Chinese Puzzle

The Catholic Church’s presence in China dates to 1246, when a Franciscan friar and papal envoy led the first known Catholic mission to the Mongol court at Karakorum. By the early fourteenth century the Franciscans had a missionary presence throughout China. Those missions ended in 1368 with the fall of the Mongols to the anti-Christian Ming emperors. In 1565 the Jesuits established a mission south of Canton, and in 1582, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrived and was soon traveling widely in China. Ricci immersed himself in Chinese language and culture, and thus sought to reconcile Catholicism with Confucianism and traditional practices such as ancestor veneration.

Following Ricci’s death in 1606, the question of whether Chinese rites could be incorporated into Catholicism became a century-long debate. In 1704, Pope Clement XI condemned and prohibited the Chinese rites, including ancestor veneration. In response, the Kangxi emperor banned Christian missionaries from China. Catholicism went underground until treaties signed during the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars provided missionaries unfettered access to China. Nevertheless, the church’s close relationship with colonial authorities rendered it a target of the Boxer Rebellion against foreign influence in China (1899-1900); hundreds of missionaries were killed.

The Chinese church remained under the direct control of the Vatican Office of the Propagation of...

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About the Author

Adam Minter writes about China for the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Rake, and other publications. He lives in Shanghai.