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In the last letter that is preserved from Francis Xavier, written from the island of Shangchuan off the shore of China two weeks before his death on 3 December 1552, he expressed his hope of going to China despite the many difficulties involved. It was, however, thirty years before Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) obtained permission for a permanent residence on the mainland (in 1583). The Jesuit presence during the next two hundred years can roughly be divided into five periods, each covering approximately thirty to forty years. The first period, from 1583 to 1616, was the time of the pioneers. It was characterized by Matteo Ricci's activities. Not only did he gradually develop a missionary strategy under the encouragement of the Visitor of Asia, Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606); Ricci was also responsible for an “ascent to Beijing,” a movement from the south to the north and from the periphery to the center. In 1610, at the moment of the death of Matteo Ricci, there were merely sixteen Jesuits in China, eight Chinese and eight foreigners, with around 2,500 Christians. A few years later, in 1616-17, an anti-Christian movement forced the Jesuits to withdraw to the center of the country. Around 1620, when the situation calmed down, a new group of missionaries initiated a second period. These included several Jesuits versed in mathematics or Aristotelian philosophy, among them Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592-1666). Due to their efforts, Jesuits were involved in large-scale translation activities, of both religious and scientific writings.
There are different ways of writing the history of the expansion of Christianity and its evangelization of the non-Christian world. The common approach is to write it from the perspective of the European missionary, whereby the process of Christianization is primarily perceived as the result of the missionary’s action. Another approach is to take the receiving community as the starting point of discussion; thereby emphasizing this community’s role as an active participant in the conversion process. This chapter will adopt the latter approach. By focusing on the Chinese, both Christian and non-Christian, it will show how these actors, in interaction with the respective missionaries, shaped the form of Christianity in seventeenth-century China.
The account of this historic interaction begins with the year 1583, the first time local Chinese authorities granted missionaries permanent residence in mainland China. During the preceding thirty years, i.e., since 1552, the year in which Francisco Xavier (1506–52) died on an island off the Chinese coast, some fifty missionaries had been trying in vain to settle in China. The closing date of this account is 1666. In that year, Chinese authorities banished all but four missionaries to confinement in Canton. During a period of approximately five years, all churches in the provinces were closed and Christianity forbidden. Although 1666 therefore represents a closing date that fits elegantly within the time-frame set by this volume of the Cambridge History of Christianity, the events that took place during this time should not necessarily be considered the most significant in the process of evangelization in China. From the point of view of Chinese secular history, 1644 is a more important date.