Rim Report No. 32, February 2004
The Chinese Rites Controversy:
A Long Lasting Controversy in Sino-Western Cultural History
by Paul Rule, Ph.D.
The Ricci Institute at
the University of San Francisco Center for the Pacific Rim has
for many years been involved in the study of the Chinese Rites
Controversy. This commitment dates back to the early 1980s when
Fr. Edward Malatesta, S.J., founding director of the Ricci Institute,
had returned from his initiation to Chinese studies in Taiwan to
his old mentor, Fr. Francis Rouleau, S.J. A former China-missionary
and historian of the Jesuit mission in China, Fr. Rouleau projected
a scholarly study of the Chinese Rites issue in conjunction with
the Ricci Institute. Now, over the last four years and at the invitation
of the Ricci Institute, a team of scholars has been involved in
our renewed effort to continue this task.
Rule is an Australian sinologist and Honorary Associate
in the History Department at La Trobe University in Melbourne,
Australia and Distinguished Fellow of the EDS-Stewart Chair at
the Ricci Institute.
Dr. Claudia von Collani is a missiologist from Würzberg in
Germany who has done research on the study of the China mission
(1580–1780) and the Chinese Rites Controversy.
Dr. Eugenio Menegon
is a long-time research
associate of the Ricci Institute and currently a researcher in sinology at
the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.
Rites Controversy project draws upon the Rouleau collection of copies
of documents from European archives and the resources of Fr. Albert Chan’s
Chinese Library at the Ricci Institute as well as the library and electronic
resources of the University of San Francisco. We have also found enormously
helpful the digests and drafts by Rouleau and Malatesta in the Ricci
Rouleau Collection. This issue of
Pacific Rim Report is the first report on our work in progress.
We gratefully acknowledge the EDS-Stewart Chair for Chinese-Western
Cultural History at the USF Ricci Institute and The Henry
Luce Foundation for funding this issue of Pacific Rim
is hard for us in the twenty-first century to view, with
anything but repugnance and incomprehension, the vehemence
and bitterness of seventeenth-eighteenth-century religious
controversy. The Chinese Rites Controversy was perhaps the most bitter and
long-lasting of all. The grand old man of China mission history, Henri Bernard-Maître
S.J., even argued that it was possibly in terms of the number and caliber
of the participants, its length and ferocity, the greatest internal struggle
in the long history of the Catholic Church notwithstanding the early Councils.
Furthermore, it was not just a matter for churchmen, the battleground of theologians,
and ecclesiastical politicians. It engaged philosophers and intellectuals generally,
including some of the best minds of the time. It raged intermittently
from the 1630s, flared at the end of the century and continued well into the
eighteenth century. And it had consequences and echoes up to the present day.
The specific questions at issue may seem obscure and irrelevant: whether
a handful of Chinese Christian converts might or might not continue to
perform rituals in honor of their ancestors, and some related problems
such as how to render the name of God in Chinese (the ‘terms’ question); whether
Christian mandarins might perform rituals to Confucius and other official rituals
such as those to the guardian spirits of their city; and more general issues
still of accommodation of Western Christian liturgy and church law and practices
to Chinese conditions. However, the controversy was also exacerbated by tensions
and jealousies between missionaries of differing religious orders and national
origins. In this respect it was a microcosm of a large number of theological,
cultural, and political differences.
With the coming of Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century the
problem recurred in a new form. Through their strong Biblicism the Protestant
missionaries, apart from a horror of ‘idolatry’, were faced with
the dilemma of translating the biblical Yahweh/Theos into Chinese. So as
well as having to negotiate the dangerous rapids of Chinese ancestor and
other rituals, like their Catholic predecessors they had to engage with the
Chinese ‘terms’ issue.
Tian (Heaven, ), they tended to equate with imperial idol worship. In their
anxiety to stress their difference from the Catholics, they eschewed the
Catholic compromise Tianzhu (Lord of Heaven, ). So the argument came down
to a choice between Shangdi (the traditional ‘Lord on High’,
) and shen (a generic term for gods or spirits, ). Two versions of the Chinese
bible were thus created: a Shangdi and a Shen version. But this, in turn,
influenced judgments about ancestor rituals. When David Crocket Graham, a
Protestant missionary in Southwest China and excellent ethnographer, found
that the common people regarded their ancestors as shen, he abandoned his
earlier toleration of ancestor rituals because he thought this prima facie
evidence of idolatry—they
equated their ancestors with his God.
The problem of interpreting key terms is not just one concerning Chinese
terminology. Some three centuries later we frequently are struck by what
appear to be paradoxes and contradictions in the European labels being flung
around so freely by the protagonists. How could the Chinese be simultaneously ‘atheists’ and ‘idolaters’, ‘materialists’ and ‘superstitious’?
What was the emotional freight of such terms? And did their commonly used equivalents
in the various European languages have the same implications in each? Many,
on closer inspection, appear to be code words, revealing theological partisanship
and institutional allegiance.
The forces allied against the ‘permissive’ policies of the missionaries
of the Society of Jesus were in some ways a strange coalition: Roman curial
centralizers, Gallican supporters of national autonomy in religion, Europeanizers
who wished to impose Western styles of Christianity everywhere, and those who,
for want of a better term, we may call ‘Augustinians’, with a deep
pessimism about the possibilities of salvation outside the Catholic Church.
Added to this potent mixture were old jealousies and rivalries among religious
orders and between ‘regular’ and ‘secular’ clergy,
and especially between colonizing powers.
Even more, however, the Chinese Rites controversy raises in an acute and
illustrative form, many theoretical and practical issues that are very
much alive today. When post-modernist and post-structuralist theory and
relativist philosophies challenge the very possibility of cross-cultural
understanding, a close study of a classic case of this may prove enlightening.
Similarly it may illuminate the debates about the relativity of language.
Galileo’s alleged remark
eppur se muove, ‘and yet it does move’, remains the best rebuttal
of too much skeptical and paralyzing theory.
On the other hand, the endless and ultimately stultifying arguments
words for ‘God’, whether ancestor rituals were ‘sacrifices’ and
the buildings they were held in ‘halls’ or ‘temples’—remind
us that words divide and obfuscate as well as communicate. Actions, experience,
personal interaction may overcome apparently insuperable obstacles to communication.
One in our time who knew this better than most, the Cistercian monk Thomas
There has been endless definition, endless verbalizing,
and words have become gods. There are so many words that one cannot get
to God as long as He is thought to be on the side of the words. But when
he is placed firmly beyond the other side of words, the words multiply
like flies and there is a great buzzing religion, very profitable, very
holy, very spurious.
Much of the tragedy of the Chinese Rites lies in the inability of old
China hands to verbalize and defend their intuitions and perceptions.
Their theology could not keep up with their experience.
In a time when Christianity, in numbers and expression, is, for the
first time since its beginnings, unequivocally non-Western, issues
of enculturation, its preconditions and limits, are urgent for the
Christian churches and amount to a “new universal rites controversy.”
In theology, theology of religions, the theological assessment of
the religious ‘other’,
is fast emerging as the main item on the agenda. There could hardly be
found a more contemporary and urgent problem in the history of religion
and history in general than the assessment of the first modern crisis
in these areas. And, needless to say, it is relevant to the current
state of Chinese government and Vatican relations.
The Chinese Catholic church today, as in the past, is faced with problems
of connecting traditional with contemporary culture. ‘Culture fever’
and clashing ideologies have made the situation far more complex than
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but, again, there are lessons
to be drawn from history. In China itself, historians are taking more
and more interest in the Jesuit experience in China, and in the Chinese
Western historians of China, too, are turning in increasing numbers to
what was once regarded as a backwater of Ming-Qing studies. In the light
of a renewed interest in local history and cultural and social diversity
on the part of social historians of China, the acute differences among
missionaries takes on a new significance. Part, at least, of the obstinacy
with which various proponents of positions on the Chinese Rites propounded
their views, is now seen as arising from their very different local experiences.
More, though, we would argue, came from their differing theological interpretations
of what they observed. Notoriously, different religious orders had divergent
theologies, and none more so than the two ‘intellectual’ orders,
the Society of Jesus and the Order of Preachers. Jesuits and Dominicans lined
up on opposite sides on the theology of grace, on moral casuistry, and on the
Christian response to modern science. By the end of the seventeenth century
with French Jesuits and French priests from the Missions Étrangères
de Paris arriving in large numbers, the shadow of the Jansenist controversy
reached out to China. China became a sort of surrogate battleground for European
Amongst these conflicts was a jurisdictional struggle between the Vatican
especially the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda
Fide), the religious orders, especially the Jesuits, and the old ‘Catholic’ monarchies
of Portugal, Spain, and France. The papal legations to China of Charles
Maillard de Tournon and Carlo Ambrogio Mezzabarba were crucial episodes
in this bitter battle and further complicated the Chinese Rites issue.
There is, too, a major cultural shift that occurred during the period
under discussion which deeply affected the course of events. William
Bouwsma has recently pointed to a pervasive cultural change that occurred
during the period between the arrival of the Jesuits in China and the
outbreak of the Rites Controversy, which he calls “the waning of
the Renaissance.” There was, as
he sees it, a deep-seated anxiety displacing Renaissance optimism, and
marked by a desire for order, uniformity, centralized authority, and
certainty. Some, he thinks, found it in scholasticism, some in closed
schemes of logic and scientific rigor, some in externally imposed juridical
regimes. It is surely significant that these categories embrace most
of the opponents of the Chinese Rites.
Why should ritual have been the contested ground rather than belief systems
or morality? Contemporary ritual theory has demonstrated the centrality
of issues of orthopraxis over against orthodoxy. In China, where ritual
was very much a concern of the state, this was especially the case. The
Jesuits appreciated this sensitivity and attempted to retain as much
as possible of the domestic and public ritual practice.
Another ritual question was that of Catholic liturgy. Uniformity of liturgy
was one thrust of the counter-Reformation although not, perhaps, one
that the Jesuits, an order without prescribed common liturgical practices,
worried about too much. Very early in the history of the China mission,
however, they made innovations such as covering rather than uncovering
the head while celebrating mass. Their even more radical proposal for
a liturgy in the Chinese language came to nothing after initial approval
by Rome—further evidence of a
tightening up at the center. This and the associated issue of training
a Chinese clergy in China in Chinese, is not strictly part of the Rites
Controversy, but attitudes taken towards it serve as a kind of litmus-test
of attitudes towards Chinese rituals and culture, as do positions on
enforcing European practices of mass attendance and abstinence from work
on Sundays and feast days.
It is very difficult to conduct a historical and ethnographic study of
the rituals involved, especially ancestor and funeral rituals. The earlier
literature is mainly prescriptive and ideological, useful to some extent,
but not for establishing what was actually done. There is a vast nineteenth
and twentieth century descriptive literature from missionaries and other
western observers which seems to depict totally different practices in
different parts of China. As for the intentions and motivations of the
participants—the key issue
in terms of Christian morality—observers and participants constantly
contradict each other. Even the advent of scientific ethnography and
sociology failed to resolve basic questions of social and personal (including
religious) meanings of ancestor rituals. This literature will be
surveyed for the questions it raises and critically examined just as
the accounts by protagonists in the Rites Controversy, but the issues
do not seem capable of resolution by this route.
On the other hand, the debates among the missionaries and their Chinese
converts shed some light on major questions in late Ming/early Qing intellectual
history. Among these are the centrality of cosmology, naturalism and
transcendence, interpretation of the Chinese classics
(jing ), the boundaries of orthodoxy and the relationship of the three
main traditions (jiao ), Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. (It is worth
noting here that the Jesuits and their converts while accepting, unlike
many modern commentators, that these three were religions, or ‘laws’ (leggi)
as they called them, did not reify them as ideologies, ‘-isms’ in
the modern jargon.
One of the major problems in discussing the Rites Controversy is the
enormous bulk of the documentation. On the one hand, recently published
catalogues and electronic storage have improved our control of what Bernard-Maître
thick jungle” of material.
On the other, new sources are constantly emerging, especially as Chinese
archives are opened. The major
European archives are now accessible but the archives of the Holy office
were opened only in the course of the writing of this study and we have
been unable to use them. The great church historian, Ludwig von Pastor,
wrote in the early twentieth century: “A satisfactory history of
the dispute about the rites has not yet been written, nor is such a history
possible at the present." 
Our hope is that it is now possible, but our conclusions on some key
issues must remain provisional; our study aims to be comprehensive but
has no claims to be definitive.
The sources are so widely dispersed geographically and in so many languages,
and historical forms of those languages, that it was clear from the beginning
that any project for a history of the Chinese Rites Controversy would
require a team effort and a documentation center. Fortunately, the Ricci
Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the University of San
Francisco is ideally suited for the task. In the first place it houses
the magnificent collection of documentary material collected over a lifetime
by Fr. Francis Rouleau, S.J., and ably organized by his niece, Sr.
Mary Celeste Rouleau, R.S.M. Its founding director, the late Fr. Edward
Malatesta S.J. launched the Institute primarily to enable research and
publication on the Chinese Rites issue. Secondly, its Ricci 21st Century
Roundtable Database and other electronic resources have facilitated the
collection and storage of additional material as well as the organization
of the Rouleau collection. And, fortuitously, the endowed EDS-Stewart
Chair for Chinese-Western Cultural History, Dr. Paul Torrens, a long-time
friend of the Ricci Institute, and more recently The Henry Luce Foundation,
have provided the considerable funding needed for the task.
Most of the documentation has been personally examined by one or
more members of the project team during our combined many years
of personal research in the relevant archives. In some cases we
have been obliged to rely on
summaries and excerpts by Francis Rouleau and others; however, this
has not been done for any of the crucial episodes where we have attempted
to work from a documentation as complete as possible using copies of
original documents as well as published versions.
One of the virtues of a team approach is that it has enabled us to
pool expertise, linguistic and disciplinary. The need for acquaintance
with several European languages, including Latin, with Chinese and
to a lesser extent Manchu and Japanese, is obvious. Not so obvious,
however, is some knowledge of philosophy, theology, and church history.
Some of the most eminent sinologists have made fundamental and elementary
interpretative errors in references to the Chinese Rites and Chinese
Christianity through ignorance of Christian theology and history.
Such a wide-ranging and long-lasting issue demands generous treatment.
Many episodes have been examined and the vast literature,
published and unpublished, explored, but we have lacked until now a
comprehensive treatment. This study aims to be that. Not that all episodes
can be adequately discussed even in several volumes, but we aim to
shed light on dark places and to indicate where darkness still lies.
It will have succeeded if it opens up more questions than it closes
and stimulates more investigation of key episodes and historical problems.
We have tried to avoid partisanship, advocacy for one or other side.
This is a difficult task. As Michel de Certeau has perceptively noted,
the very necessary act of empathy with participants in religious polemics
of the past may lead to a distortion of the organization of a work
of ‘scientific research’,
to, as Lucien Febvre put it, “slipping under the cassock.”
We have tried to let all parties speak, to consider and weigh all the
literature. However, there are two unavoidable biases in this project.
One is that the basic documentation as collected by Francis Rouleau
had a Jesuit origin. We have supplemented this as far as possible by
other sources but cannot devote another lifetime or several to assembling
all possible sources. All published sources have been used, but many
relevant items remain unused and even uncatalogued. Our hope is that
we may stimulate the emergence into the light of the present day some
new and significant items now lost in private and public collections.
The second is that the old Jesuit position in so many ways coincides
with contemporary prejudices and values and this is less easily overcome.
Again, all we can do is to locate the positions of the participants
in their cultural and educational context.
However, there is another way we have tried to bypass the biases
of the original controversy. Our approach is unabashedly sino-centric,
is, our prejudices, if such there be, lie with the nascent Chinese
Church and the Christians whose voices were largely ignored in the
centers of Christianity. Wherever possible, we have tried to recover
the view of these seventeenth-and-early-eighteenth-century adherents
Tianzhu Jiao (Lord of Heaven Religion, ). This has been made feasible
by recent reprint series, the publication of official Chinese documents,
and published catalogues of major European collections.
The editor remembers when first entering this field of research over
three decades ago being told that there were only three or four people
in the world, all ex-missionaries, who were interested in such an
obscure branch of Chinese and religious studies. Today conferences,
symposia, journals, and research institutes working in the area abound.
It seems time for an attempt at synthesis, one which the authors
expect will soon be superseded as new insights and new sources emerge.
Our hope is that our readers will become as fascinated by the clash
of personalities and ideas as we are.
1. H. Bernard-Maître S.J., “Chinois (Rites),” in Dictionnaire
d’Histoire et de Géographie Ecclesiastiques. XII, Paris:
Letouzey et Ané, 1953, cols. 731–41, and col. 931. [Return
2. D. C. Graham, Folk Religion in Southwest China. Washington: Smithsonian
Institution, 1961, p. 120. [Return to Text]
3. As, for example, in Alfred Bloom, The Linguistic Shaping
of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the
West. Hillsdale, N.J.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1981. See, especially, Christoph Harbsmeier, “Language
and Logic,” in Joseph Needham, ed., Science and
Civilisation in China.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, vol. 7, part 1. [Return
4. Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace,
Giroux, 1993, p. 225. [Return to Text]
5. Karl Rahner, “Rites Controversy: New Tasks for the Church,” in
Theological Investigations. Vol. 24, New York: Crossroads, 1991, p.
136. [Return to Text]
6. It is interesting to note that a strong critic of the ‘official’ Catholic
Church in China, the late Lazlo Ladany S.J., linked his critique with the defense
of “the integrity of the faith” that he saw in the Rites decision.
See L. Ladany, The Catholic Church in China. New York: Freedom House,
1987, p. 79. [Return to Text]
7. Strictly, the term applies to the fierce debates of the 1980s over the viability
and direction of Chinese culture, but the issues have not been resolved and
continue to surface. In religion, both ‘Culture Christianity’ and
the Falun Gong phenomenon demonstrate its centrality. [Return
8. On the complex mutual entanglement of the Chinese Rites issue see the introduction
to the forthcoming De Kangxi para o papa, pela via de
Portugal by António
Vasconcelos de Saldanha. [Return to Text]
9. William J. Bouwsma, The Waning of the Renaissance,
Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2000. [Return
10. See, especially, Chapter 12, “The Quest for Certainty.” [Return
11. François Bontinck, La lutte autour de la liturgie
chinoise aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Louvain (Nauwelaerts)/Paris (Beatrice-Nauwelaerts):
Publications de l’université Lovanium de Léopoldville,
11, 1962. [Return to Text]
12. Maurice Freedman, “Ancestor Worship: Two Faces of the Chinese Case,” in
Social Organization: Essays Presented to Raymond Firth. Chicago: Aldine Press,
1967. pp. 85–103. It gives an excellent presentation of the interpretative
dilemma which is not yet resolved. [Return to Text]
13. See “De la question des termes à la querelle des rites de
Chine: le dossier Foucquet de 1711,” in Neu Zeitschrif
XIV, 1958, p. 179. [Return to Text]
14. For a discussion of these issues, see Paul Rule, “Towards a History
of the Chinese Rites Controversy,” in D.E. Mungello, ed., The
Chinese Rites Controversy: Its History and Meaning. Nettetal (Steyler Verlag), Monumenta
Serica Monograph Series, XXXIII, 1995, pp. 249–66. [Return
15. History of the Popes. Vol.33, ET 1941, p. 349, n.1. [Return
16. See Barry Martinson, Celestial Dragon: A Life and
Selected Writings of Fr. Francis Rouleau. Taipei: Taipei Ricci Institute,
1998. [Return to Text]
17. Michel de Certeau, “Making History and Problems of Meaning,” in
The Writing of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 19–55.
[Return to Text]
18. We have noted with some dismay the number of apparently important items
that have appeared in sale catalogues of auction houses and dealers and not
resurfaced. [Return to Text]