I’m an East Asian Studies major, and Christianity comes up often in reference to China. In fact, it’s a topic that we’re covering this week in class. While the first thing that comes to mind is oppression of Christians in modern China, what I will be talking about here is an account from the 16th century of the introduction and spread of Christianity in China through Father Matteo Ricci. What you will see is not a criticism of China’s handling of religion, but rather a complex story that involves change and adaptation for all involved in the cultural interaction.

Father Matteo Ricci (known as Li Madou to his Chinese contemporaries) was an Italian-Jesuit priest who lived between 1552 and 1610. He is the founder of the Jesuit China Mission, and, though not the first missionary to attempt to enter China, he was the first to begin Christianity’s introduction to and effective spread through the Chinese kingdom. He gained particular favor with the royal house, and was the first Westerner to be invited inside the Forbidden City. He won notoriety through his displays of scientific knowledge, and became particularly famous after he produced a world map for the Chinese (what was interesting about it was that, while it incorporated Western cartography, it reflected the Chinese worldview by placing China in the center of the map. This acknowledged the Chinese conception of national self as the “Middle Kingdom” and Chinese conceptions of the “West” as the “Far West”). He also pioneered the efforts to create a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, and established the oldest Catholic church in Beijing. He remained in China until his death.

After Ricci began the spread of Christianity, it is interesting to see how Christianity adapted to the needs of a Confucian society. One of our readings for class this week discussed the very complex funerary rituals that blended Confucian practice with Christian religious observances. Funerals were long affairs that involved the participation of the community in the mourning of the ancestor; as early as the laying out of the body and first funerary service, members of the community, regardless of their religious affiliations, participated in the mourning process. A funeral was comprised of four services: first was a mass that occurred immediately after death and included only the family; second was a service of prayers after the laying out of the body that included the entire community; third was a kind of “wake” that included the family and Christian members of the community; and finally, the burial procession and service that included the deceased’s entire family (including extended) and the entire community. Interwoven with all these services are notably Confucian requirements regarding behavior during bowing, offering food, and creating the ancestral tablet. There is even an ancestral service that occurs at the end of the funerary process, which is the presentation of the ancestral tablet in the family home. What the Christians bring to the situation is caution against actual ancestor worship, and they encouraged observers to say prayers to and in front of a holy image rather than the ancestral tablet.

If we look at Christianity in China through the lens of history and Mateo Ricci’s own life, we can see a much more positive story about the relationship between China and Christianity than we read about in the news today. However, what is revealed in the early Chinese-Western/Christian encounter in the 16th century is not so much the receptiveness of Chinese culture to a particular religion, but rather the ways in which Christianity can adapt to accommodate its cultural context. Perhaps another look at the adaptations of Christianity in a Communist political context is needed; what changes will history reveal of the Christian experience in modern China?