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CHRISTIANITY IN CHINA

The USF Ricci Institute focuses on a broad range of questions and concerns centering on the social history of Christianity in China as reflected in the lives of those concerned, the documents they have generated, and the ideas with which they have engaged.

This section contains several resources of use to scholars and students of the field that are the product of Institute work. The Ricci Recorder, an online database whose sections on Archives, Biographies, and Institutions are accessible through the links at left.

The Maps section, currently under construction, will feature an integrated online version of the 1907 Atlas of the Chinese Empire, also known as the "China Inland Mission Atlas", showing the locations of Protestant mission stations displayed in Google Earth.

Below, visitors will find a brief outline of the early history of Christianity of China as penned by the founding director of the Institute, Rev. Edward J. Malatesta, S.J.


A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY IN CHINA UP TO THE FRANCISCAN MISSIONS DURING THE MONGOL ERA

China and Christianity first met in the seventh century and from that time to the present, with greater or lesser intensity, have engaged in a dialogue, which has challenged and enriched both partners.

Early Period Through the Tang Dynasty
Since Roman times, China has had periodic contact with Western Europe, chiefly via traders who traveled over the various land routes that are cumulatively referred to as the Silk Road. The earliest documented contact between China and Christianity occurred during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when the Nestorian monk (and also bishop) Alopen arrived in Xi'an in 635. The Nestorian faith was granted official dispensation in an edict of toleration by the Tang Taizong emperor. This edict survives in the famous Nestorian stele, still extant in Xi'an. Carved in 635 and unearthed in Xi'an in 1635, it tells the story of the Christian faith of the Nestorians. Nestorian Christianity reportedly spread to ten provinces in western and northwestern China, with churches established in more than 100 cities. It is known that monasteries were constructed and some thirty Christian books and treatises were translated into Chinese. In addition to the Nestorian stele itself, there are many examples of stone crosses carved in the distinctive Nestorian style throughout China, especially in Beijing and Quanzhou.

In communicating the message of Jesus Christ, the Nestorians adapted Daoist, Confucian, and especially, Buddhist terms and concepts. Adaptation and translation of Christian religious terminology into Chinese is a rigorous and difficult linguistic and theological exercise. Some scholars feel that the use of Buddhist concepts led to a diminution of the distinctiveness of the Christian message, and further led to Nestorianism becoming confused with a variant school of Buddhism. Nonetheless, Chinese historical sources indicate a persecution began under the Wenzong Emperor in 845, and the Nestorian Christian faith was nearly eliminated. The direct causation of this persecution remains unclear. Some cite political problems from close association with various ruling authorities. Others cite the aforementioned conflation with Buddhism, the lack of native Chinese leadership in the churches, or the lack of permanent ties with the home countries of Nestorianism in the Persian orbit. Another point of tension may have been the conflict with the core Confucian values of parental respect and filial piety caused by Nestorian monastic celibacy. While all of these points can generally be rebutted with other evidence, it is important to note that the very issues that presented difficulties in the 7th and 8th centuries often reappeared in later centuries. What is certain is that the first Christian movement in China, with a few localized exceptions, practically disappeared.

Franciscan Missions During the Mongol Era
From the early 13th century late in the 14th, Mongol expansion in Asia created relative stability along the principal trade routes between China, Central Asia, India, the Middle East, and Europe. This Pax Mongolica significantly promoted the movement of peoples, goods and ideas between East and West Asia, conditions which allowed for the reappearance of Christianity in China. Syriac Orthodoxy (Nestorianism) returned to the Middle Kingdom in the wake of the Mongol conquest of North China in 1260. The Mongol world empire also facilitated direct contacts between Chinese and Europeans. Europeans particularly responded to stories circulating by the middle of the twelfth century concerning a benevolent Christian ruler named "Prester John," who was said to live among the nomads of Central Asia. Pope Innocent IV and other European rulers conceived the idea of an alliance with the Mongols against the Islamic realms of the Middle East and Turkey.

Thus in 1245 the Thirteenth Ecumenical Council decided to send fact-finding missions to the Mongols, to establish friendly relations with them and possibly convert them. One of the missions, led by the Franciscan friar John of Piano Carpini (Giovanni del Pian di Carpini), arrived in the Mongol capital at Qaraqorum in time to witness the enthronement on 24 August 1246 of Guyuk, the third Great Khan (r. 1246-48). Although John was officially received by the new supreme Mongol ruler, papal letters he submitted urging the Mongols to convert to Christianity and abandon their military campaigns in Europe angered Guyuk. Consequently, Piano Carpini returned empty-handed, arriving in Lyons in November 1247. Other missions to the East were equally ill-fated, including the one which set out in 1253 under William of Rubruck, a Franciscan in the entourage of crusading King Louis IX of France. An interview with the new Great Khan Mongke (r. 1251-59) merely aggravated long-standing differences. However, Rubruck left a more detailed account of life in the Mongol capital and the various people assembled there from many parts of Eurasia.

While it alludes to the presence of Christians, it also reveals more clearly the persisting antagonism between Nestorians and the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, in connection with the Easter celebrations in 1254 "a great crowd of Christians appeared - Hungarians, Alans, Russians, Georgians and Armenians - none of whom had set eyes on the sacrament since their capture, as the Nestorians would not admit them into their church, from what they told us, unless they were rebaptized by them."
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