN 9781905048083
  • Thomas Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, (Washington, DC: Regenery, 2005), ISBN 0-89526-038-7
  • Wigal, Donald (2000) Historic Maritime Maps, Parkstone Press, New York, ISBN 1859957501
  • Mungello, David E. (1989). Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824812190.  
  • Mungello, David E. (2005). The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 074253815X.  

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