A Brief History of the Christian Presence in China
Fr. Pul P. Pang O.F.M
1) St. Thomas the Apostle in the first century;
2) The Nestorians in the seventh century;
3) The Franciscans in the 13th century;
4) The Jesuits in the 16th century and
5) The re-entry of the Catholic Missionaries and first Protestants in China in the 1840’s, through the so-called Unequal Treaties and the present-day People’s Republic of China).
Insofar as regards St. Thomas the Apostle’s presence in China, it is probably only a legend. He would have gone to China during his ministry in India. But there are no documents to prove it.
The Nestorian Stele, unearthed by the Jesuits in Xi’an in 1625, proved that the Nestorian efforts of evangelization in China were flourishing and that their preaching was entirely orthodox.
In 1294, the first Catholic missionary, the Franciscan Blessed John de Monte Corvino, sent by Pope Nicolo’ IV, arrived in the Mongolian Capital Khambalik, today’s Beijing, with subsequent 27 bishops and 207 missionaries. The mission started to decline when the Yuan Dynasty demised in 1368 and the Ming Dynasty started. A pestilence in Europe also killed many people at that time and the Mid-East was controlled by the Muslim expansion. By then the Franciscans had had two dioceses established in Khambalik, and Quanzhou. When Blessed John de Monte Corvino was consecrated Archbishop of Khambalik in 1313, Pope Clement V appointed him the Primate of the East just as the Pope was the Primate of the West.
4) In 1552 St. Francis Xavier died of fever on the Island of Shangchuan, trying to enter China. Finally in 1583 two Jesuits Michele Ruggiero and Matteo Ricci arrived in Chaoqing, Southern China, starting thus another period of flourishing mission with the help of science, Astronomy, irrigation and literature, especially the Chinese Classics. It is said that during his stay in Macao, Ricci was able to study the Four Books and the Five Canonical Books thoroughly and could discuss them with the Chinese literati with ease. Ricci arrived in Beijing in 1601 and befriended many of the literati and court officials, Prime Minister Xu Guangqi in particular. The promising mission was interrupted by the Ancestor Rites Debate when the usually favorable Emperor Kangxi expressed doubt if the missionaries could ever fully understand the Chinese philosophy and cultural traditions and therefore asked them to leave China. But many remained in China, doing clandestine mission work. After Emperor Kangxi, starting with Yong Zheng and many local officials, missionaries became targets of on and off and sometimes very severe persecutions resulting in the killings of many of them and of Christians.
The final attempt of the Christian presence in China, this time also with the various Christian denominations, was through the so-called Unequal Treaties because the foreign powers took advantage of the weakness of the late Qing Dynasty and imposed favorable conditions for foreigners to come into China. The Catholic Church, together with her main efforts of evangelization, promoted all kinds of charitable works, hospital services and education. Then in 1949 when the country declared itself the new People’s Republic of China, several movements followed, including the Great Leap Forward, Land Reform, Cultural Revolution and the “Gang of Four”, creating one of the most difficult times for the Catholic Church in China with the expulsion of almost all, and even imprisonment and death of some, of the two thousand seven hundred or so foreign missionaries. The Government confiscated most of the churches and mission stations. We had to wait for the re-emerging of the great leader Deng Xiao Ping in late 1970’s who, as the re-instated head of state, was able to reintroduce the policy of the realization of religious freedom in the country. This made it possible, in early 1980’s, for the Government to start rebuilding, repairing and returning most of the church properties to the Catholic Church. The other Christian denominations started in 1952, under strong Government encouragement, to form their autonomous church policies whereas a group of Catholic priests followed suit by establishing the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957 and self-consecrating two bishops the following year, defying the traditional Catholic canonical law governing the ordination of bishops. The 1948 official statistics put the Catholic population as at 3,275,000 in a national population of roughly 550,000,000. Today the conservative estimate puts the number as at 14 to 15 millions in a population of 1.3 billion. (Reference books: The Chronology of the Catholic Church in China by Fr. Ku Pao-Ku, S.J., December 1970 and The Franciscans in China by Fr. Gaspar Han Cheng-Liang, O.F.M. in Taipei-Hong Kong, in 1994).