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Catholic Missionaries in China

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Catholic Missionaries in China

Today, there are an estimated 12 million Catholics in China, but the journey to evangelize the faith in China was a long and troubled one. For over a millennia, Catholic missionaries have braved the long journey to China and the trials that awaited them upon their arrival. From the court of Kublai Khan to the works of an influential Jesuit Priest, Catholic missionaries have had a fascinating and surprising history in China.

Catholic Missionaries in China Overview

Today, the Church in China looks to the future with hope. The Church wants Chinese Christians to be truly Christians, and to be good citizens.

-Catholic Pope Francis

Challenges of Catholic Missionaries in China

The history of Catholic missionary success in China is like a wave, cresting in some decades then falling in others. China is a large land in terms of land and population, but Catholic missionaries struggled most in integrating Catholic belief with existing Chinese ideologies. Western Christian missionaries often ignored the Chinese language, disregarded Buddhism and Confucianism, and competed with each other in their attempts to spread Christianity to China.

Catholic Missionaries in China Cathedral of Immaculate Conception Study SmarterCathedral of Immaculate Conception, the oldest Catholic Church in Beijing. Source: Peter Potrowl, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Catholic Missionaries in China Timeline

The timeline below briefly outlines the history of Catholic Missionaries in China:

  • 635 CE: A Nestorian (not a Catholic!) Christian Monk named Alopen from the Byzantine Empire visits the Chinese royal court.

  • 1274 CE: Matteo Polo, Niccolo Polo, and Marco Polo deliver gifts from the Catholic Pope to Kublai Khan, ruler of the Yuan Dynasty in China.

  • 1368 CE: The Yuan Dynasty collapses under the rising Ming Dynasty, and all Catholics are subsequently exiled from China.

  • 1601 CE: Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit Catholic Priest, is invited by the Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty to serve as an advisor.

  • 1605 CE: The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Beijing is founded, cementing a Catholic presence in Chinese history.

What is Catholicism called in Mandarin?

In China, Catholicism is referred to as Tiān zhǔ jiào (written as 天主教 in Mandarin), meaning "Religion of the Lord of Heaven". 'Tiān' translates to the sky, 'zhǔ' to host, and 'jiào' to teach. While many Chinese people may have been taught Latin by missionaries to engage in the Catholic faith, learning the religion through their own language was a huge step toward the success of Catholic missionaries in China.

History of Catholic Missionaries in China

The Nestorian Missions in China

China was likely first exposed to Christianity and its many rising variants through the Silk Road in 100 CE, but it would be many centuries before Christian missionaries made an effort to proselytize the East.

Proselytize:

To attempt to convert someone to another religion.

In 635 CE, a Persian missionary named Alopen traveled to China with Nestorian Christian documents in hand. Mostly accepted by the ruling Tang Dynasty, Alopen was allowed to establish the first Christian church in China, until both the church and the Tang Dynasty fell in the 10th century.

Catholic Missionaries in China Nestorian Stele Study SmarterNestorian Stele in Xi'an, China. Source: dcastor, Wikimedia Commons.

Thankfully, the Chinese recorded over a century of Christianity's history in their country on a stele, an engraved slab of stone. Buried then rediscovered almost eight centuries later, the Nestorian Stele details the earliest known influences of Christianity in China. A Christian groundwork had been laid, allowing for Catholicism to soon enter China.

What is Nestorianism?

Nestorianism derives itself from 5th century Christian Theologian and Bishop of Constantinople Nestorius, who taught that Christ was divided between 'Christ the man' and 'Christ the God' (meanwhile, the Catholics believe that Christ was a union of man and God, not divided). Although his ideas were swiftly rejected, Nestorius garnered a small following years later, who also believed in ideas such as the rejection of all physical idols (they did not believe in praying to statues or paintings depicting God). The Nestorians and Catholics, while fundamentally Christian faiths, often conflicted in their missionary efforts in places such as China.

Catholicism in the Yuan Dynasty

While technically not missionaries of the Catholic faith, Matteo and Niccolo Polo facilitated the spread of Catholicism in China. The two brothers were traveling merchants in 13th century China when they first met Kublai Khan, ruler of the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan questioned the Catholic merchants, curious about their religion and the powers of the Roman Catholic Pope.

Catholic Missionaries in China Kublai Khan Study SmarterMatteo, Niccolo, and Marco Polo greet Kublai Khan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Kublai Khan requested the two Italian brothers to deliver a message to the Pope, asking for a hundred Catholic missionaries to be sent to China. Only a few missionaries accompanied the Polo brothers' return trip to China (and they even abandoned the mission halfway through). More importantly, Matteo and Niccolo Polo were now accompanied by their nephew Marco Polo, a young Catholic that Kublai Khan would take extreme interest in, placing him in his Mongolian court for many years.

Under Kublai Khan, many Catholic Priests were welcomed into China. In 1299, a Catholic Priest named John of Montecorvino built a prominent Catholic Church in China. But when the Yuan Dynasty fell in 1368, Chinese rule was replaced by a much less tolerant Ming Dynasty. Enacting the persecution of Christians across China, the Ming Dynasty expelled all Catholic priests by 1369. Catholicism would not regain its footing in China for over two hundred years.

The Jesuit Catholic Missions in China

Perhaps the most important face of Catholic missionary efforts in China, Italian priest Matteo Ricci departed for China in 1582. Born in 1552, Matteo Ricci was an educated astronomer as well as a priest. Bringing the knowledge of western lands, Matteo Ricci greatly impressed the Chinese Wanli Emperor when he successfully predicted a solar eclipse. Ricci was subsequently invited to serve as an advisor in the royal court, becoming the first European to step foot in Beijing.

Catholic Missionaries in China Matteo Ricci Study SmarterPainting of Matteo Ricci. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike thousands of missionaries before him, Matteo Ricci spoke and read the Chinese language, as well as possessing a keen understanding of Confucianism and Chinese culture. By neither twisting the teachings of Catholicism to his benefit nor ignoring the native culture, Matteo Ricci was able to convert many Chinese officials and people under them to Catholicism.

The whole point of writing something down is that your voice will then carry for thousands of miles, whereas in direct conversation it fades at a hundred paces.

-Matteo Ricci

Ricci translated many Confucian texts to Latin and personally authored popular Chinese books such as On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince, strengthening the foothold of Catholicism in China. Matteo Ricci died in 1610; the Wanli Emperor honored the Jesuit Catholic Priest by burying him near a Buddhist temple in Beijing.

Catholic Missionaries in China - Key takeaways

  • Catholic missionaries faced many challenges in China due to cultural, language, and political barriers.
  • The first Christian missionaries arrived in China in the 7th-century and were tolerated by the Chinese people.
  • The Polo brothers maintained communications between the Yuan Dynasty and the Catholic Church, transmitting information that strengthened the relationship between the two parties.
  • The Ming Dynasty of China forced all Catholics out of the country in the 14th century.
  • Matteo Ricci was an extremely influential Jesuit Catholic missionary in China in the 16th and 17th centuries. He served in a Ming Dynasty court and transmitted his scientific knowledge and Catholic faith to the Chinese people.

Frequently Asked Questions about Catholic Missionaries in China

Catholic missionaries primarily traveled the Silk Road to China to spread their faith. 

The first recorded Christian missionary in China was Alopen, a Persian Nestorian Christian. Catholic Priest John of Montecorvino is accredited with establishing the first Catholic Church in China. 

Yes, Catholic missionaries have traveled to China to spread their faith for over a millennia. 

Catholic missionaries lost favor many times during the history of China. Much of the Chinese persecution of Catholic missionaries occurred in the 20th century, but another significant date was 1368 CE, when the newly established Ming Dynasty forced all Catholics out of their nation.

Catholic missionaries faced many challenges in China due to cultural, language, and political barriers. Depending on the level of tolerance of the many different Chinese rulers, Catholic missionaries could be treated with favor and acceptance, or with outright despise. 

Final Catholic Missionaries in China Quiz

Question

What was not a barrier to Catholic missionaries spreading their faith in medieval China? 

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Answer

Communism 

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Question

The Persian Christian priest Alopen belonged to what Christian denomination? 

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Answer

Nestorianism 

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Question

What was the first recorded century of Christian missionaries being in China? 

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Answer

7th century

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Question

Define proselytize. 

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Answer

To attempt to convert someone to another religion.  

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Question

How was information regarding Alopen and 7th-century Christian missionaries in China recorded in history? 

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Answer

The information was recorded on a stele, an engraved slab of stone.

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Question

How did Kublai Khan treat Catholicism? 

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Answer

He was tolerant and intrigued 

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Question

Who carried messages between the Catholic Pope and Kublai Khan? 

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Answer

Matteo and Niccolo Polo 

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Question

What happened when the Yuan Dynasty fell in 1368, being replaced by the Ming Dynasty?

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Answer

Catholic missionaries were kicked out of China.

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Question

How did Matteo Ricci gain the confidence of the Wanli Emperor?

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Answer

He used astronomy to predict when the next solar eclipse would be. 

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Question

What made Matteo Ricci's methods of missionary work different from his contemporary and historical Catholic missionary peers? 

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Answer

Matteo Ricci learned the Chinese language, culture, and religion, and respected all three.

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Question

What is the definition of the Italian Renaissance?

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Answer

A period of Italian history from the 15th to the 17th centuries that saw a cultural transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age, including great scholarly and artistic achievements. 

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What is the definition of Cartography? 

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Answer

The art and science of map-making. 

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Question

What was the name of the Chinese Dynasty that Matteo Ricci conducted his missionary work within? 

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Answer

Ming Dynasty 

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Question

What was significant about the "Complete Map of the Great World" created by Matteo Ricci? 

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Answer

It revealed the large scope of the world to the relatively isolated Chinese people. 

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Question

How did Matteo Ricci approach the discrepancies between Catholicism and Confucianism in China? 

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Answer

He integrated Confucian teachings into Catholic belief. 

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Question

How did the Catholic Church respond to Matteo Ricci's integration of Confucian teachings into Catholic belief in his missionary work in China? 

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Answer

The Catholic Church denounced Matteo Ricci's integration of Confucian ideas, claiming that they were incompatible with Catholic teachings. 

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Question

How successful was Matteo Ricci's missionary work in China? 

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Answer

Very successful. Matteo Ricci gained the trust of Chinese royal courts and even converted some Chinese officials to Christianity. 

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Question

What was significant about Matteo Ricci's admittance into the Forbidden City in Beijing? 

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Answer

He was the first European to step foot into the Forbidden City. 

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Question

What scholarly expertise allowed Matteo Ricci to serve various Chinese royal courts and gain the trust of Chinese officials? 

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Answer

Matteo Ricci's expertise in science and mathematics. 

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Question

Matteo Ricci was permitted to construct a Catholic Church in what Chinese city (now the oldest Catholic Church in that city)? 

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Answer

Beijing 

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