Christianity first appeared in China in AD 635, but imperial hostility to the religion forced it to disappear around the tenth century. Christianity only experienced a resurgence after the arrival of the Jesuits in the middle of the 15th century and their efforts to reintroduce the religion to the Chinese. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Online with World History during that time.
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The Foundation of the Jesuits
In 1534, the Spanish priest, mystic, and theologian Ignatius de Loyola founded a religious order. This religious order would later be called the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). His friends Francis Xavier, Nicolas de Bobadilla, Diego Laynez, Peter Faber, Simon Rodriguez, and Alfonso Salmeron were among the original founders of the Jesuits. The Vatican officially recognized the Jesuits in 1540 through the papal bull Regimini militantis ecclesiae.
The number of priests that joined the Jesuits grew rapidly between 1540 and 1544. These men quickly gained a reputation for discipline because of their leader’s military past. They were also known for their commitment and obedience to the Catholic Church during a time when it was threatened by the Reformation. The energetic Jesuits refused to stay inside their monasteries and spend their days in prayer and contemplation. Instead, they went out and ministered to society. It was not long before the brothers were establishing schools, orphanages, and shelters for prostitutes throughout Europe.
The Jesuits in Asia and the Resurgence of Christianity in China
In 1539, Pope Paul III appointed the Jesuit co-founder Francis Xavier as a papal legate and missionary to India. He arrived in Portuguese-held Goa three years later and successfully evangelized in the area. Thousands of Indians converted to Christianity, but the Jesuit missionary did not stay for long. He traveled to Japan in 1549 and established a Christian community there. The rapid growth of Christianity alarmed some Buddhist monks who then drove the Jesuit missionary out of the kingdom.
Francis Xavier briefly visited China, but soon returned to Goa to continue his missionary work. He tried to re-enter China in 1552, but his request was refused by the authorities. He died in Shangchuan Island in Guangdong in the same year and his body was taken back to Goa where it was buried.
The Italian Alessandro Valignano was one of the first Jesuits to follow Francis Xavier’s path in Asia. He arrived in Goa in 1574 and soon developed a way to evangelize the natives without much interference with local customs. He traveled to Portuguese-held Macau but found that Christianity was unable to gain a foothold there because not one missionary knew the language. The Chinese were also unimpressed with “bearded round-eyes” (as they called the Europeans) and even forbade them from entering Guangzhou.
Valignano wrote to the head of the Jesuits in Goa and asked him to send a priest who had an aptitude for language. His prayers were answered when the head of Jesuit mission in Goa sent a fellow Italian priest named Michele Ruggieri to Macau in 1579. Valignano left for Japan, but Ruggieri stayed in Macau where he learned to read and write the Chinese language. The task that Ruggieri faced was enormous, so he appealed to Valignano to send the priest Matteo Ricci as a companion and fellow student. Valignano—then in Japan —sent the message to the Jesuit mission in Goa. The Jesuits then sent Matteo Ricci to join Ruggieri in Macau in 1580.
The duo left Macau and ventured to nearby Guangzhou and Zhaoqing in an attempt to establish a mission further inland. They befriended locals and authorities but was initially met with resistance when they tried to establish a mission. They finally made a breakthrough in 1582 when they received permission to establish a mission in Zhaoqing. Between 1583 and 1588, the duo (together with the Jesuit layman Sebastiano Fernandez) were also able to compile the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary.
Father Ruggieri mapped out towns and cities in Guangzhou and Zhaoqing during his free time. Matteo Ricci, on the other hand, embarked on the task of translating European texts to Chinese. Ricci translated Latin catechisms to Chinese and Confucian classics to Latin. Ruggieri left China in 1588 to ask the Vatican to send an embassy to Beijing, but he died in Italy without seeing his dream come true.
Ricci stayed behind in China but was expelled from Zhaoqing in 1589. He transferred to Shaoguan, and then relocated to Nanjing and Nanchang in 1595. Valignano, meanwhile, appointed him Major Superior of Jesuits in China. He traveled to Beijing in 1598, but it was not until 1601 that Ricci gained entrance to Wanli Emperor’s court in the Forbidden City. The emperor was unimpressed at first, but Ricci persisted. He allowed the Jesuit priest to build the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing four years later. He died in Beijing in 1610 and was given full honors by Wanli Emperor during his funeral.
Wanli Emperor died in 1620, but the Ming and Qing emperors who succeeded him were hostile to Christianity. Jesuit activities in China were suppressed, while missionaries were sent back to Macau. Christianity was considered a “dangerous doctrine” and soon, Chinese Christians faced persecution. By the middle of the 1600s and despite the persecutions, the Christian population in China reached more than 300,000 people.
Picture by: Matteo Ricci, Michele Ruggieri, Sebastian Fernandez (Chinese characters) – Portuguese-Chinese dictionary: manuscript by Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri. Published as part of a book: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=A7h5YbM5M60C , p.223, Public Domain, Link
Barthel, Manfred. The Jesuits History and Legend of the Society of Jesus. Translated by Mark Howson. New York, NY: William Morrow, 1987.
Martin, Malachi. The Jesuits: The Society of Jesus and the Betrayal of the Roman Catholic Church. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
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