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Early Missionary Christianity in China Chen, Hui-Hung


Religious Group-Early Missionary Christianity in China Speaking of Christianity in China, the early missionary period, compared with the later nineteenth century when both the Catholic and Protestant missionaries appeared, is usually defined as from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. It was the time when the first most active Christian mission was developed in China. Then, during the European Reformation and overseas expansion, the Catholic missionary was the sole actor in evangelization financed both by the Church and states. The Society of Jesus was officially founded in 1540 and became a significant contributor to the China mission over the centuries. This religious order tied with Asia in the very beginning. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the first generation of the Jesuits, embarked from Lisbon in 1541 under the auspice of the Portuguese court on behalf of the crown’s colony in India. Although Xavier only died on an island outside Macao, not yet set foot on Mainland China, the Padroado, the Portuguese royal supporting system of the Jesuit missionary, became the primary channel to initiate the Catholic missionary history in East Asia. The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was the most crucial figure in the inception of the Jesuit China mission, who arrived in Macao in 1582. Thenceforth until around 1724, when the Chinese Emperor officially prohibited the religion, this early missionary period of Christianity in China was well-known for its vigorous religious and cultural encounters and thought as the first and most fascinating cultural interaction between Europe and China. The Jesuit evangelization in Japan and China, starting with learning native languages and accommodating cultural elements to their preaching, was proposed by the Jesuit Visitor Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606). Ricci substantially realized this method of accommodation, to fully dress as a Chinese literatus and deeply engage in the Confucian/Mandarin atmosphere. Ricci’s most prominent and influential interpretation for the Chinese is to understand Christian God in the original Confucian classics, in which the supreme Shangdi 上帝or tian 天 (heaven) could be equivalently termed as Catholic Deus. Ricci’s return to the Chinese antiquity to conduct his religious adaptation to Chinese culture, standing in conflict with contemporary Neo-Confucianism, was an original way to invent an indigenous comprehension of Christianity. Ricci’s argument for early Chinese awareness of the Christian God was to appropriate ancient Chinese terms and imposed on it the Christian meaning of the highest Creator. Although the following controversy after Ricci’s death regarding this terminology abandoned them and preferably officiated the Tianzhu 天主, the Lord of Heaven, as the newly coined Chinese term for God, we have considered this “Confucian Christianity” as a highly original hybrid: a monotheist religion and a purist Confucian tradition. It is not merely a result of an ambitious cultural accommodation but also, from the perspective of religious history, one of the most significant characteristic products of the early missionary Christianity in China. The second characteristic of this period could point to another outcome resulting from the intensive and interactive dialogues of the Jesuits and Chinese Mandarins. Tianxue 天學, learning of Heaven, appeared as a new discipline in the intellectual landscape of Late-Ming China. It indicates the Jesuit evangelization through European sciences and knowledge, which were also expected, in the missionary view, to meet Chinese intellectual interests and political needs. The above two characteristics demonstrate the importance of Jesuit accommodation, and also which raised one of the most well-known debates for Christian evangelization during this period, the Chinese Rites Controversy. One of the central controversial issues was the Jesuit interpretation of the Chinese worship of ancestors as the civil and social meanings without conflict with Christian monotheism. Deriving both from the criticisms of other Catholic religious orders, also working in East Asia on a comparatively smaller scale than the Jesuits, and from those doubts inside the Society itself, the Controversy lasted over one century. The Roman Church issued the final rejection of the Jesuit accommodation in 1742.

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