Christian History Home > Issue 52 > Trickle-Down Evangelism
The earliest China missionaries started with the elite.
In A.D. 635, the church in Western Europe was just settling into the feudal Middle Ages, and in Eastern Europe, Christianity was flourishing in the midst of the great Byzantine era. Further east, the Nestorian Church, based in Syria and Persia, was looking to China. That year it sent missionaries to walk via the silk trade route to China's northwest to spread the faith. The first missionaries to China, then, were considered heretical.
Since the 400s, Nestorians had been theological castoffs because they believed Jesus' nature consisted of two persons (rather than one person with two natures). After being condemned at the Council of Chalcedon (451), Nestorians moved east. They retained their missionary zeal and sent representatives to evangelize Arabia and India.
In China, the Nestorian bishop, Alopen, was welcomed to Chang-An (now Xi'an) by the reigning emperor, T'ang T'ai Tsung. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Chinese capital, the emperor granted the newcomers space in the imperial library to translate. He himself studied the faith and gave orders for its propagation. Within a few decades, the Nestorian faith gained thousands of converts in several major cities, though its greatest growth may have been among foreigners trading in China.
Two centuries later, though, Emperor Wu Tsung began a severe persecution, and soon the Nestorian church lost its foothold in China proper (though not on the northern frontier).
Khubilai Khan's curiosity
In the late 1200s, Khubilai Khan, Mongol ruler of China, met representatives of Roman Catholicism: Marco Polo and his uncles. Khubilai Khan was so intrigued, he sent the uncles back to Rome with an invitation for the pope to send 100 "teachers of science and religion" who would try to prove "that the faith professed by Christians is superior to and founded on more evident truth than any other." Twenty years passed before John of Monte Corvino, a Franciscan, was sent. He was warmly received by Khubilai Khan's successor, and within a short time, he baptized 6,000 Chinese, established churches in several cities, and translated the New Testament and Psalms into the language of the court.
Unfortunately, high-ranking Nestorians, who had meanwhile re-established their church in China, hindered the work of John by accusing him of false beliefs and several crimes. Only by dint of perseverance was he able to carry on. By the time the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty was replaced by the Ming dynasty in 1368, there may have been as many as 100,000 Roman Catholic Christians.
But with the coming of the Ming dynasty, all Christians in China were subject to a fresh wave of political repression that lasted over a century. Again the church was decimated, so that by the late 1500s, there were, as far as we know, no Christian churches left.
The Society of Jesus (Jesuits), with Matteo Ricci as its chief representative, entered China in 1583 from its base in the Portuguese colony of Macao. The strategy of Ricci and his colleagues was to identify with the Chinese elite, who would in turn, they felt, influence the rest of China.
The Jesuits dressed like Confucian scholars—the top of the social hierarchy. They avoided any criticism of Confucius, the patron saint of the scholars, and observed all appropriate amenities when visiting the literati.
They prepared maps, practiced astronomy, constructed and repaired clocks they gave to the emperor, and they wrote treatises that explained Christianity in terms of a Confucian world view. The missionaries needed to be deliberately ostentatious about their learning to convince the Chinese of their expertise in European learning, so they would emboss their European books with gold covers.
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