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Christianity and Empire: The Catholic Mission in Late Imperial China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2018

R. Po-chia Hsia*
Pennsylvania State University
*Department of History, 108 Weaver, Penn State, University Park, PA 16802, USA. E-mail:


Reflecting on the theme of ‘Empire and Christianity’, this article compares two periods in the Catholic mission to China. The first period, between 1583 and 1800, was characterized by the accommodation of European missionaries to the laws, culture and customs of the Chinese empire during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The work of the Jesuits, in particular, demonstrated a method of evangelization in which Christian teachings could be accommodated to the political realities of Late Imperial China as exemplified by the work of Matteo Ricci, Ferdinand Verbiest, Tomas Pereira, Joachim Gerbillon and many generations of Jesuits and missionaries of other religious orders. The Chinese Rites Controversy, however, disrupted this accommodation between Christianity and empire in China. Despite tacit toleration in the capital, Christianity was outlawed after 1705. After the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773, Catholicism in China became increasingly indigenized. In 1842, after the defeat of the Qing empire by the British in the First Opium War, the prohibition of Christianity was lifted. Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries entered China, backed by Western diplomatic and military power. This led to the confrontation between China and Christianity, culminating in the 1900 Boxer Uprising. A concerted effort to indigenize Christianity in the early twentieth century ultimately failed, resulting in the separation of Christianity in China from global Christianity after 1950.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2018 

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1 A brief biography is available on the website of the Eric Liddell Centre, online at: <>¸ last accessed 14 November 2017; see also Caughey, Ellen, Eric Liddell: Olympian and Missionary (Ulrichsville, OH, 2000)Google Scholar.

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4 See my ‘Christianité et tolérance dans l'Empire chinois’, in Guy Saupin, Rémy Fabre and Marcel Launay, eds, La Tolérance. Colloque international de Nantes, mai 1998. Quatrième centenaire de l’édit de Nantes (Rennes, 1999), 445–50.

5 See The Jesuits and the Sino-Russian Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689): The Diary of Thomas Pereira, ed. Joseph S. Sebes, Bibliotheca Instituti Historici Societatis Iesu 18 (Rome, 1961).

6 For Jesuit astronomers in the service of China, see Golvers, Noël, Ferdinand Verbiest S.J. (1623–1688) and the Chinese Heaven (Leuven, 2003), 1525Google Scholar.

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8 For numbers of missionaries and converts in Ming and Qing China, see Standaert, Nicolas, ed., Handbook of Christianity in China, 1: 635–1800 (Leiden, 2001)Google Scholar; for a succinct narrative, see Po-chia Hsia, R., ‘Imperial China and the Christian Mission’, in idem, ed., A Companion to Early Modern Catholic Global Missions (Leiden, 2018), 344–66Google Scholar.

9 See R. Po-chia Hsia, ‘Catholic Global Missions and the Expansion of Europe’, ibid. 1–16.

10 In addition to the titles cited above, for some of the best scholarship on the Christian mission in Late Imperial China, see Menegon, Eugenio, Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, MA, 2009)Google Scholar; Brockey, Liam M., Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579–1724 (Cambridge, MA, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See Po-chia Hsia, R., A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci 1552–1610 (Oxford, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, Matteo Ricci and the Catholic Mission to China: A Short History with Documents (Indianapolis, IN and Cambridge, MA, 2016).

12 See Golvers, Verbiest.

13 An older, still useful work gives an overview of the Rites Controversy: Minamiki, George, The Chinese Rites Controversy from its Beginning to Modern Times (Chicago, IL, 1985)Google Scholar. More recent studies have focused on specific aspects of the controversy and explored new sources: see, for example, Standaert, Nicolas, ed., Chinese Voices in the Rites Controversy: Travelling Books, Community Networks, Intercultural Arguments, Bibliotheca Instituti Historici Societatis Iesu 75 (Rome, 2012)Google Scholar.

14 The best introduction is still the older work by Rule, Paul A., K'ung-tzu or Confucius? The Jesuit Interpretation of Confucianism (Sydney, 1986)Google Scholar. More recent scholarship has focused on studying the Jesuit ‘translations’ of Confucian classics: see Meynard, Thierry, ed., Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (1687): The First Translation of the Confucian Classics, Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu [hereafter: MHSI] n.s. 6 (Rome, 2011)Google Scholar.

15 For Christian encounters with Islam in China, see Po-chia Hsia, R., ‘Christian Conversion in Late Ming China: Niccolo Longobardo and Shandong’, Medieval History Journal 12 (2009), 275301CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, 天主教与明末社会: 崇祯朝龙华民山东传教的几个问题 [‘Tianzhu jiao yu Mingmo shehui’], 历史研究 [Lishi yanjiu], 2009 no. 2, 51–67. For Christianity and Buddhism, see idem, ‘The Jesuit Encounter with Buddhism in Ming China’, in M. Antoni Üçerler, ed., Christianity and Cultures: Japan and China in Comparison 1543–1644 (Rome, 2009), 19–44.

16 See Stumpf, Kilian, The Acta Pekinensia or Historical Records of the Maillard de Tournon Legation, 1: December 1705–August 1706, ed. Rule, Paul and von Collani, Claudia, MHSI n.s. 9 (Rome and Macau, 2015)Google Scholar.

17 For these persecutions in the mid-eighteenth century, see Po-chia Hsia, R., Noble Patronage and Jesuit Missions: Maria Theresia von Fugger-Wellenburg (1690–1762) and Jesuit Missionaries in China and Vietnam, MHSI n.s. 2 (Rome, 2006), 5761Google Scholar, 81–9.

18 The standard work by Willeke, Bernard, Imperial Government and Catholic Missions in China during the Years 1784–85 (St Bonaventure, NY, 1948)Google Scholar, must be supplemented with more recent documentary publications: Number One Historical Archive, 清中前期西洋天主教在華活動檔案史料 [Qing zhong qian qi xiyang Tianzhujiao zai Hua huodong dangan shiliao], 4 vols (Beijing, 2003).

19 See Po-chia Hsia, R., ‘The End of the Jesuit Mission in China’, in Burson, Jeffrey D. and Wright, Jonathan, eds, The Jesuit Suppression in Global Context: Causes, Events, and Consequences (Cambridge, 2015), 100–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 For this understudied period in the history of Chinese Christianity, see Xiaojuan Huang, ‘Christian Communities and Alternative Devotions in China 1780–1860’ (PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 2006).

21 See Daily, Christopher A., Robert Morrison and the Protestant Plan for China (Hong Kong, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Porter, Andrew, Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914 (Manchester, 2004), 207Google Scholar.

23 See Hongyan Xiang, ‘Land, Church, and Power: French Catholic Mission in Guangzhou, 1840–1930’ (PhD dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 2014).

24 Cohen, Paul A., China and Christianity: The Missionary Movement and the Growth of Chinese Antiforeignism, 1860–1870 (Cambridge, MA, 1963)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, remains a good introduction to the formation of anti-Christianity in late nineteenth-century China.

25 See in this volume, Stewart J. Brown, ‘Providential Empire? The Established Church of England and the Nineteenth-Century British Empire in India’, 225–59.

26 See Young, Ecclesiastical Colony.

27 For a summary of the status quaestionis, see Bickers, Robert and Tiedemann, R. G., eds, The Boxers, China, and the World (Lanham, MD, 2007)Google Scholar.

28 For the Catholic effort to build a Chinese Church with greater Chinese leadership and characteristics, see Hsin-fang Wu, ‘The Transmission of Memories: Reprints, Historical Studies, and Commemoration in the Jesuit Shanghai Mission, 1842–1949’ (PhD dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 2017), ch. 5.