The Catholic Invasion of China

Zhiqun Zhu

This book examines the history of Catholicism in China from 1834, when the Jesuits were invited to return to China by the Jiangnan Christians, to 2000, when 120 Catholic martyrs were canonized, as part of Western cultural imperialism. It challenges widespread misunderstanding that Christian missions in China in the 19th and 20th centuries were a debacle. D. E. Mungello states that the Catholic effort to convert the Chinese or the ‘invasion of China’ consisted of both negative and positive forces. On one hand, the forces were chauvinistic, exploitive, and condescending; on the other, they were kind, charitable, and inspirational. 

The Catholic population is expanding in China is evidence that positive effects outweigh negative ones. Catholicism has taken a deep root in China. Despite setbacks such as expulsion of Christian missionaries in 1951 and the ensuing anti-Catholic campaigns during Mao’s time, religious freedom has grown since the 1980s. The main argument is that from a long-term perspective, the ‘invasion’ contributed to the transformation of a mission church into an indigenous religion. “In the process, the Catholic invasion enriched Chinese culture, while the Chinese church enriched Catholicism and made it more universal” (p. 1).

Indeed, in addition to setting up orphanages and hospitals to care for the sick and needy, the Jesuits also built schools, libraries and other cultural facilities, many of which are still functional today. For example, in Shanghai, Zikawei (Xujiahui) became an educational and scholarly center with schools such as Xuhui Gongxue (St. Ignatius College) and Zhendan Xueyuan (Aurora Academy). Zhendan Xueyuan later became Zhendan Daxue (Aurora University), which merged into East China Normal University in 1952. The Zikawei Library had collections of both Chinese and Western-language collections. Most of the Jesuit buildings at Zikawei were demolished in the construction of a subway in the 1990s, but the library building was renovated and reopened in 2003 and houses the Western-language collection, while the Chinese collection is at the Shanghai Public Library (p. 25). An astronomical observatory and a seminary built by the Jesuits in Sheshan outside Shanghai were reopened in 1982 as well (p. 37).

This concise and informative book covers topics including a brief history of Catholicism in China, spiritual domination by European Catholics in the 19th century, European resistance to the emergence of an indigenous Catholic church in China, Catholic orphanages, sexual domination by Catholic priests, as well as the 120 canonized Catholic martyrs in 2000.

According to the author, the first phase of the Jesuit missionaries’ entry into China (1580-1787) is famous for its adaptation to, rather than alienation from, Chinese culture, with Fr. Matteo Ricci establishing a base in Beijing. Ricci displayed the spirit of accommodation by blending Western Christianity with Chinese culture. French Jesuits returned to China in 1842 after the first Opium War (1839-1842). The new Jesuits established their headquarters in Shanghai, bypassing the imperial court as an intermediary and interacting with the Chinese Christians directly. With more frequent direct interactions, conflicts emerged between the new Jesuits and Chinese Christians in religious practices and cultural differences such as the Chinese custom of strict separation of the sexes in the church.

For nearly a century after the return of the Jesuits in 1842, Europeans rather than Chinese dominated the priesthood in China, most of them operating under the mistaken belief that Europeans were better able to advance the church than Chinese. This changed with the arrival of Fr. Vincent Lebbe (Lei Mingyuan) in Beijing in March 1901. Lebbe was considered the most committed Western priest to the empowerment of Chinese clergy. He advocated elevating Chinese priests in the clerical hierarchy and emphasized on learning the Chinese language. The missionary establishment in China was hostile to the reformist Lebbe, who adopted Chinese nationality and established two religious societies in northern China. The two societies joined the Chinese efforts against the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. He died in the Nationalist capital Chongqing in 1940.

The book also contains stories about prominent Chinese Catholic leaders such as Xu Guangqi, Ma Xiangbo, Ying Lianzhi, and Gong Pinmei. Notably, Ma was the first Catholic to translate the New Testament into Chinese. In 1905 Ma and part of the student body left Zhendan to found Fudan Gongxue (New Aurora Private School), which in 1910 became Fudan Daxue. Ying founded the newspaper Dagongbao and was instrumental in the establishment of Fu Ren Catholic University in 1925, which was absorbed by Beijing Normal University after the Communist revolution. Gong Pinmei was secretly appointed to the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II in 1979. After spending 30 years in prison, he was released on parole in 1985. Gong refused to join the official Chinese Patriotic Church and was never officially recognized as the bishop of Shanghai by the Chinese government. He went to the United States for medical treatment and flew to Rome in 1989 to receive a public consecration. He never returned to China and died in Connecticut in 2000.

During the Oppose America, Aid Korea movement (1950-1953), the Catholic Church in China became a target of Chinese patriotic feeling due to the Church’s ties to the vehemently anti-Communist Holy See. More Catholic missionaries were persecuted than their Protestant counterparts (p. 57). Catholic orphanages were also wrongly accused of causing the death of tens of thousands of abandoned or sick children that they took under their care. The ‘invasion’ of Catholicism is not just physical incursion into China by thousands of Western priests, it’s the mental framework that continues to shape the development of Christianity in China today. With the re-emergence and expansion of Christianity since the 1980s, the author strikes an optimistic note by suggesting that the elevation of a Chinese as pope in the near future “is a likelihood” (p. 116).

The book also highlights differences between Protestant and Catholic missions. It quotes British diplomat and traveler Eric Teichman as saying Protestant missionaries were mostly married and, except for the China Inland Mission missionaries, attempted to create a Western lifestyle abroad, which set them apart from the Chinese they were missionizing. Catholic missionaries lived in a manner closer to the Chinese people (p. 84). For their part, Protestants criticized the conditions in the Catholic orphanages as oppressively institutional. The book also reveals the huge gap between the Vatican and the Chinese government.  For example, the Pope canonized 120 martyrs who were killed in China between 1648 and 1930. The Chinese official position is that these “so-called martyrs” were criminals and “were justly executed for violating Chinese laws” such as fomenting rebellion and raping women (p. 95). As the Vatican and China are working to normalize relations today, one wonders how they can overcome such huge differences.

This short and rich book with fascinating and sometimes sorrowful stories makes significant contribution to understanding evolution of Catholicism in China and Western–China relations in general. With detailed notes and bibliography as well as appendixes covering the list of the 120 martyrs and a bilingual glossary, the book serves as a great reference for students and other readers who are interested in the history of Christianity in China and Western cultural imperialism.