How safe are Christian missionaries in China

Initial conditions of the Jesuit mission in China from the middle of the 16th to the beginning of the 17th century and the development of the method of accommodation as a guiding principle of the mission

Table of Contents


I. The starting conditions of the Jesuit mission in China
1. First beginnings of the Christian mission in China and the isolation in the Yuan period
2. The political background of the China mission
3. Self-image of classical China at the beginning of the Jesuit mission
4. First failed attempts by the Jesuits
5. The context of the development of the missionary method

II. The beginning of the proselytizing of China
1. Arrival in the "Middle Kingdom"
2. The religious soil in China at the end of the 16th century

III. Matteo Ricci and the further development of the principle of accommodation
1. The first strategic goal: the conversion of the emperor
2. Outward adaptation of the social role: scholar instead of priest
3. Adaptation of Christianity to the Chinese classics
4. Secrecy of true intentions

IV. The response to Ricci's missionary method
1. Criticism and inner conflict
2. Loss of confidence and external resistance




Christianity in China has a long history.1 First attempts to win the country in the Far East for the Christian faith were made as early as the seventh century. The first Christians to gain a foothold in China were Nestorians.2 They had brought the Christian religion to East Asia via the trade routes from Mesopotamia. Alongside other Christian orders, however, it was above all the Jesuit missions that faced the challenge of the Far East and especially China. The topic of the Jesuit mission in China is of particular importance for at least three reasons and has been dealt with extensively and intensively in historical research. On the one hand, it sheds light on the fortunes and problems of the large intercultural encounters that began between the Asian and European regions in the early modern period. On the other hand, the development of the Jesuit mission, striking signs of the development of early modern Catholicism with its formative effects on the social order in Europe, can be retained. In addition, the history of the mission can of course also be read as a narrative of the fate of the individual, or specific aspects of the missionary activity of individual persons can be worked out in a micro-logical manner. The point at which these questions can be focused is the development and the dispute over the method of proselytizing. It reflects the development within the church, the examination of the foreign culture and the work of the individual missionaries. In this work, the focus should therefore be on the developments at the beginning of the Jesuit mission in order to clearly illustrate the principles and problems in the elaboration of the so-called accommodation method. The period that is essentially considered here is limited to the years from the middle of the 16th to the beginning of the 17th century (around 1541-1630). The focus is on the work of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. Thus only the preconditions of the confrontation are examined, which is dealt with under the name "ritual controversy" in historical studies and is often the focus of the debate. In the source studies, the present work was mainly dependent on secondary literature due to the languages ​​used Above all, the translation of letters from the missionaries and some of the Chinese positions of that time was opened up. Two fundamental problems of source work had to be accepted as far as possible. The relevant literature in research was for a long time shaped by authors who worked on the Partly unconsciously portrayed an idealization of the mission, or the information obtained mostly from documents within the order was even processed in addition to its own Jesuit or theological background. “Even if the narrative never questioned the missionary's right to be in China, it could in its best moments reflect about its aims. "3 In addition, there is a certain one-sidedness in looking at the sources, which leaves little room for the Chinese position. By integrating more recent secondary literature and diverse sources, it was possible to partially counter these problems.

The work is divided into four sections. First of all, the initial conditions of the Jesuit mission in China are examined (Part I). Here the context of the development of the mission method is to be illuminated. The first approaches of the Christian mission and the Chinese policy of isolation in the Yuan period form the framework. Then the political background (in Europe) of the mission and the self-image of classical China are briefly presented. The description of the starting point ends with the failure of the missionaries to penetrate mainland China. In the second part, the advance of the mission in China is examined, since this is where the method of accommodation begins to develop among the missionaries Valignano, Ruggieri and Ricci (part 2). For your own understanding, it made sense to briefly go into the religiosity and world views in China, which the missionaries presented as a starting point and a possible source of conflict. This is followed by a detailed consideration of the further development of the missionary method under Matteo Ricci, which extended to conversion “from top to bottom”, an external adaptation of the role and an internal adaptation of the teaching. (Part 3). In the last part, the reactions to the mission method are presented from two sides. On the one hand, the criticism within the church and the conflict within the order are presented. On the other hand, the external (from the perspective of the Jesuits) resistance and the increasing loss of trust in Chinese scholarship are dealt with (Part IV). Finally, in the final part, the most important considerations are summarized and an outlook on further developments is given.

I. The starting conditions of the Jesuit mission in China

1. First beginnings of the Christian mission in China and the isolation in the Yuan period

According to an edict of Emperor Taizong in 638, the first Christians in China, the Nestorians, were allowed unhindered freedom of movement throughout the empire.4 It was then that Christianity began to flourish and lasted for almost two centuries. Nevertheless, the Christian faith remained relatively unknown in the empire and was not particularly widespread. After the expansion of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan and his successor, the internal trade routes to the Far East as far as Karakorum and Beijing began to revive, the Franciscans and Dominicans were also able to gain a foothold in the 13th century. In this era of the crusades,5 which was very open-minded in intellectual, religious, cultural and commercial terms, the Europeans for the first time since the fall of antiquity again made highly intensive cultural contact with the Middle East. There were two important reasons for the particular interest of Christians and Europeans in establishing a relationship with the Mongols. First and foremost were economic interests: it was possible to establish important trade contacts, which made it possible to buy certain Far Eastern products cheaply. Second, it was hoped that the Great Khan could be won as a powerful ally in the fight against Islam, which was becoming more and more threatening for the Christians. Pope Inocent IV and King Louis IX. from France repeatedly sent Franciscans and Dominicans as ambassadors to the Mongols - but most of the advances failed. The Franciscan monk Rubruk finally managed to get to Karakoram, the main residence of the great khans. to advance.6 The attempts to win the Great Khan were ultimately unsuccessful.7 Attempts were made to convey the Christian religion in this context as well. But it was not a question of systematic evangelization in the strict sense. Rather, such contacts presented themselves as a secondary line of contact and clarification of various kinds.

In 1367, the foreign Mongolian Yuan Dynasty was expelled from China and replaced by the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Nanjing was named the capital8. This upheaval was not a peaceful change of government, but an uprising of the oppressed people against the exploitative Mongolian rule. The violent elimination of the Mongol dynasty for various reasons, including corruption, oppression of the Chinese people and power struggles of the noble families, had a very fatal impact on the missionary activities of the Christian fellow believers. The Chinese takeover of power also meant the end of the mission in the empire and so Christianity almost completely disappeared from China. The Middle Kingdom cut itself off from the outside world and only maintained contacts with Japan. Until the beginning of the 15th century, China went into isolation. The first Portuguese embassy appeared in Canton in 1517, but it was not until 1557 that the Portuguese received permission to settle in Macau. From there they traded with Japan, Indochina and Malaysia. Only once a year was a small delegation allowed to do business in Canton.

2. The political background of the China mission

The European mission of modern times was closely and inseparably linked to the interests of the two exploring nations, Portugal and Spain. All missionary efforts emanated from these two world powers at the time. Both had the right and the duty to carry out and finance the Christian mission in their areas, with East Asia belonging to the area of ​​the Portuguese Padroado.9 The duty of mission was, so to speak, a duty of patronage connected with the privilege of conquering, which they had to fulfill towards the Catholic Church. In the overseas territories evangelization should be provided, churches built, missionaries trained and their maintenance provided. This duty was countered by the patronage law. The conquerors selected the missionary staff and had the right to propose bishops and to tithe.10

Only a limited number of orders and congregations were active in the Asia Mission. Among them were the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, but above all the Jesuits. This restriction was mainly due to the fact that Portugal was trying to either completely prevent the entry of other trading powers in China and Japan or to control them effectively. All non-Portuguese missionaries had to apply for a visa at the royal chancellery in Lisbon to enter the Far East. You should start the journey from there on a Portuguese ship and take the route via Goa and Macau.11 In the course of history, Rome tried to counteract this travel monopoly of Portugal with various decrees. External competition also restricted Portugal's monopoly in overseas trade with China by the end of the 16th century at the latest. Before the turn of the century, the Spaniards came from Manila and from 1601 the Dutch came to China. They immediately came into conflict with the Portuguese and succeeded in eliminating their monopoly after armed conflicts. In 1635 the English joined them.12

In addition, Spanish Dominicans, Augustinians and Franciscans made various attempts to get to China from Mexico and the Philippines. The Jesuit Order,13 The missionary focus of its activities was the first Christian missionary society to fast foot again in China in 1583. Just a few years after the order was founded, China became the target of her missionary ambitions, and from there whole East Asia was to be converted.14

3. Self-image of classical China at the beginning of the Jesuit mission

As the North Star was in the sky, the “son of heaven the emperor” was on earth, the center of the world. His realm was the realm par excellence and he was the sole center of all political power and source of all culture and civilizations. The order of the empire was subordinate to a strictly hierarchically structured civil service, known as the "mandarine"15 and mostly represented a highly educated, cultural elite. They were appointed by means of a strict official examination and their last point of reference was always the emperor himself: the emperor's residence, the Middle Kingdom was considered the center of the inhabited world.16 With increasing distance from it, the level of culture and civilization of the foreign country necessarily decreased.

For China, trade was part of the tribute system and, according to the Chinese view, had no independent meaning and was only a side effect of a political act. The tribute embassies regulated trade and diplomacy with other peoples. It seemed logical that embassies from all over the world came to the Chinese court in order to form there. Thereby gifts were exchanged. Payments to threatening neighbors could even be built into this system.17 Permission to trade was always a Chinese act of grace and a claim by foreigners to trade was unthinkable for Chinese terms. For this reason, the Chinese government (with the exception of the great expeditions at the beginning of the 15th century) was opposed to overseas undertakings by Chinese merchants. The foreigners should come to China after all. The only non-tributary peoples who still had contact with China during the Ming Dynasty were Portugal and Japan; they were rightly called pirates in China.18 In contrast to Islam and the Christian world, there were no Chinese expansion or missionary efforts at this time. Only the material aspect of the trade established the external contacts.

Chinese traders were not inferior to Europeans in initiative and skill. But the lack of any legal certainty for private economic ventures was the greatest obstacle to the development of a private economic system. The state and its privileged officials could bring any company to a standstill at any time. The literary bureaucracy also played a role model function for business people. Unlike the European citizens, they did not strive to shape their lives according to their own ethos, independent of the bureaucratic class. The bureaucratic state saw the economy largely as its monopoly and was only prepared to allow private entrepreneurs as its agents, as it were.

The Chinese were culturally aware of their superiority over the barbarians, as the Europeans were called. They felt they were far superior to the “conquering, arrogant, uneducated” Europeans. This made missionary work in the empire much more difficult. For the friars this meant that a new mission strategy had to be developed, because these peoples of the Far East could not be converted to Christianity simply by mass baptisms.

4. First failed attempts by the Jesuits

After the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368), which was far less tolerant of foreign religions than the previous Mongol rule, the empire was isolated from the rest of the world. The already thin stream of news from Asia almost completely disappeared. During this phase, nothing more was reported by Christian communities in China. The Jesuit mission of 1562 that began in Macao therefore represented a completely new beginning.19 For almost 200 years, the public in Europe had learned almost nothing about the Middle Kingdom.

As early as the beginning of the 16th century, several attempts were made to proselytize China, some of which failed because of Rome and for the most part because of China's foreign policy. Most of the time, the missionaries simply couldn't get a permit to enter the kingdom.20 The East Asia missionary and Jesuit Franz Xaver, who was already recognized in the Catholic Church, also tried in vain to get to China. Since 1541 he worked as a missionary in India, in 1549 he went to southern Japan, where it became clear to him that the proselytizing of Japan would not be successful without the proselytizing of China. At that time China was the real source of civilization and culture for Japan, that is, a religion that was not accepted by China was not acceptable to the Japanese either.21 Xavier reported in his letter to Ignatius before he left for China:

“Today [...] we go [...] to the court of the King of China, which is near Jipon. It is an extremely large country and is inhabited by a very talented people and with many scholars. According to what I know of them, they devote much of themselves to science, and the most learned is the most distinguished and more respected. all the pagan sectarianism that is in Jipon came from China ”.22

With these assumptions, Xaver felt compelled at the end of his life to define the challenge of China as the actual goal of his missionary work. In the summer of 1552 he reached the island of Shangchuan, one of the first bases of the Portuguese.23 Shangchuan, located off the coast of China, was one of the most important port cities in southeast China in the 16th century.There Xaver was waiting for an entry permit for the mainland, but died in the same year of his arrival on the island without even having reached China.24 The principles of the mission method for China, which were formulated in the basics by Franz Xavier, played an essential role in the history of mission in the centuries that followed.

5. The context of the development of the missionary method

In addition to the commercial interests, the idea of ​​converting “pagans” in the newly discovered world was one of the most important projects during the Europeans' expeditions. Military rule should also be used as leverage to carry out new conversions. After the discovery of the “new world”, old Europe faced a variety of major tasks, the solution of which reflected lines of conflict in power politics. The "Alexandrian donation", in which Pope Alexander VI. 1493 transferred the catholization of the newly discovered areas to the colonial powers Portugal and Spain,25 transformed the mission into a political enterprise that served as legitimation for the exploitation of entire peoples.


1 For an overview, for example: Horner, Charles: Chinas Christian History. In: First Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, August, 1997, pp. 41-46.

2 Cf. Thöle, Reinhard: “Teaching consensus reached. The joint declaration between the Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East and the Roman Catholic Church in Christology of November 11, 1994 ”, in: Materialdienst des Konfessionskundlichen Institut Bensheim, 46, 1995, p. 35f.

3 Claesson, Anna M .: The Friends of the Chinese: An Analysis of the Mission Narrative as Ideology and Utopia. Swe-

dish Missiological Themes, Vol 90, No. 3, 2002.

4 Teizong was the second ruler of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In the same year there is said to have been a Christian church in Chang'an (now Xi'an), then the capital of China. It was the first Chinese multi-ethnic empire that extended to Inner Asia. See Grießler, Margareta: China. Everything under the sky, Sigmaringen, 1995, p. 154f.

5 Cf. Runciman, Steven: Geschichte der Kreuzzüge, Munich, 1995, p. 53f

6 See Muldoon, James: Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels. The Church and the Non-Christian World 1250-1550, Liverpool, 1979, pp. 40f.

7 Rubruquis, Guilelmus de / Herbst, Hermann (ed.): The report of the Franciscan Wilhelm von Rubruk about his journey into the interior of Asia in the years 1253 - 1255, Leipzig, 1925.

8 See Grießler 1995, pp. 209f.

9 The rivalry between the two sea powers Portugal and Spain was settled in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Portugal was granted crown property in all areas of the eastern hemisphere that had not yet been discovered and occupied, and was granted a monopoly of trade. Cf. Widmaier, Rita: The exchange of letters with the Jesuits in China (16891714), Hamburg, 2006, p. 28f.

10 Cf. Mayer, Johannes: Patronat in den Missionen, in: Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 7, 1998, Sp. 1484-1486.

11 See Wiedmaier 2005, p. 29f.

12 Export goods were: tea, silk and porcelain, wool and silver were imported. Since the value ratio of gold and silver was 1 to 10 in China and 1 to 15 in Europe, silver was bought (later smuggled from South America) and exchanged for gold.

13 Societas Jesu (Society of Jesus = Jesuits) It was founded in 1534 and confirmed by the Pope in 1540. The Society of Jesus worked in the missionary work of Japan and China on behalf of Portugal. See Brockney, Liam M .: Journey to the East. The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 6f.

14 Cf. Stücken, Christian: The Mandarin of Heaven. Time and life of the China missionary Ignaz Kögler SJ (16801746), Sankt-Augustin, 2003, p. 19f.

15 From the Latin mandare, to command, a term derived from Portuguese.

16 Höllmann, Thomas O .: The realm without a horizon: Contact with the foreign on the other side and this side of the seas, in: Wolfgang, Bauer (ed.): China and the foreigners. 3000 years of conflict in war and peace, Munich, 1980, p. 166f.

17 Cf. Collani, Claudia von: Die Chinamission von 1520-1630, in: Venard, Marc (Ed.) The history of Christianity. Religion. Politics. Culture, Vol. 8, Freiburg, 1992, 933f.

18 Cf. Ptak, Roderich: Portugal in China: a brief outline of the Portuguese-Chinese relations and the history of Macau in the 16th and early 17th centuries, Klemmerberg, 1982, pp. 16f.

19 See founder, Horst: Welteroberung und Christianentum, Gütersloh, 1992, pp. 258f.

20 Spanish Franciscans and Dominicans in Mexico, who had been under Spanish rule since 1519/21, tried to proselytize in China as early as 1532/33 and again in 1545. See Collani 1992, p. 937.

21 Cf. Demel, Walter: As a stranger in China. The Middle Kingdom in the mirror of early modern European travel reports, Munich, 1992, p. 3f.

22 Schurhammer Georg: Franz, Xaver, his life and his time. Freiburg, 1973, Vol. 2, p. 583.

23 In 1522 the Portuguese got permission to set up a trading post in Ningbo. It was not until 1554 that relations with China were successfully established and the leasing of a trading enclave (Macao) was permitted. According to the agreement, the Portuguese trade delegation was allowed to visit the trade fairs in Canton. In order to keep the foreigners as far from the country as possible, the isthmus between Macao and China was closed by a wall in 1575 with a gate that was only opened for trade at certain times. See Ptak 1982, pp. 4554f.

24 See Schurhammer 1973, pp. 597f.

25 See Collani 1992, p. 934.

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