Society of Jesus in China

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The Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuit order, was one of the chief arms of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe, and one of the earliest and most prominent groups of Christian missionaries to be active in China. Individuals such as Matteo Ricci (at Court in Beijing 1582-1610) and Giuseppe Castiglione (at Court in Beijing 1715-1766) were granted prominent positions in the Ming and Qing Courts respectively, and played significant roles in introducing European science, technology, art, and architecture to China.

Ming Dynasty

The first Jesuits to arrive in China donned the robes of Buddhist monks, in an attempt to adapt to local religious costume, to present themselves as religious figures in order to better convey their teachings. They soon discovered that Buddhist monks were not well-regarded in China, in certain respects, and so adopted the robes of Confucian scholars, presenting themselves as members of a cultivated, scholarly elite. A number of Jesuits of this time, Matteo Ricci chief among them, learned Chinese, studied Chinese texts, engaged with Confucian scholars, and were thus able to gain the connections and recognition necessary to become welcomed at Court. They then introduced the Imperial Court to numerous European sciences and technologies, including astronomy, engraving, firearms, and geography, with Matteo Ricci creating the first world map in Chinese. Ricci and others were named to official appointments in the Imperial bureau of astronomy.

Qing Dynasty

The Jesuits managed to maintain a privileged position at Court through the violent dynastic change of 1644, in which the Manchus took Beijing and established the Qing Dynasty. They continued to import clavichords, harpsichords, telescopes, clocks, and a variety of other devices which were initially quite prized by the Imperial Court; when British ambassador George Lord Macartney met with the Qianlong Emperor in 1793, he was dismayed to find the emperor utterly unimpressed with the clocks and astronomical devices he had brought to present as gifts.

Though the Jesuits condemned Buddhism and Daoism in their efforts to propagate Christianity, they were accepting of Confucianism, which they saw as safely complementing Christian attitudes in much the same way that the writings of Aristotle and the like could be accepted in the West. Initially, they similarly tolerated Chinese ancestor worship as non-threatening to Christianity, and allowed it to be practiced by converts without condemning it as a pagan practice. The Kangxi Emperor, declaring an expansion of official tolerance of Christianity in the 1690s, stipulated that point specifically - that as certain rites of ancestor worship and homage to Confucius were civil Chinese cultural rites and not religious ones, Chinese converts should be permitted to continue such practices. While most Jesuits in China saw little difficulty with this, it having been the standard since the time of Matteo Ricci, many others saw it as the emperor claiming religious authority over Christian matters. Pope Clement XI dispatched an emissary, Maillard de Tournon, who met with the emperor in 1705-1706. Following these meetings, de Tournon declared that anyone who agreed with Kangxi's stipulations would be excommunicated, while the emperor ordered that anyone who did not, would be expelled from the country. Most of the Jesuits in China signed certificates certifying their agreement to the Imperial stipulations; more than a dozen Franciscans, Dominicans, and other missionaries refused to do so and were expelled from China.[1]

This was reported to Rome, however, by members of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, and papal bulls issued in 1715 and 1742 condemned ancestor worship and forbade Chinese converts to Christianity from engaging in such practices. As a result, the fortune of the Jesuits in China declined dramatically. A few Jesuits remained in service to the Court, but Christianity was banned, churches were seized by the Court, and many missionaries fled China.

Jesuits active in China


  • Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 117-118.
  1. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 71.