Rites Controversy in China

From the beginning of their work in China in 1583, many Catholic Jesuit missionaries presented themselves as scholars and scientists. Their goal was to impress the elite scholar-officials with their culture and erudition and then gradually to present the essential teachings of Christianity.

Thus they adapted to many Chinese ways and avoided conflict with the Chinese over unessential matters. This tactic won prominent converts among the court and high government officials during the last years of the Ming dynasty. The fall of the Ming and the establishment of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty in 1644 did not damage the prestige of the Jesuits.

Discord came with the arrival of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries in China in 1634. With no knowledge of Chinese culture, they were horrified with Jesuit accommodations with Chinese mores.

They also attacked the Jesuits for choosing Chinese words to express Christian terminology, for tolerating Chinese rites such as those honoring ancestors and Confucius, and for refusing to teach that Confucius, China’s most revered philosopher, had gone to hell for not being a Christian. Franciscans and Dominicans, who preferred converting ordinary people, were moreover jealous of the Jesuits for their connections with leaders of society.

The most bitter fight between the Jesuits and the other orders was over Chinese rites. Jesuits maintained that ancestor worship expressed respect and filial piety, and rituals that honored Confucius were civil rites of good citizenship that did not negate worship of God. Moreover they believed that their prohibition would make it impossible for many Chinese to become Christians.

A papal decree of 1656 had allowed the Jesuits to permit Chinese converts to continue the practice of their family and civic rituals under stipulated conditions. Franciscans and Dominicans however thought these acts idolatrous and blasphemous and campaigned to have them banned. The debate generated 262 published works on the subject.

Emperor Kangxi (K’ang-hsi, ruled 1662–1722) was personally not interested in Christianity but was sympathetic to the Jesuits for their learning and because of their services to his government. He issued an Edict of Toleration in 1692 that allowed Christians to build churches and worship freely in China.

However Kangxi was offended when the pope sided with Franciscans in 1704, banned the Chinese rites for Chinese converts to Christianity, and insisted that the words Jesuits had used for God in Chinese be changed.

In 1705, the pope sent an emissary to China to inform Kangxi that he wished to exert authority over all Chinese Catholics. This demand confirmed the suspicion of many Chinese leaders that there was a secret dark purpose for sending missionaries to China. Kangxi rejected the pope’s demand categorically.

A second papal legate, sent in 1720, was no more successful. Meanwhile in 1707, 1715, and 1742, successive popes decreed that ancestor worship and veneration of Confucius were idolatrous and incompatible with Christian practice and banned them for Chinese converts to Catholicism.

After reading the papal bull of 1715, Emperor Kangxi commented in writing, “I ask myself how these uncultivated Westerners dare to speak of the great [philosophical and moral] precepts of China ... As from now I forbid the Westerners to spread their doctrine in China; that will spare us a lot of trouble.” He further decreed that all missionaries should be repatriated except for those who served as scientists and specialists in the Chinese government. However the decision was not strictly applied.

Kangxi died in 1722 and was followed by his son Yongzheng (Yung-Cheng, ruled 1723–35), who was much less sympathetic to Christian missionaries. He said, “China has its religions and the Western world has its religions. Western religions need not propagate in China, just as Chinese religions cannot prevail in the Western world.”

This view was shared by his son Emperor Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung, ruled 1736–95), although both rulers continued to employ Jesuits in the government. When the papacy dissolved the Society of Jesus in 1773, the moving spirit of Christianity in China was gone and Chinese-Western religious and cultural contacts became minimal.

The Jesuits’ understanding of the differences between Chinese and Christian cultures was key to their success. That success bred jealousy among other missionary groups, resulting in the rites controversy, which severed the bridge between China and the West.