When Christianity was tolerated in early Qing China

Society & Culture

The Qing Emperor Kangxi made an important edict in 1692 that allowed the practice of Catholicism in China. This edict would be undone 30-some years later, but in that time, Jesuits made important contributions, most notably in the discipline of astronomy.

Jesuit astronomer with Kangxi

This Week in China’s History: March 22, 1692

On March 22, 1692, the Kangxi Emperor made an extraordinary pronouncement, decreeing that Roman Catholic churches in China be protected and permitted, and that any and all Qing subjects were welcome to worship in those churches.

Regular readers of this column may recall just a month ago when I wrote about how Kangxi’s son and successor, the Yongzheng Emperor, effectively outlawed Christianity in China. This week’s column is a bit of a prequel, looking at the 17th-century peak of China’s relationship with Christianity.

Christianity has been present in China for a long time. The so-called Nestorian stele, now found in the “forest of steles” museum in Xi’an, records the arrival of Christian priests in the Tang dynasty. Rare but regular missions — Franciscans especially — visited the Yuan court of the Mongols, but arrival of missionaries from the new Society of Jesus — Jesuits — in the 16th century increased Christianity’s profile, especially at the imperial court and within certain segments of Chinese society. Matteo Ricci, of the Society of Jesus, famously became the first Westerner to enter the Forbidden City, in 1601, and achieved celebrity status in Beijing in the years before he died in 1610.

The Jesuits were not the only order working in China at the time. The first Archbishop of what is now Beijing was the Franciscan John of Montecorvino, in the late Yuan dynasty. Dominicans arrived in the 1630s, but the Jesuits were the most successful, for reasons that bear directly on Kangxi’s toleration of the Order and, in turn, for Catholicism in China. Put simply, the Jesuits made it a lot easier for Chinese to become Christian. Called accommodation or acculturation, the idea is to adapt Catholic practices to Chinese local conditions. And it was either genius or heresy. (Or, as I like to say, why choose?)

Some elements of accommodation were very basic, like how to dress. In his concise introduction Matteo Ricci and the Catholic Mission to China, historian Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia illustrates how the first Jesuits arrived via the new Portuguese enclave at Macau (where they were involved with the slave trade in disturbing ways). Logically, these early Jesuits dressed as Buddhist priests, making an analogy from one religion to the other and assuming their spot in society would approximate their Buddhist counterparts. Ricci, though, came to question this decision: Jesuits, especially, saw themselves as intellectuals and social elites, a contrast to the Buddhists who were often viewed suspiciously by many in government and whose ascetic practices kept them far from elite company. Ricci saw his order as scholars as much as they were clerics, and found a more appropriate analogy in the Confucian scholars and officials at court.

The Confucian analogy made sense in many ways, especially for the “top down” conversion approach the Jesuits favored. Converting the aristocracy — ideally the emperor but at least political and social elites — was the way toward a Christian China in the Jesuits’ eyes, and the prestige that came from dressing as a Confucian scholar supported that. The dress also matched the Jesuits’ commitment to study, including of the Chinese language. But the analogy raised some problems as well.

Chief among these was what to do with “ancestor worship.” Consistent with Confucian emphasis on respect and devotion to one’s ancestors, many Chinese honored their ancestors by maintaining the names of the deceased on bamboo slips or pieces of paper or even stone tables, sometimes burning incense or lighting candles. Whether these arrangements should be called altars or shrines, or something less religious, was at the core of the dispute.

In 1659, the Catholic church provided guidance for its missions in Asia, saying specifically that missionaries should not insist on changes to local practices unless they were “clearly contrary to [Catholicism] and morality.” Ricci and the Jesuits used this guidance to interpret the ancestral rites as secular — the way you might hang a portrait of deceased parents or grandparents — or perhaps more in line with the lighting of a candle in remembrance of a loved one or even of venerating a saint. Such practices would be perfectly compatible with conversion to Christianity, and would not constitute idolatry or paganism.

Matteo Ricci codified his approach in a document published in 1603. Together with colleague Allesandro Valignano, Ricci saw the Chinese rites to be wholly compatible with Catholic teaching. As historian Paul Rule wrote, “Ricci believed that Chinese Catholics could be trusted to have correct intentions in performing such rituals — intentions of veneration, reverence, and emulation, not worship.”

This was one piece of a Jesuit strategy that served the order well. Besides permitting ancestral rites, the Jesuits focused on providing scientific knowledge. Jesuit astronomers predicted eclipses and other astronomical phenomena more accurately than the Chinese court astronomers did, leading to the promotion of men like the German Jesuit Adam Schall von Bell, who was appointed as an advisor to the last Ming emperor. The Ming observatory, located along the subway line in Beijing that traces the route of the old city wall, still stands with replicas of the Jesuit instruments from that period.

The success of the Jesuit mission — their Journey to the East, in the words of Liam Brockey’s history— earned them converts and influence. One of the Southern Ming emperors, ruling a rump court while fleeing the Manchu invaders, even wrote to the Pope seeking aid. Of course, the Manchus carried the day and swept to power in the 17th century, and the Jesuit influence survived the transition of dynasties. The early Qing emperors forged an even stronger connection with the Catholics. After serving the last Ming emperor, Adam Schall advised the Qing Shunzhi emperor, earning his trust and even holding a position in the Qing government before a scandal landed him and another Jesuit in prison. (Schall died before he was pardoned.)

Under Shunzhi’s son, Kangxi, the Jesuit influence in China reached its peak. Several hundred thousand Chinese had converted to Catholicism, and the emperor regularly debated matters of science and religion with French, Italian, and German Jesuits. Thus it was that in 1692, Kangxi issued his decree allowing the free practice and teaching of Catholicism.

The Jesuit success earned them enemies, however. Ricci’s broad policy of accommodation came under fire from other orders, especially Dominicans, which — depending on your point of view — were jealous of Jesuit results, or were more committed to the sanctity of Christian teaching. Kangxi’s decree was to some extent a response to Catholic priests who were beginning to impose a stricter interpretation of Chinese rites in relation to Christian teaching. Papal legates began informing Kangxi of new interpretations, not only about ancestral rites, but on the translation of God’s name and other matters, partly in connection with theological disputes, but also to do with political struggles in Europe between the Jesuits and other orders. Perhaps most disturbing to the Manchu sovereign, the Pope’s representatives were insisting that Rome, not Beijing, would be the ultimate source of earthly authority for Chinese Catholics.

Frustrated, Kangxi in 1707 issued an ultimatum: all Christians in China, including missionaries, had to abide by Matteo Ricci’s interpretation of the rites. Eight years later, Pope Clement XI responded in no uncertain terms: “Worship of Confucius, together with the worship of ancestors, is not allowed among Catholic converts. It is not allowed even though the converts appear in the ritual as bystanders.” Kangxi died less than a decade later, and his son expelled the missionaries and outlawed Christianity for failing to abide by his father’s rules.

Kangxi’s 1692 edict was already defensive, recognizing that two of the world’s great bureaucracies — the Qing empire and the Roman Catholic Church — might not be as compatible as it seemed. But in an era like today, when invective and recrimination dominates discourse between Europe and China, it is a welcome reminder that tolerance is possible.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.