Matteo Ricci and other famous Jesuit missionaries in China.

More commonly known as Jesuits, the Society of Jesus sent many missionaries to China between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. In addition to Christianity they introduced Western science, technology, and art to China, and returned to Europe with Chinese philosophies and aesthetics, which in turn influenced Western thought.

The Society of Jesus, a Catholic order whose missionaries worked in China between 1582 and 1773, was critically important to the global exchange of knowledge and ideas during this time. As renowned scientists and artists, Jesuit missionaries introduced contemporary Western science and technology to China during the late Ming (1368–1644) and early Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. As cartographers, they provided both China and the West with an image of their place in the world. As missionaries, they reintroduced China to Christianity and sparked a fascination with Confucianism in Europe that fueled Enlightenment thought and led to Chinese studies as a field of interest.

The Society of Jesus was founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 to help revitalize the Catholic Church after the crises and loss of influence brought about by the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The society’s dual focus on quality education and overseas missions produced scores of outstanding scholar-missionaries.

Jesuit Mission Methods

Two Jesuits who were not themselves missionaries in China (although one of them spent time in Macao, on China’s coast) created a unique framework for the mission that fully acknowledged and sometimes incorporated China’s own cultural achievements. Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the first Jesuit missionary to Japan, called for outstanding scientists to serve as missionaries to the civilized countries of Japan and China. He suggested converting China “from the top down,” beginning with the emperor, and using China’s intellectual leadership in Asia to further the mission within the entire region. Allessandro Valignano (1539–1606), who spent time in Japan and in the Portuguese-controlled territories of Goa in India and Macao on China’s coast in his official capacity as Visitor to the East, refined Xavier’s model. His accommodation method demanded that missionaries respect and adjust to native cultures. Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), the foremost Jesuit missionary to China, further developed the Jesuit mission approach. He integrated what he considered an authentic Confucianism with Catholic beliefs. Ricci promoted a very careful introduction of Christian dogmas and expected only a gradual transformation of his converts. The Jesuits also received permission from the Vatican to train Chinese priests using Chinese in place of Latin and celebrating the mass in Chinese.

Within the first decades of their presence in China, Jesuits established residences and congregations in cities throughout the empire, among them Nanjing, Nanxiang,Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Kaifeng and Jinan, often using a small network of Chinese scholar supporters, among them Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), to help them gain entry into local society. The limited number of foreign missionaries serving in China fostered independence among Chinese congregations and Chinese clergy, evident in the founding of societies focusing on mutual support, welfare, and charity.

The almost continuous presence of Jesuit scientists at the Ming and Qing imperial courts from 1630 to 1773 is generally considered the most remarkable achievement of Jesuit mission work. It provided some imperial protection, starting with baiban letters of approval and culminating in the Kangxi Emperor’s edict of toleration (1692). The Jesuit mission, however, was repeatedly threatened, and Jesuits often had to leave their residences and live in obscurity. The first period of anti-Jesuit agitation occurred in Nanjing from 1616 to 1621 under the vice president of the Board of Rites (one of the six government ministries, responsible for ritual, the calendar, and the administration of the Civil Service Examination), Shen Que (1592). Two scholar-officials who were among the first generation of converts, Li Zhizao (1565–1630) and Yang Tingyun (1557–1627), offered housing to several missionaries in Hangzhou. Other missionaries were asked to leave China. Another crisis occurred in 1664 when the anti-Christian activist Yang Guangxian (1597–1669) accused Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666), a German Jesuit, of causing the Shunzhi Emperor’s death. At this time, most missionaries in Beijing had to leave for Canton (Guangzhou). In both cases, the Jesuits soon regained their previous strength and positions.

The Rites Controversy

Ricci’s accommodation to Chinese culture sparked almost a century of controversy both within and beyond the Jesuit order. The most critical issue was the evaluation of ancestral rites and the rites celebrated in ceremonies at the Confucius temple as either civic or sacred ritual. Ricci, and most other Jesuits, considered them essentially civic in nature and therefore compatible with Christianity if slightly modified. Some Jesuits, including Ricci’s successor Langobardi and all missionaries from the mendicant orders (Franciscans and Dominicans) who were present in China since 1634, considered them sacred and expected converts to stop participating in these rituals. The Vatican, asked to clarify the issue, ruled against the Jesuit approach in 1645. This ruling was reversed in 1656. As the controversy continued, the Jesuits eventually asked the Kangxi Emperor (reigned 1662–1722) for clarification. In a handwritten note dated 30 November 1700, the emperor sided with the Jesuit view. This, however, did not prevent Pope Clement XI (reigned 1700–1721) from ultimately deciding against the Jesuits in 1715. The Kangxi Emperor, who heard of this decision in 1720, responded by asking all missionaries who followed the Pope’s decision to leave China. His successor, the Yongzheng Emperor (reigned 1722–1736) subsequently evicted all missionaries except for those who worked as foreign experts at the court, thus effectively ending Catholic missionary activity in 1724. Jesuits continued their mission at the court until the Jesuit order was temporarily suppressed in 1773.

Jesuit Contributions in China and Europe

Jesuits like Matteo Ricci, Johannes Schreck (1576–1630), Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1699), and Joachim Bouvet (1656–1730) provided a direct link between the intellectual elites of China and Europe through their personal connections with eminent Europeans such as Kepler, Clavius, Galileo, and Leibniz and with Chinese academics and administrators throughout the empire. The results of this exchange benefited both China and Europe. To China, Jesuits brought Western mathematics, including a revision of the imperial calendar; Western-style painting and architecture; and great advances in astronomy, horology (the study of time measurement), and cartography. In Europe, Chinese aesthetics influenced landscaping and interior design, and among technical advances were the waterproofing of vessels, silk making, and porcelain production. More importantly, Jesuit missionary work and publications allowed both sides to consider alternatives to the status quo. They offered a Catholic-Christian world view to China, and they lead to the critical revision of feudal church and state institutions in contemporary Europe that sparked Enlightenment thought.

Further Reading

Alden, D. (1996) The making of an enterprise: The society of Jesus in Portugal, its empire, and beyond, 1540–1750. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Brockey, L. M. (2007). Journey to the East: The Jesuit mission to China, 1579–1724. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Leibniz, G. W. (1994). Writings on China. (D. J. Cook & H. Rosemont, Jr., Trans.). Chicago: Open Court.

Mungello, D. E. (1989). Curious land: Jesuit accommodation and the origins of sinology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Mungello, D. E. (Ed.). (1995). The Chinese rites controversy: Its history and meaning. Chicago: Loyola Press.

Ronan, C. E., & Oh, B. B. C. (Eds). (1988). East meets West: The Jesuits in China, 1582–1773. Chicago: Loyola Press.

Ross, A. C. (1994). A vision betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542–1742. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Source: Gerber, Lydia. (2009). Society of Jesus. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2028–2030. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Society of Jesus (Yēsūhuì 耶稣会)|Yēsūhuì 耶稣会 (Society of Jesus)

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