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date: 06 July 2022

Jesuits and China

Abstract and Keywords

Arriving in China at the end of the sixteenth century, Jesuit missionaries experimented with an inventive policy of accommodation that relied on the support and insights of converted literati. The viewpoints and information they forwarded to Europe had profound religious, cultural, and political repercussions. The resulting controversies proved divisive to the point of almost destroying the nascent Church. After 1842, the Second Jesuit Mission in China had to deal with the results of the semicolonial context in which it had developed. From 1949 onward, Jesuits of Chinese nationality—present since the beginning of the mission—had to take the lead at the very time when the country’s political and religious conditions were undergoing radical transformation. Present-day scholarship has engaged in a hermeneutical analysis of the relationship that developed between the Jesuits, on the one hand, and Chinese culture and society, on the other.

Keywords: Jesuits, Society of Jesus, Ming dynasty, Qing dynasty, China missions, Confucianism, Enlightenment, astronomy, cartography, accommodation

“All tell me that one can go from China to Jerusalem. If this should be so, as I am told, I will write it to your Holy Charity, and how many leagues it is, and how long it would take to go.”

Francis Xavier to Ignatius of Loyola, Goa, April 9, 1552 (Costelloe, 1992: 387)

“For if I go to China I believe you will find me in one of two places: I shall either be a prisoner in the jail in Canton, or in Peking, where the king is said to be in permanent residence.”

Francis Xavier to Diogo Pereira, Sancian, November 12, 1552. (Costelloe, 1992: 453)

As Francis Xavier (1506–1552) prepared to embark to China from the Indian shores to which he had returned after spending more than two years in Japan, “the dream of Jerusalem,” endearing to the first Jesuit companions, comes back to the mind of Francis Xavier towards the end of his life. It is surprising now to read that “all” had told Xavier that the road was practicable: in 1602, the Jesuit brother Bento de Goes (1562–1607), who was staying at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, was ordered to take the route going to Beijing through Central Asia to determine whether a long and perilous sea journey could be avoided. He did eventually enter Northeast China, but at a cost of immense pain, and he recommended to the envoy of Matteo Ricci, who was assisting him on his deathbed, not to repeat the adventure.

The mention of Jerusalem in connection with China reveals the significance of the Chinese capital as an eschatological node of the evangelical mission. In Japan, Francis Xavier had met with an unexpected objection: what could be the value of a message that the Chinese sages had never heard about? So China needed to be converted first. Beijing became the Jerusalem of Asia, and the road that linked one capital to the other sketched a new map of the spiritual routes that divide and unite the world.

Francis Xavier died on the islet of Sancian (pinyin: Shangchuan) on December 3, 1552, without having been able to land on the Chinese continent. But he was leaving a complex, double dream to his companions—the dream of martyrdom, the dream of conquering China on a “Constantinian “ model by converting the emperor, or both. The dream outlined by Xavier was going to continue—expanded, transformed, and betrayed—through the contacts and endeavors that would follow, contacts and endeavors of such consequence that they would remold the self-understanding of both China and the Jesuit Order.

In addition, the cultural alloy that occurred between the spirituality of the Order founded by Ignatius and his companions, on the one hand, and the spirit of modern Europe, on the other, was going to give a more universal significance to the culture shock experienced on the Chinese soil by the Jesuits. Through the circulation of Jesuit Letters and Relations, the whole of Europe was going to question the categories through which it was drawing the figure of the Other. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Jesuits would begin to lose their quasi-monopoly on nascent “Sinology,” but they would remain privileged witnesses of the relationships developing among religious systems, modes of thought, and symbolic codes rooted in collective memories that could no longer ignore each other.

Historiography on the subject traditionally divides between the First Mission (1552–1773) and the second Mission (1842–1949). The period following 1949 is starting to receive specific attention from contemporary historiographers. The history of the relationship between the Jesuits and China is part of global cultural history, extending to scientific exchanges (Elman, 2006), cartography, astronomy, botany, painting, engraving, ethnomusicology, and even the art of gun making. During the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, science and religion were not yet separated domains of life as they are in the post-Enlightenment period (Standaert, 2001a), and this fact was reflected in the curriculum of studies of the Jesuits themselves, which largely determined how they presented Christianity in China. However, while trying to do justice to the intrinsic plurality of its subject-matter, this essay primarily deals with questions such as: How did Jesuits introduce Christianity into China, and how was their input understood, transformed, and acculturated by Chinese converts? What was the understanding of Chinese religions developed by Jesuits, and how did such understanding impact modern understanding of religion, both in the West and in China? How did Jesuits react to the events and debates that reconfigured the religious space in modern and contemporary China? As illustrated by the works quoted throughout this essay, modern scholarship has contributed to addressing these questions from thorough and detailed studies on the First Mission to vast areas of still unchecked territory for the succeeding periods.

1552–1700: Mapping New Worlds

Since the mid-1980s, the relationship between Jesuits and China has awakened renewed academic interest, partly rekindled by China’s growing role on the global scene, which has contributed to highlighting this episode in the history of globalization. The field has transitioned from classical missiology to highly sophisticated studies based on original Chinese material and other sources. From the epics of the early missionaries (see Pfister, 1932, or the still excellent Dunne’s Generation of Giants, 1962), scholarly focus has switched to the reception of Christianity, giving due voice to the story of Chinese Christians, both as individuals and as communities. Researchers often stress that the exchange has resulted in cultural creativity manifested in the “interweaving of rituals” (Standaert, 2008), new artistic styles, and local forms of religious sociability (see Menegon, 2009, for a case study in Fujian province that deals with Dominicans rather than Jesuits). The attention given to these processes of mutual interaction should encourage scholars to revive the study of traditional but still very arduous topics, especially that of the Rites Controversy, which may constitute the first global controversy of modern times. Among other instruments allowing for detailed, crosscultural research, the Chinese Christian Texts Database maintained at KU Leuven should be mentioned. It originally included only Chinese primary sources, but now European primary sources are gradually being added to the database. It includes secondary sources and bibliographic resources as well.

In the Jesuit educational cursus as drawn by the Ratio Studiorum, the art of perspective was considered a branch of mathematics, alongside geometry, cosmography, and geography. To draw a map, and to make use of the combined resources of geometry and perspective, was akin to defining a new territory. The mapping of tempire Qing Empire would be the “cooperative project” par excellence between missionaries and Chinese (Foss, 1988; Standaert, 2000; Chen, 2009.) The mapping process serves as a metaphor for the endeavors undertaken in other fields of knowledge: treaties, letters, and relations announced to their recipients the existence of continents of thought unheard of. From the late sixteenth century until well into the eighteenth century, the Jesuits going to China played the role of cartographers, drawing the maps of new territories that each side would progressively need to explore (Mungello, 1989). Upon his entry into China, Matteo Ricci charted a world map with Chinese literati that he would enrich and correct until the end of his life. The apologetic and scientific writings of Matteo Ricci functioned as routes cut throughout the “Western sciences” (xixue), routes that his successors would detail further. For instance, Alfonso Vagnone (1568–1640) explicitly divided his argument according to Aristotelian categories and introduced China to Aristotelian ethics (Meynard, 2013b); sinograms were used to account for Christian notions, serving as markers while progressively establishing a Chinese theological language; maps of the sky, still based on the Ptolemaic model, underpinned the accuracy of astronomical predictions made by the newcomers; the Jesuits, commissioned by the emperor to map the whole empire, would do so for the benefit of both their Chinese master and the European public; brief catechisms in Chinese and engravings that accompanied them traced the routes of the celestial kingdom; finally, selected translations intersected Chinese and Western knowledge, working as graphs by which to find one’s way throughout teeming masses, who were still strangers to each other.

The young Italian missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in Macau in 1582. Born in 1552, Ricci entered the Jesuit novitiate in Rome in 1571, where he undertook a course of humanistic and scientific studies. Encyclopedic in scope, the science taught in Rome at that time was highly organized (Criveller, 2010a). The mnemonic methods Ricci acquired, along with his sharp sense of order and method, would serve him well once he reached China (see Spence, 1984; but R. P. Hsia, 2010, minimizes the practical impact of Ricci’s mnemonic prowess). Ricci asked his superiors to be sent to the mission of India. He arrived in Cochin, and was ordained priest there in 1580. From there, he was sent to Macao, where he immediately began to study the language and wrote, with his compatriot Michele Ruggieri (1543–1607), a Chinese-Portuguese lexicon, seeking at the same time to codify a coherent system of Romanization (Witek, 2001). In September 1583, along with Michel Ruggieri, whose knowledge of Chinese etiquette had helped win the goodwill of the authorities of the province of Guangzhou, Ricci moved to Zhaoqing, near Canton, and used his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy to initiate contacts with scholars. He would remain in the province of Guangzhou for twelve years, although his residence in the city of Shaozhou proved to be particularly challenging, with the death of two of his companions after a popular uprising against the Jesuit presence. After three years in Nanchang in Jiangxi Province, Ricci firmly established the method of intellectual apostolate that he was to apply fully in the cities of Nanjing and Beijing. In 1601, he finally settled in Beijing with his confrere Diego de Pantoja (1571–1618) after having presented gifts to the Emperor Wanli of religious paintings, books, clocks, musical instruments, mirrors, and rhino horn. In 1605, the Jesuits acquired a house and land on which they eventually built a church, or rather a “glorified chapel” in 1610–1611 (Guillen Nuñez, 2010: 105), the first religious building of European style in China.

During the last nine years of his life Ricci focused on intercultural and interfaith work, while also tending the nascent Catholic community of Beijing. Together with his friend—the great statesman, scientist, and agronomist Xu Guangqi (1562–1633)—he translated the first six books of Euclid, Elements of Geometry. He also published several editions of the first world map known in China; completed his major apologetic work, The True Sense of the Lord of Heaven (Tianzhu sheyi), and a short presentation of the Christian doctrine, The Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven (Tianzhu jiaoyi); and fostered deep friendships with several scholars of the time. Ricci’s ability to work in cooperation with Chinese literati helped give an autonomous intellectual and moral foundation to the young Chinese Church from the outset. Indeed, Xu Guangqi, Li Zhizhao (1565–1630), and Yang Tingyun (1557–1627; see Standaert, 1988) acted as the “three pillars of the Chinese Church,” as they are still commonly called. Many other converts played a decisive role. Among them, the unfortunate general Sun Yuanhua (1581–1632) would be found guilty and condemned to death after a military defeat. Sun Yunhua, together with other converts, had tried to save the waning Ming dynasty by initiating the purchase of canons of Portuguese design in Macal before casting more of them in China. (Huang, 2001).

The role played by Chinese converts is vividly illustrated by Xu Guangqi and subsequently by his family. Xu Guangqi returned to Shanghai in 1608 for the prescribed period of mourning that followed the death of one’s father. Having been baptized just five years earlier, Xu appointed Lazzaro Cattaneo (1560–1640) to instruct his household in the faith. In 1609, Xu presented sixty candidates for baptism. His properties became the center of the Catholic mission. His granddaughter Candida Xu (1607–1680) commissioned the building of more than thirty churches in the country. In 1703, four Jesuits served the two churches and thirty chapels of Shanghai.

The missionary method implemented by Ricci was designed and adopted through the resolute initiative of the Jesuit Visitor for the missions of India and the Far East, Alessandro Valignano (1539–1606; Standaert, 1999; Criveller, 2010b). Valignano developed a policy of cultural accommodation that was shaped by his experience in Japan at the same time that a Spanish Jesuit, Alonso Sanchez, petitioned the Castilian court pleading for a military expedition against the Chinese empire so as to better evangelize it. The death of four successive popes undermined the notion project of a war of conquest, as well as the aim of a papal embassy to China. Valignano’s policy would be given the opportunity to take root and bear fruit, but its adoption was anything but obvious at the start.

The “Valignano-Ricci” method was based on several effective organizing principles. First and foremost was adaptation to local customs—including the style of clothing proper to the Confucian literati. Second, it focused on elites, local and national, thus requiring missionaries to study the Confucian classics that formed the basis of imperial examinations. Third, it fostered indirect evangelization; that is, Western science and technology (astronomy, watchmaking, geometry, mapping, and so forth) were introduced in China as confirmation of the truth of Christianity. Ricci had brought with him the Treaty of the Sphere of the World (1570) of Clavius and the Sfera del Mondo by Fr. Piccolomini. A few years later, Clavius sent Ricci what were then more contemporary works (Gnonomices, 1581; Astrolabium, 1593). What the Jesuit Alvarez Semedo (1586–1658) writes of the convert Leo Li Zhizhao testifies to the success of this approach: “Our Leo, endowed with a keen and ardent spirit was eager to learn, and such desire made him enter into conversation and familiarity with our Fathers: he could not depart from their company after he had tasted the order and the beauty of our sciences, and particularly the curious and innocent pleasures of Geography. He was dealing with the Science of God together with human sciences, marrying Heaven and Earth. He was learning conjointly the positioning of the kingdoms of the world, and the Laws of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ” (Semedo, 1996 [1667]: 216).

The fourth feature of the Jesuit method was its openness to Chinese values. The apologetic treaty written by Ricci (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven) makes skilled use of Confucian vocabulary and worldview while remaining structured by Aristotelian and Thomist logic (Meynard, 2013a). Ricci also aimed to present to Europe the civilization he was discovering, but his Latin translations of Chinese classics have been lost.

The Successors of Ricci: Achievements and Controversies

At the time of Ricci’s death (1610), there were eleven Jesuits in China, and perhaps 2,500 Christians—there would be twice as many only five years later (Standaert, 1991, 2001b: 380–393). The balance to be struck between a presence at the Court and a direct apostolate in the provinces was one of the debates that would soon agitate the successors of Ricci. During his lifetime, already some Jesuits had tried to focus on the explanation of the Ten Commandments, devotional practices, and the distribution of medals. Short catechetical texts, often written in dialogical form, were distributed to those who could read, who were then questioned about their content prior to baptism. Later, similar means would be used to develop Marian congregations and other devotional groups. These congregations would maintain Christian faith and practice after the banishment of the missionaries.

The division of work among the Jesuits in charge of direct apostolate and those focusing on Court presence was to continue during the whole of the First Mission (some missionaries alternated between the two). The Jesuits were to receive the strategic responsibility of heading the Bureau of Astronomy (qintianjian), they were to paint, compose music, make cannons, act as ambassadors between China and Russia, undertake mapping coverage of the empire, publish religious and scientific books, while also sending to Europe a wealth of letters and memoranda on the arts, techniques, doctrines, chronology, botany, and geography of China (Pinot, 1932; on the corporate identity of China Jesuits as scientists, see F. Hsia, 2010). The Court Jesuits were able to advocate for their confreres facing dangerous situations: from the start, many Chinese scholars and officials were concerned about the influence that foreigners exerted on the cultural and political system. In addition, other religious congregations (and some of the Jesuits themselves) were less accommodating than Ricci and the majority of his successors, less willing to adopt Chinese rites, those addressed to the manes of Confucius and to ancestral tablets in particular. The Rites Controversy was to destabilize the young Church, fomenting internal strife and external hostility.

Conflicts begin soon after the death of Ricci. His successor as head of the mission of China was a Sicilian, Niccolò Longobardo (1565–1655), who was very much ill at ease with the terms Tianzhu (Lord of Heaven) and Shangdi (emperor from above) having been adopted to refer to the Christian God. He was even more dubious of Ricci’s statement that the ancient Chinese philosophers were theists, while the introduction of Buddhism in Song Dynasty Confucianism had driven modern Chinese thinkers to atheism. Jesuits of the Japanese mission repatriated in Macao, such as João Rodrigues Tçuzu (1561–1633), were even more critical (Pina, 2003). Early on, divisions occurred between the Court Jesuits, who were in close dialogue with scholars-officials, and their colleagues facing the popular beliefs “rationalized “ by these same scholars. The dispute became public in 1633 when newly arrived Dominican missionaries openly attacked the theological and linguistic accommodations already made. An internal memoir by Longobardo, probably written around 1623–1624, was published in Paris in 1701 (on the textual history and impact of the memoir, see Bernard-Maître, 1949; Standaert, 1988: 183 sq; Gernet, 1982: 45–58). Leibniz wrote his Discours sur la théologie naturelle des Chinois (1716) on the basis of the French translation of Longobardo’s memoir but reached the opposite conclusions, finding a “natural theology” that was, he asserted, closer to Christianity than the one expounded by Descartes.

This is not the place to describe the twists and turns of the Chinese Rites Controversy, which spanned over a century and was utterly destructive for the local Church (see in particular Standaert, 2012; Criveller, 2012; Brockey, 2007: 164–203; Standaert, 2001a: 680–688; Mungello, 1994). Religious congregations, Chinese scholars, the imperial administration, and representatives of the Papacy were at odds regarding terminology (not only the name of God, but also such notions as angels and soul) and the civil or religious nature of the rites celebrated in honor of Confucius and the ancestors, with each group asserting its own expertise and authority. Roman hesitations were reflected in a series of edicts enacting conflicting decisions, until the ban on Chinese Rites was pronounced by Benedict XIV in 1742 (the first Roman survey on the question began in 1639). This decision was later reversed, and the Chinese rites were authorized in 1939. On the Chinese side, the Edict of Tolerance issued by Emperor Kangxi in 1692 was followed by decisions increasingly hostile to Christianity, coupled with episodic repression, until the missionaries not working at the Court were expelled in 1724 and anti-Christian repression became the norm with the edicts of 1724 and 1746. Some Jesuits remained close to the emperor: notably, the directors of the Bureau of Astronomy, Ignatius Kögler (1680–1746) and Augustin von Hallerstein (1703–1774), the painter and architect Brother Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), and his successor in the same office, Brother Jean-Denis Attiret (1702–1768).

The Rites Controversy was in large part about the distinction between the “civil” and the “religious,” from which a related topic arose: namely, how Jesuit scholarship shaped the understanding of “Chinese (popular) religion.” John Lagerwey has argued that the civil/religious distinction was basically misrepresenting the very nature of Chinese rituals, while contributing to the modernist approach of “Religion” in Europe. He notes: “The Chinese elite was, in many ways, a willing participant in the Jesuit misinterpretation…. The neo-Confucian elite had its own project, namely to transform Chinese society by ridding it of the rituals of shamans, Buddhists, and Taoists, and putting Confucian rituals in their place” (Lagerwey, 2010: 3).

In fact, the situation of the missionaries had always been precarious. Already in 1617, the zeal of Alfonso Vagnone in Nanjing had earned him a beating and imprisonment in a cage in which he was transported to Canton, before being deported to Macau with five of his colleagues. This early blow could have been fatal, since the Jesuit mission at that time comprised eight European priests and six Chinese brothers, two of whom were sentenced to forced labor as a result of this incident. Nevertheless, through the efforts of scholars converted to Christianity, the effect of the proscription ceased around 1623. The accusations brought by the authorities of Nanjing had to do with supposed similarities between the new religion and millenarian sects. Economic and political ties with Macao and the Portuguese constituted another charge. Finally, it is possible that the haste that missionaries and converts had shown in their desire to reform the Imperial Calendar had generated opposition (Dudink, 2001).

In 1629, if there were twenty-six Jesuits in China, the five Chinese among them were all coadjutor brothers. The first Chinese ordained priest (in 1656) was not a Jesuit but a Dominican from Fujian who had passed through the Philippines, Luo Wenzao (1616–1691). He would also become a bishop in 1685 (the only Chinese bishop before the twentieth century); in 1688 he in turn ordained three Chinese Jesuits, including Wu Yushan (also known as Wu Li, 1632–1718, one of the greatest painters and poets of the Qing dynasty), Lin Yunde (1628–1707), and Wang Qiyuan (1631–1700). Before then, the Jesuits had only elevated Zheng Weixin (1633–1673), also known as Manuel de Siqueira from Macao, to the priesthood in 1664. There were acrimonious debates among Jesuits on the sensitive issue of the priestly ordination of Chinese. Jacques Motel (1619–1692) based his opposition on two reasons: (1) if a Chinese priest broke his vows of celibacy, the civil courts would support him, as it was customary for Buddhist monks to enter or leave “at will”; and (2) Chinese priests would soon be tempted to introduce the teachings of “the Moors or the Bonzes” into Catholic doctrine (Brockey, 2007: 147). But it was the opposite option that would ultimately triumph: in the second half of the eighteenth century, Chinese constituted about a third of the Jesuits in China, and almost all were priests. Let us note here that the role of Chinese Jesuits in the Mission is often overlooked by scholars. (The book by Brockey, 2007, although recent and particularly well informed, is a good example of this persisting trend.)

Around the years 1633 and 1636, the Church grew steadily to 38,000 converts (including at least 120 members of the imperial family and 120 palace eunuchs), reaching possibly 150,000 in 1650 (although another estimate gives the figure of 114,000 in 1662). In 1634 there were twelve Jesuit residences in seven of the fifteen provinces of China. The clearest successes were recorded in the vicinity of Shanghai, under the active patronage of Candida Xu, granddaughter of Xu Guangqi. In Shanxi, Fr. Etienne Faber (1597–1657), a native of Avignon, was the object of a popular cult at his death, a cult that was still alive around 1935. In 1640, the extension of the mission and the deterioration of the political situation led to the division of the Chinese Province into two vice-provinces. The northern province was first directed by Giulio Aleni (1582–1649), and the southern one by the Portuguese Francisco Furtado (1589–1653). Furtado, a talented linguist, had translated some texts of Aristotle and written Chinese commentaries on them. After a stay in Hangzhou (in 1620 Hangzhou was one of the bridgeheads of the Jesuit presence in China, thanks to the protection of Yang Tingyun), Aleni had founded missions in Jiangxi and Fujian. Aleni also initiated a mission in Shanxi, taken over in 1624 by Vagnone when, after the persecution of Nanjing, he returned under the guise of a new Chinese name. Aleni is probably the Jesuit who realized the most successful synthesis of direct apostolate and dialogue with the literati. His works that remain include liturgical fragments and, most notably, oral exhortations, familiar conversations about faith and the person of Christ, recorded and edited by his literary friends (Zürcher, 2007; Criveller, 1997). Also notable was his initiative in 1637 to engrave an illustrated life of Christ, based on a wide selection from the Evangelicae Historiae Imagines edited by Jerome Nadal in Antwerp in 1593. The engravings of this work represent the first known synthesis between Renaissance art and Chinese aesthetic concepts. After the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Aleni remained in the southern part of the empire, alongside the pretender to the throne from the late dynasty, a choice contrary to that of his colleagues in Beijing.

Books, Stars, and Guns

Following the example of Ricci, Nicolas Trigualt (1577–1628) worked toward a consistent Romanization system of the Chinese language. This native of Douai arrived in Macau in 1610, in Nanjing in 1611, and in Beijing in 1613. Entrusted with the tasks of reporting to Europe and recruiting on behalf of the mission, he returned to Europe in 1613. He translated Ricci’s De Christiana Expeditione apud Sinas from Italian into Latin, published in 1615, and followed this with a vernacular version published throughout Europe the next year and onward. Although generally faithful, the translation of Trigault sometimes changes the original Italian. It shortens and minimizes what Ricci had to say about prostitution, polygamy, and homosexuality in Chinese society. Some other changes were meant to defuse charges that Ricci was too complacent toward Chinese rites. For example, in the original manuscript, Ricci notes that ceremonies to Confucius include the offering of incense and a sacrificed animal, but he denies any religious character to these ceremonies. Trigault’s translation eliminates the reference to animal sacrifice and to any kind of sacrificial veneration toward Confucius (Ricci and Trigault, 1978 [1615]): 17–18; Gernet, 2003).

Knowledge of Chinese thought and the classical texts on which it was grounded progressed in parallel. Philippe Couplet, helped by Christian Wolfgang Herdrich, Propsero Intorcetta, and François de Rougemont, published the first Latin translation of three of the Confucian “Four Books” in Paris in 1687. It was based on missionary translations undertaken in China for almost a century and dedicated to the King of France. The new book, entitled Confucius, sinarum philosophus, spread throughout Europe (see Meynard, 2011). Philippe Couplet was enthusiastic about the philosophy of Confucius: “We can say that the ethical system of the philosopher Confucius is sublime. It is at the same time simple, sensible, and derived from the best sources of natural reason. Never has human reason, without the support of Divine Revelation reached such a level and such a force.”

When it comes to geography and history, Martino Martini (1614–1661) deserves to be remembered for the impact his work had on philosophical debate in Europe. He significantly enriched the field of Chinese chronology, which was at the forefront of sinological, critical, and apologetic concerns of the time: the anteriority of Chinese civilization on Christian civilization seemed to make the establishment of any agreement between the Chinese and biblical chronologies impossible. Martini wrote a Sinicae historiae decas primas in 1658, in which he established a series of dates from Fuxi (2952 B.C.) to the beginning of the Christian era, and this work played an essential role in the questioning of a literal understanding of biblical chronologies. Previously, he published an account of the Manchu conquest, which he had witnessed from Zhejiang, in De bello tartarico historia (Antwerp, 1654)—a work published twenty-eight times in eight languages between 1654 and 1666, proof of the interest awakened in Europe by the political changes in China at that time. Martini made a contribution of another kind with the Novus Atlas Sinensis (Amsterdam, 1655). During a trip back to Europe to plead for accommodation during the Rites Controversy, he helped the Dutch mathematician Isaac Golius (1596–1667) publish the twelve-year cycle of the Chinese calendar, which provided a reasoned explanation of the Chinese calendar system. Martini succeeded in obtaining a Papal decree in favor of the use of Chinese rites. But the quarrel was soon to rebound. He is also famous for the construction of the Cathedral of Hangzhou, completed the year of his death.

In the field of botany, the Polish Jesuit Michael Boym (1612–1659) published his Flora Sinensis in 1656 in Vienna, along with many other works in medicine, cartography, and lexicography, thus making him a kind of encyclopedist (Szczesniak, 1949–1955). Like Aleni, Michael Boym chose to remain loyal to the Ming dynasty and even went to Rome with letters from dignitaries, including the fallen Empress and other members of the imperial family converted to Christianity. The son of the pretender to the throne was christened Constantin. Boym’s initiative earned him reprimands from his superiors. With the failure of this delegation and the collapse of the Ming dynasty, the first “Chinese Constantinian dream” had come to an end. But other Jesuits were already reviving it under another garb.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688) are the names one usually attaches to Matteo Ricci. Together they composed the “Trinity “ of the first Jesuit mission in China. Born in Cologne, Adam Schall began his missionary career by translating a book of mechanics and, in the process, won friendships that enabled him to build a church in Xi’an. In this ancient Chinese capital he was able to map caravan routes. However, it is the reform of the Chinese calendar that would reveal his full potential.

In 1629, at the instigation of Xu Guangqi, Johann Terenz Schreck (1576–1630), a pupil of Galileo, had made the prediction of a solar eclipse. Its accuracy showed the shortcomings of the systems that Chinese Muslims were using to calculate the Imperial Calendar—an act of the highest political impact, since its purpose was to determine auspicious and inauspicious days and the smooth running of all social activities. The death of Schreck seven months after his subsequent appointment to the Bureau of Astronomy and, two years later, the death of Xu Guangqi (who for several years had played a leading role in promoting a calendar reform he considered essential both to the protection of the reigning dynasty and the propagation of the faith) were to give a prominent place to Adam Schall.

The success of Adam Schall in the (still partial) reform of the Imperial Calendar would earn him the highest honors. In 1639, the day of the feast of the Epiphany, the emperor sent him a tablet celebrating his talents in the field of “celestial studies” (tianxue), a term used in astronomy but that Christians recognized as a tribute to the Christian religion—astronomy and theology were somehow married in the person of Schall. He had baptized the influential eunuch Pang Tianshou, and could celebrate Mass for the staff of the Forbidden City in a private chapel. He also oversaw the deployment of guns for the Ming Dynasty used during the final assault of the Manchu troops. During the dramatic change of dynasty (1644), he stayed in Beijing against the advice of his superiors and, under great peril, continued to use the Jesuit residence, chapel, and library. His subsequent allegiance to the Manchu regime proved providential for the Jesuits, who initially thought they had lost everything with the end of the Ming dynasty.

The new regime quickly confirmed Schall as director of the office of astronomy—again, the correct prediction of an eclipse played a key role in the confirmation—and he formed a quasi father-son relationship with the young Emperor Shunzhi (1638–1661). His position and, more important, his obvious intellectual superiority earned him great hostility both within the Society of Jesus and among other congregations. His confreres Magalhaes, Buglio, Furtado, Longobardo, and Ferreira petitioned for his dismissal from the Society, but a committee exonerated him from all charges. Still, the accusations found their way out of the Jesuit order, and they were used after the death of Schall in the context of the Rites Controversy (Dunne, 1962: 245 sq).

In 1664, Schall underwent an ordeal that would shorten his life: accused by the astronomer Yang Guangxian of calendar miscalculations that caused the death of the empress, Schall was imprisoned with three fellow Jesuits working in the same office, then tried, convicted, and condemned to death by the “one thousand knives” supplice. The appearance of a comet and an earthquake that shook Beijing while he was in prison helped him to escape that fate: a number of mandarins convinced the regent that Heaven obviously opposed the verdict. Schall was released, but he would be rehabilitated only after his death in 1665. At the time of his condemnation, thirty out of the thirty-three foreign missionaries in China were ordered to remain in custody in Canton. Their sentence was lifted in 1671, due to the impressive successes of Verbiest in astronomical prediction (on Verbiest’s scientific achievements, see notably Golvers, 1993).

Focusing on scientific work at the expense of apostolic preaching posed problems of conscience to some Jesuits: Giacomo Rho (1592–1638), associated with Schall in the calendar reform, related the torments he experienced before his guardian angel revealed to him the solution: by missing a few hours sleep he could still produce some religious books. And, in fact, with the help of literary friends, he published six such books before his untimely death, among them an adaptation of one hundred maxims of Teresa of Avila and explanations of the Pastor Noster and the Ave Maria. This story illustrates a general trend. The success of Schall and Verbiest, as well as their amazing productivity, gave them more intellectual latitude: their writings illustrate a partial return to the attempt to link astronomical demonstrations and proofs of the existence of God as a whole, an attempt that had been costly to the Jesuits at the time of the Nanjing persecution (Dudink, 2001: 221–223).

Five French Jesuits arrived in China in 1687 with the title “Mathematicians of the King”—and they became mathematics teachers of the Emperor Kangxi. Their success in curing the emperor of fever by administering quinine (Witek, 1982: 62) earned them the gift of a plot of land inside the Imperial Palace grounds on which was later constructed a church, a residence, a library, an astronomical observatory, and a collection of scientific objects. Within fifteen years after their arrival, forty French Jesuits would arrive in China (Jamy, 1995). In its own way, the Jesuit Mission was entering the Age of Enlightenment.

Languages and Metalanguage (1700–1775)

In 1700, disagreements between Portuguese and French Jesuits led to a restructuring of the mission into two new vice-provinces, one with a Portuguese Superior and the other with a French one. Moreover, in the same year, four French Jesuits received the order from Kangxi to map the area around the capital. This would be the starting point for a complete mapping of the empire (Hostetler, 2005). However, at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, metaphors other than that of mapping may help realize what was at stake in this new period: the Figurist project, which involved the systematic search for correspondences between the Chinese classics and the Bible, was an exploration of the linguistic and sapiential resources proper to China in order to establish a metalanguage transcribing the beliefs and knowledge of humankind. Music and dance also figured as a metalanguage in the research led by Joseph Marie Amiot. Descriptions of Chinese political and technological practices similarly deconstruct the codes of Western knowledge. In other words, a China-generated episteme questioned spheres of knowledge (biblical chronology, logic and metaphysics, the distinction between human wisdom and biblical revelation) that were previously thought unbreakable from the faith being proclaimed.

There were eighty-two active Jesuits in Chinese territory in 1701. This number would never be reached or exceeded during the first Jesuit mission. Note, however, that in the early eighteenth century, the total number of Jesuits in the world oscillated between 17,000 and 19,000. During the time of Matteo Ricci there were never more than twenty-one Jesuits in China, and in the 1680s there were between thirty and forty. From 1707 onward, the Rites Controversy negatively affected the number of Jesuits in China—with the exception of Chinese Jesuits, who went from six to twenty-two between 1732 and 1743. Chinese became the largest national group in the Jesuit mission in 1748. As for other nationalities, the Italian group remained relatively stable in proportion throughout the course of the mission, while the Portuguese Jesuits predominated until the first third of the eighteenth century, before the French became the most numerous group during a short period (1731–1743). The “lifetime” of a Jesuit within the Chinese mission is quite high: a little more than twenty years on average, with a continuous presence of sixty years in one case (Standaert, 1991, and 2001a: 306–308).

By 1700, the Jesuits who were not stationed at the Court were responsible for the service of the 266 churches, 14 chapels, and 290 oratories founded by the Order throughout a significant portion of the territory. A catechist is normally in permanent residence in each church. The vice-provincial Antoine Thomas estimated the number of Christians then served by the Jesuits at about 196,000 (Brockey, 2007: 174–176.). After 1700, this number declined steadily due to progressive restrictions and, later on, persecutions. When the suppression of the Jesuit order became effective in China (1775), only twenty-six of its members were still present in the territory of the empire. Jesuits remained in the court of the emperor until 1811, but they were no longer officially “Jesuits,” since the Society of Jesus no longer existed, except in Russia (it was restored by Rome in 1814).

Jesuit narratives provided “evidences from China” (Landry-Deron, 2002) that customs, religious traditions, and political systems observed in Europe were a product of history rather than inscribed in nature and—most importantly—that advanced civilizations could take shape and evolve in other than Mediterranean and European civilizations. Confucianism in particular provided the model of a “civil religion” based on reason and a guarantor of social order without being bound to the dogmas of the Christian religion. However, let us keep in mind that readers of Jesuit literature on China could still draw the conclusions that suited them best: Montesquieu, for his part, would find food for his criticism of “ Asiatic despotism” there.

Let us return to the French Jesuits here, the “mathematicians of the King” who landed in Ningbo in July 1687. The arrival of Claude Visdelou (1656–1737), Jean-François Gerbillon (1654–1707), Louis Le Comte (1655–1728), Joachim Bouvet (1656–1730), and Jean Fontaney (1643–1710) inaugurated a new relationship between Europe and China. That they were sent directly by Louis XIV, in defiance of the padroado, irritated their Portuguese colleagues, and dissension followed in turn within the Jesuit community in Beijing, thus illustrating the rise of European nationalisms occurring at the time.

One of these Jesuits, Joachim Bouvet, corresponded with Leibniz, suggesting to him the connection between the binary system of arithmetic and the hexagrams of the Yijing (Mungello, 1977). But Bouvet was not writing about mathematics only: “Figurism”—that is, the systematic search for correspondences between the Chinese classics and the Bible—occupied most of his thought. Bouvet was an enthusiast of this system, although his superiors progressively hindered research on the subject, but Bouvet believed in the prophetic character of his mission. The Figurist endeavor illustrates the intricacy of the questions that China was raising for the traditional Christian understanding of history, religions, and the human spirit (Collani, 1985; Witek, 1982). One can see in it a foreshadowing of “contextual theology,” but the Figurist movement also showed the deadlock of a mode of reading the Bible that the critical advances of the seventeenth century had not yet managed to dethrone. The approach of Bouvet resulted primarily from his admiration for the Yijing (The Book of Changes) in which he was seeing a “key,” a metalanguage, “applicable to all sciences”: theology, philosophy, and science could be united and written through a language—the one provided by the “figures” of the hexagrams that were “the writing system used by scholars before the Flood” (Letter of Bouvet to Leibniz of February 28, 1698, in Mungello, 1977: 314). The heterodoxy of the system did not prevent it from influencing Leibniz’s philosophical quest for a universal language. Such a quest, almost alchemical in nature, characterized the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century Zeitgeist and had been already initiated by Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), in large part on information collated from China.

Approximately a third of the French Jesuits stationed in China were connected to the Figurist current. Some of them were identifying the legendary figure of Fuxi with the biblical patriarch Enoch, others (or the same ones) were seeing in the first five Chinese emperors typos of Christ. They also found in the Yijing the doctrine of the three ages of the world (Bouvet in his later years even attempted to calculate the total duration of the world) and in the Daodejing (The Book of the Way and Its Virtue) the dogma of the Trinity. China was providing material for a new theological language that still could not reach maturation. Besides Bouvet, one of the most influential Figurists was Joseph de Prémare (1666–1736), who was remarkably well versed in the Chinese language (his manual, Notitia linguae sinicae, remains a reference). An excellent scholar of Hebrew and an avid reader of the Kabbalah since his formative years, he brought new acuity to Figurist lexicography, which led him in particular to deplore the doctrinal prohibition that had struck terms such as Tian and Shangdi, the only ones, according to him, that were apt to express the notion of God hidden at the heart of Chinese Classics (Lundbaek, 1994).

Jean-François Gerbillon (1654–1707) was one of two Jesuits sent to assist Chinese ambassadors at the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, and he proved to be an eminent cartographer (Thomaz de Bossierre, 1994). His work was continued by Joseph-Anne Mailla (1669–1748), who labored eighteen years to produce maps of the empire. Mailla also wrote the first comprehensive history of China in a European language, which was not published until thirty years after his death. Antoine Gaubil (1689–1759), another Jesuit of renown, was an excellent astronomer and historian and also a keen observer of Christian communities (Gaubil, 1970 [1722–1759]). One of his pupils, Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–1793), although far from being as good a scientist as Gaubil, became the father of ethnomusicography and provided very detailed information on Chinese ritual music and dances (Lenoir and Standaert, 2005).

The disparition of the First Jesuit Mission in China went through various stages: the imperial edict of 1724; application in Macao of the decree of the Portuguese King ordering the confiscation of all Jesuit properties and the arrest of all members of the Society (1762); application in China of the Brief Dominus ac Redemptor by Clement XIV (1773), which abolished the Society of Jesus. Utter confusion prevailed in the process until, in 1813, the last ex-Jesuit died in Beijing.

The Second Mission 1842–1949

Knowledge and interpretation of the Second Jesuit Mission remains a field largely unexplored and partly obscured by prejudices. Even if the quasicolonial context of the enterprise differed very much from the conditions prevailing in the development of the First Mission—and if global Catholicism was driven by factors differing from one period to another—it remains that Jesuit missionaries were more diverse and hesitant in their opinions than often thought. Bernadette Truchet has highlighted the contrast existing between Fr. Claude Gottelant (1803–1856), who epitomized Catholic intransigence, and Fr. Victor Vuilaume (1818–1862) or Fr. Joseph Gonnet (1815–1895), who leaned toward attitudes and methods anchored in the First Jesuit Mission (Truchet, 2006, 2007, and 2013). Similarly, the correspondence of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin illustrates the theological interrogations that their lived experience of China awakened in the mind of some Jesuits (Teilhard, 2008). Furthermore, we still lack studies of local communities as shaped by Jesuits or other congregations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although the social models developed during that time are relevant to today’s religious landscape.

Ernest Young’s Ecclesiastical Colony (2013) maps out the general context in which missionary activities developed. An interesting exception in the academic landscape of the Second Mission is the attention devoted to Ma Xiangbo (1840–1939)—a Chinese who left the Jesuit Order while continuing to collaborate closely with it—but the historical importance of this first-class educator still calls for further study (Hayhoe and Lu, 1996).

The nineteenth century underwent fundamental changes in the nature and intensity of the exchanges between the West and China. The Second Jesuit mission is to be understood within a global historical sequence:

  1. 1. The gradual arrival of Protestant missionaries enriched and diversified the knowledge of China by the West, as well as the faces of Chinese Christianity. The history of Protestant missions in China began with Robert Morrison, who around 1807 was almost alone at the border. But in the early twentieth century, around 1,300 Protestant missionaries (and their wives) were present in China versus approximately 700 Catholic missionaries (Latourette, 1929: 328).

  2. 2. At first, the Catholic missionaries—including the Jesuits—who returned to China after 1842 favored direct apostolate and showed far less interest in Chinese culture than their predecessors, but some of them eventually operated a return toward lexicographic, cultural, and ethnographic studies. At the same time, sinology became progressively a secular and academic endeavor.

  3. 3. The tormented relationships between Europe and China, including the gradual transition from the European sinophilia of the eighteenth century to the sinophobia of the late nineteenth century, weighed heavily on Chinese Christians and clergy.

  4. 4. Lastly, the “protectorate” exercised de facto by France on Chinese missions was questioned after the 1911 Revolution (Young, 2013), and the Chinese Catholic clergy began to free itself from this tutelage from 1926 onward, the year that saw six Chinese bishops being ordained, with Pius XI himself presiding at their ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica. The first Chinese national council, held in Shanghai in 1924, had prepared these changes in governance (Wang, 2010).

Catholic missions resumed in China in a context profoundly different from the one that had marked the arrival of Matteo Riccci. Missionary congregations were allowed to enter or re-enter by the grace of the “Unequal Treaties” (from the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 to the Sino-Japanese agreements of 1914), which, by the force of guns, opened the country to opium trade and religious proselytism. In a period marked by contradictions, missionaries—Jesuits or not—were often working with rural populations in Fujian, Hebei, Shanxi, or Sichuan. It was not always their original choice: the Jesuits were first dreaming to convert the elite by the scientific apostolate on the model of their elders (Truchet, 2007, 2013). But a very different technological and political environment compelled them to change their apostolic model. Still, the Jesuit Shanghai Observatory, built in 1874, was like a nostalgic evocation of the glory formerly attached to the Bureau of Astronomy.

Three French Jesuits arrived in Shanghai in 1842, after repeated requests from the Christian communities of the region to its apostolic administrator (Wiest, 1998). In 1856–1859, the Vatican divided the Chinese territory into Apostolic Vicariates, which were assigned to different religious congregations. The Jesuit province of Champagne (covering the north and east of France) inherited rural areas of Hebei, while the Province of France (i.e., Paris) was placed in charge of the Jiangnan region (mainly Jiangsu and Anhui), a region that included both urban areas (Nanjing and Shanghai) and poor countryside (although it was less poor than Hebei, which was periodically ravaged by civil wars, epidemics, droughts, and subsequent flooding). Jesuit provinces in charge of a missionary territory received support from other provinces until the latter were given an independent territory once the Mission had grown sufficiently for justifying a new territorial division.

After the Revolution of 1911, the reorganization of the Jesuit missions in China eventually led to their division into new apostolic vicariates or prefectures. In Anhui, the Province of Castile took over the Wuhu region (1913), Leon the region of Anjing (1929), and the Province of Turin inherited Pengpu in 1929. In the southern part of Hebei, Hungarian Jesuits received Daming in 1935, and the Austrians the Qing County in 1939. In the western part of Jiangsu, Californians were found in Yanghzhou along the Grand Canal (1928), and French Canadians in Xuzhou (1931). Portuguese Jesuits, settled in Macao, opened a residence in Zhaoqing, the first leg in Ricci’s march toward Beijing, and the Irish, in charge of Hong Kong since 1926, inaugurated a residence in Canton two years later. In 1938, shortly after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, out of a total of 600 Jesuits living in China there were 140 Chinese and 460 foreigners. In addition, 200 Chinese secular priests, trained in seminaries directed by the Society, were working in close association with it. In total, there were 1,576 Jesuits working in China between 1842 and 1947, men of 26 nationalities, including 307 Chinese, 561 French, 230 Spaniards, 86 Italians, 79 French Canadians, 72 Irish, 54 Americans, 54 Portuguese, and 36 Hungarians (Mateos, 1995 and n.d.).

In the provinces of Anhui and Jiangsu, around the “Rome” that was the Christian enclave of Zikawei on the southwest of Shanghai, the French Jesuits undertook to build a Christendom protected from external upheavals, until the Japanese occupation in 1937. Even the tragedies brought about by the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) could not inhibit the growth of the mission: the flight of entire Catholic villages before the rebel advance eventually led to the growth of the Catholic population of Shanghai, where they were refugees. Still, this overall picture masks contrasting realities: between 1854 and 1863, epidemics and poor hygiene made the missionaries’ life expectancy barely exceed the age of forty. And insurrections and military expeditions punctuated the entire period (Servière, 1914).

Having operated in autarky from the imperial edicts of persecution until 1842, the Christian communities of Shanghai and its surroundings were governed through local Catholic clans in charge of the management of churches, with the help of informal groups of consecrated virgins who were leading liturgical assemblies. In 1842, the Apostolic Vicar, Mgr. Louis de Besi, was indignant: “They are not only singers, but deaconesses, and more powerful than those of the Christian antiquity” (quoted in Servière, 1914: 24). Returning foreign missionaries were soon asserting their control both on temporal goods and on women’s initiatives, which, they hoped, would be contained by the arrival of French feminine congregations. If reforms and stiff governance were sometimes causing severe misunderstandings, the Shanghai Catholics were undoubtedly proud of their integration into the universal Church, as well as of the convergence toward their city of abundant material and intellectual resources. The Jesuit headquarters of Xujiahui (Zikawei in Shanghaiese dialect) were progressively gathering around them a very large church, a seminary, a library, a high school, a museum of natural history, an observatory, an orphanage, a vocational school harboring a printing press and several artistic workshops, and similar institutions managed by religious sisters. After 1903, Aurora University would crown this “state within a state.” However, the Japanese invasion led the mission of Jiangnan into turmoil. During this period, one Jesuit played a major role in the evolution of international humanitarian conventions and practices: Robert Jacquinot Besange (1878–1946) undertook the immense task that constituted the design, acceptance by all parties, and management of a “security zone” to protect civilians from the ongoing hostilities. What would be called “the Jacquinot Zone” hosted about 300,000 refugees from 1937 to 1940. The experience inspired the drafting of Annex I to the Geneva Convention of 1949 on the protection of civilians in time of war (Ristaino, 2008).

The context of the Second Jesuit Mission made both missionaries and converts particularly vulnerable to political and social upheavals. The 120 Chinese martyrs canonized in October 2000, include four French Jesuits: Léon Mangin (1857–1900), Paul Denn (1847–1900), Modest Andlauer (1847–1900), and Isore Rémi (1857–1900), who all worked in the Xian County of Hebei Province. The Boxer uprising’s preferential target was Christian congregations, and it ravaged their territory. In 1900, the passage of Boxer troops in this area (assisted on this occasion by Qing troops passing through) resulted in the death of 3,500 faithful, most of them massacred in Zhujiahe, an “Old Catholic” village located on the road leading from Beijing to Nanjing. The Boxer rebellion was driven in part by anti-foreign sentiment, the clash of rival factions at the Court, and the revival of millenarian cults, but it can also be explained by the succession of natural disasters, which encouraged plunder (Tiedemann, 2010: 338–342). The attack on Christian villages by troops from elsewhere could therefore be interpreted in a context of fierce competition for resources. The intervention of Qing troops, however, showed the animosity of several military commanders to a Christian population that was organized outside state structures. Boxers and Qing troops required from all prisoners a solemn act of apostasy, and they systematically put to death all those who refused to do so (Clark, 2011: 89–112).

Besides direct apostolate, the Jesuits progressively resumed intellectual research. In Hebei province, Séraphin Couvreur (1835–1919) and Léon Wieger (1856–1933) specialized in lexicography and the translation of classics. Their impressive contribution included a number of books still considered reference works. In Shanghai, Henri Havet (1848–1901) launched the Variétés sinologiques book series (70 volumes) in 1892 that included the monumental Recherches sur les superstitions en Chine by Henri Doré (1859–1931). A growing number of Chinese Jesuits, such as Matthis Zhang Huang (1872–1929), contributed to this intellectual enterprise.

The Taiping and Boxer rebellions, as well as the rise of the Chinese national movement, led the Church to rethink its way of proceeding. The religious Orders, organized on a national basis, were in no way the pioneers of the aggiornamiento (“bringing up to date”). Roman authorities, starting with the first apostolic delegate of the Pope in China, Cardinal Celso Costantini (1876–1958), were the ones who strongly promoted both inculturation and the devolution of power to the native clergy. Generally, foreign Jesuits were not keen on devolution. However, each mission territory had developed its own particular culture. The Chinese Jesuit Alyosius Jin Luxian (1916–2013), who was the official bishop of Shanghai from 1985 onward, mentions several times in his memoirs the cultural insensitivity of some of the French Jesuits he had to deal with during his formative years. Based on his personal experience, he has this to say about two mission territories that were both manned by Jesuits coming from the same country: “The Frenchmen in [Hebei] were much more receptive to the spirit of the Gospel than those in Shanghai and more active in carrying out the directions of the Pope, appointing the first Chinese bishop in 1936 and the first Chinese university president in 1942. In 1950 they appointed a Chinese head of the Society of Jesus and were ahead of Shanghai in sending priests abroad for education” (Jin, 2012: 68).

After 1949: A Dismembered Body

In 1945, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was already occupying the territory of the Jesuit missions in Hebei. Four French Jesuits had been sentenced to death by the People’s courts before being released in July 1948. (During the winter of 1947–1948, many members of the clergy had been killed by the PLA troops. In the summer of 1948, a tactical change occurred: priests were released, churches were given back, and freedom of conscience was proclaimed.) In 1949, the choices that 913 Jesuits (including 250 Chinese, many of them young scholastics) had to make were the same as those of the Chinese Catholic Church as a whole: the ecclesiastic institution was strong and claimed more than 2,700 Chinese priests and 3,000 foreign priests, 900 seminarians and 7,500 nuns (nearly 70 percent of them Chinese), 189 high schools, more than 4,200 primary schools, and more than 1,200 hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and leprosy clinics (Mateos, 1995 and n.d.; Mariani, 2011). How and under what purposes was the Church to dispose of such a “wealth” in an unprecedented political situation?

The Jesuits were playing a leading role in the Church of China. In 1948, the combined territory of their missions covered 186,000 square kilometers with a total population of 43 million people, including nearly 500,000 Catholics (there were probably three and a half million Chinese Catholics in total at that time). Coordination between the Jesuit superiors would prove difficult, as the diversity of national missions greatly complicated operations. Many Jesuits stubbornly proclaimed their faith in the ultimate success of the Nationalists, whom, in their view, the Americans would always support. Still, as reality progressively dawned on the Order, it made a few strategic decisions: the priests would remain in the areas occupied by the new regime with exception of those more exposed or desirous of leaving; however, both Chinese and foreign scholastics had to leave the country in case of danger. Yet scholastic and foreign priests were still being sent to China in the year 1948. Soon after, groups of novices and scholastics were transferred from northern China to southern China and outside the country. In Shanghai, after the appointment of the first Chinese Bishop of Shanghai, Gong Pinmei, in August 1950, the Society offered to relinquish all its properties in favor of the diocese. In June 15, 1953, a police raid at the Faculty of Theology of Zikawei closed the last Jesuit institution in China. Around that time, 500 Jesuits had left or been expelled from China, and sixty Jesuits were already imprisoned, most of them Chinese. Two hundred Jesuits were still free, but their apostolic activity was severely limited. The last foreign missionaries were expelled in 1957. The exodus was going to benefit missions of Southeast China, and a strong Jesuit base would be built in Taiwan.

From 1955 onward, the remaining group of 157 Chinese Jesuits was to endure physical and moral pressure and, in most cases, prison and labor camps. All had to choose between the “patriotic” and the “underground” churches. In 1966, the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution brought equal danger to all of them. From around 1980 on, the ones who survived the ordeal were involved in the reconstruction of the Church, in Hebei Province and Shanghai in particular. They did so by following different, and sometimes opposed, strategies. Discernment and division had actually started early, with the announcement in September 1950 of the policy that the new regime required all religious organizations to follow: autonomy from any foreign influence in the propagation of the faith administration and finance—and banishment of any foreign presence, including (in the case of the Catholic Church) in the selection of bishops. Several Jesuits, starting with the French superior of Shanghai, Fernand Lacretelle (1902–1989), a specialist in canon law, advocated frontal resistance. Others favored accommodation. The intellectual leader of Catholic Shanghai, Beda Zhang Zhengming (1905–1951) pleaded for an intermediate solution: patriotic and anti-imperialist attacks carried out against the Church were making it vulnerable. One had to distinguish among essential and secondary matters, so as to guard against the reproach of constituting a “foreign Church.” A brilliant intellectual and educator, Beda Zhang had received a doctorate of anthropology in 1936 at the Sorbonne. In August 1951 his influential position within the Catholic education system of Shanghai caused his arrest, presumably to make him accept the role of spokesman of the “independent” Church of Shanghai. He died during an interrogation on November 11 of the same year. Thousands of Christians went to churches in Shanghai in the morning following the announcement of his death and later on for requiem masses (Lefeuvre, 1962). Thereafter (and with the exception of the most chaotic period of the Cultural Revolution) the regime carefully avoided creating martyrs: obtaining confessions, as well as prison and reeducation through labor, constituted the strategy employed.

The decisive blow was dealt on September 8, 1955: Bishop Gong Pinmei; fourteen Chinese Jesuits, priests, seminarians, and religious; and three hundred influential lay people were arrested that night. Before the end of the month, around 1,200 Shanghai Catholics were imprisoned. Their handwritten or tape-recorded confessions were part of the “evidences” used in 1960 during the final trial of the Bishop of Shanghai and fourteen other defendants, including seven Jesuits. During the period that from 1950 up to the concluding trial, foreign Jesuits, it seems, offered lower resistance to brainwashing techniques than Chinese Jesuits. The only foreign Jesuit imprisoned who did not sign any document was the American John Clifford. He later wrote the first testimony on brainwashing techniques (Mariani, 2011; Clifford, 1963). The regime was thus able to divide the Church, and the Jesuits did not escape this fate. But shortly afterward, the Cultural Revolution engulfed all the actors of this drama in a single torrent.

In December 1967, another Shanghainese, Michel Zhu Lide (1922–1997), was the first Chinese to be given the post of Provincial China, which he exercised from Taiwan. He was also the first Jesuit since the late 1950s to return to China for a fact-finding mission, conducted in late 1978 and early 1979. Michael Zhu was from an old and famous Catholic family in Shanghai. Two of his brothers had also entered the Society of Jesus. One of them—the eldest—died in detention: François-Xavier Zhu Shude was, like Beda Zhang, the author of a thesis at the Sorbonne. Born in 1913, he was imprisoned and confined to a labor camp from 1953 to 1979. Imprisoned again in 1980 he died in prison on December 28, 1983. Among many other Chinese Jesuits who knew a similar fate was Louis Wu Yingfeng—another former Sorbonne graduate, author of a beautiful Chinese translation of the Confessions of St. Augustine, imprisoned in 1955 and deceased during the Cultural Revolution, and Vincent Zhu Hongsheng (1916–1993), imprisoned from 1955 to 1978 and from 1981 to 1988. Another Jesuit, Dominique Deng Yiming (1908–1995), was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Canton in October 1950. Imprisoned from 1958 to 1981 without a trial ever taking place, he was raised by the Holy See to the dignity of Archbishop of Canton shortly after his release from prison. The new dignity led him into exile in Hong Kong and America (Tang, 1987). After Michel Zhu Lide, all provincials have been of Chinese origin (except from 2005 to 2011), although even today the Government of the Province cannot be performed from Mainland China.

The post-1949 period still raises problems of all sorts. Most Church archives are just starting to open—with exceptions. The CCP archives are slowly opening up as well. Living eyewitnesses have not been always keen to share their stories. The interpretation of some figures, starting with that of Jin Luxian, remains highly controversial. Working from a wealth of material, Paul Mariani’s book (2011) has helped raise the profile of Chinese Jesuits in the period, although we still do not know what happened exactly to some of the characters involved in the tragedy. Finally, the comparative study of present-day Catholic communities in ancient Jesuit mission territories and of their equivalents during the First and/or Second Missions cannot but be illuminating for the understanding of all the periods considered, as long-term collective memories and specific clerical cultures prove sometimes to be of more importance than short-term political considerations.

In conclusion, Chinese scholars are now making decisive contributions in the study and understanding of the Jesuit presence in China, especially regarding the First Mission (although the Second Mission is starting to awaken the interest of some as well). The reevaluation of the first generation of Jesuits began toward the end of the 1970s (Calanca, 1988). Later on, some Chinese scholars would make resolutely positive evaluations of Jesuit influence on China’s thought development (Li, 2001). Han Qi has studied scientific interactions and their religious and cultural context (see for instance see Han, 1998). The hermeneutical interpretation of the encounter between Confucianism and Christianity, from the publication of Ricci’s True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven onward, is a topic of particular interest (Sun, 1992; Liu, 2005; Li, 2007), and, more generally, the “comparative study of Classics” is generating a growing body of literature. Present-day Chinese scholars have assigned to Jesuits the role of full-fledged actors in China’s intellectual history, and this is certainly an homage much esteemed by the successors of Ricci.


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