In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Jesuit Missions in China, from Matteo Ricci to the Restoration (Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies and Bibliographies
  • Library and Archive Catalogues
  • Journals and Periodicals
  • Databases
  • Jesuit “Accommodation” Method and Strategies
  • Theological Aspects
  • Catechisms and Doctrinal Texts
  • Bible Translation and Biblical Chronologies
  • Jesuit Figurism
  • Translation Practices
  • The Jesuits in China and Renaissance Culture
  • Anti-Christian Persecutions and Literature
  • The Chinese Rites Controversy
  • Jesuit Suppression (Late 18th Century) and Jesuit Restoration (19th Century) in China

Chinese Studies The Jesuit Missions in China, from Matteo Ricci to the Restoration (Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries)
Ana Carolina Hosne
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0221


In the sixteenth century, through the right of royal patronage (Padroado), the Portuguese Crown summoned the Society of Jesus to spread Christianity beyond Europe, in non-Christian lands, previously divided between the Spanish and Portuguese Crown by the papal authority. Thus, tightly anchored in European colonial expansionism, the Society of Jesus projected itself into new spatial layouts. The Jesuit mission was the first one to be established on a permanent basis on Chinese soil in the late Ming period, allowing a continuous exchange between the European missionaries and their many Chinese interlocutors. The mission became official when Michele Ruggieri (b. 1543–d. 1607) and Matteo Ricci (b. 1552–d. 1610) set up a first residence in Guangdong Province in September 1583. Following instructions of the Visitor to East Indies’ missions, Alessandro Valignano (b. 1539–d. 1606), they took steps to accommodate to local culture, especially in its external aspects. Matteo Ricci went further, shaping an accommodation of Catholic Christianity to Confucianism, with the help of his Chinese interlocutors. This progressively entailed a harsh rejection of Buddhism and Daoism. In close collaboration with scholar-officials and literati (some also Christian converts), this accommodation accompanied knowledge production outside the religious and doctrinal spheres, like philosophy, cartography, mathematics, and astronomy, among others, which eventually materialized in a vast literature in Chinese. Consequently, Christianity as promoted by the Jesuit missionaries became a broader cultural phenomenon in China. This “elite proselytism” was capped with certain Jesuits’ official appointments to the Astronomical Bureau in early Qing China. However, scholarly studies in the twenty-first century have shown how Jesuit missionaries promoted other forms of Christian missionary work, especially in rural areas, far from Beijing. Italian historiography in the first half of the twentieth century presented Matteo Ricci as the main founder of the China mission, overshadowing Michele Ruggieri. This trend grew stronger during the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), when the Jesuit China mission as shaped by Matteo Ricci was praised as a model of inculturation of the Christian faith. Accommodation to Confucianism has been generally placed at the core of what became known as the Chinese Rites Controversy, by which the Jesuit missionaries were denounced by other religious orders in China for their tolerance toward Confucian rites. The controversy also involved Chinese actors and local responses, especially during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1661–1722). According to Jesuit traditional historiography, this controversy played a crucial role in the proscription of Christianity in China, in 1724. However, later research relates this ban to internal factors and an expansion of state control. The final expulsion of the Jesuit missionaries from China and the suppression of the Society of Jesuits followed in the 1770s, until the restoration of the Jesuit mission in China in 1842. The effects of the anti-religious movement of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) on the history of Christianity in China were gradually reversed in the 1980s, strengthening an ongoing scholarly interest in the subject.

General Overviews

Standing the test of time as a general introduction to the Jesuit China mission, Latourette 1970 efficiently explains its different stages and evolution. Later works, either with a missiological or scholarly approach, have mainly focused on the Jesuits’ accommodation method, paired with a “top-down” conversion strategy directed to the upper echelon of Confucian literati and scholar-officials, from Matteo Ricci onward. In this vein, mainly based on European sources, Dunne 1962 portrays Matteo Ricci as the leader of a “Generation of Giants” who wrote, together with some of his successors, “a splendid page in the history of the cultural relations of East and West.” Despite its “hagiographical” hue, this study still remains a useful introductory work to the major themes of the Jesuit mission to China. Chinese scholars have also studied the missions of the Society of Jesus as an important chapter of Sino-Western relations, as seen in Fang 1954. A paradigm shift took place at the turn of the twenty-first century, from a mainly missiological and Eurocentric approach to a China-centered one, characterized by, among other things, the use of Chinese texts as primary sources for research, and thus taking the Chinese actors as primary subjects (Standaert 1997). The collective work Standaert 2001 avoids excessive reliance on Western sources by including Chinese voices in the making of the history of Christianity in China, analyzing the Chinese reception of and reactions to Christianity and, in more general terms, to European culture. Another aspect involved in this paradigm shift concerns the top-down approach, which neglected missionary work and proselytism outside literary circles in urban areas and the imperial court, as well as the role played by Christian communities in different Chinese provinces and their rural areas. Brockey 2007 focuses on the mission’s proselytizing activity in the Chinese provinces rather than on the interactions between missionaries and Chinese literati elites. As a result, previously marginal Jesuits are here seen as primary forces in the construction of the mission church in China. Aiming to adjust the lens to local Christian communities, Menegon 2009 examines Chinese voices in communities where no “Confucian Christianity” took place, highlighting instead a diversity of practices and beliefs of different local religious expressions, Christianity becoming one of them. Mungello 2012 provides a general overview of the introduction of Christianity in China, with a focus on the Jesuit China mission, its men, its sources, and major historiographical trends in the field, among other aspects.

  • Brockey, Liam. Journey to the East: the Jesuit Mission to China, 1579–1724. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674028814

    Based on Portuguese sources, this study distances itself from traditional historiography mainly focused on the top-down Jesuit missionary approach, closely examining Jesuit missionary work in rural areas, from the first steps of the Jesuit China mission through the proscription of Christianity in 1724.

  • Dunne, George H. Generation of Giants: The Story of the Jesuits in China in the Last Decades of the Ming Dynasty. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1962.

    Dunne portrays a group of Jesuit missionaries as “giants”—starting with Matteo Ricci—recounting how their missionary activities played a prominent role on Chinese soil in a broad time frame, from the death of Francis Xavier in his attempt to enter China on to the controversy over Chinese terms and rites.

  • Fang Hao 方豪 (Maurus). Zhongxi jiaotong shi (中西交通史). 2 vols. Taibei: Zhonghua wenhua chubanshi shiye weiyuanhui中華文化出版事業委員會, 1954.

    A comprehensive study of Sino-Western relations in Chinese, including the Christian missions in China, of which the Society of Jesus was a part, as well as its missionaries, their works, and the main events of their mission.

  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christian Missions in China. Taipei: Ch’eng-Wen, 1970.

    This study serves as a useful introduction to the Jesuit China mission—its beginning, its development, as well as its final days—especially for those seeking basic information on this mission.

  • Menegon, Eugenio. Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard Yenching-Institute, 2009.

    This study analyzes how Catholicism, a foreign religion, became a local religion in certain parts of China, finding its place among other religious groups. Feeding on previous research by Chinese scholars in the field of Chinese religions, this book contests what had been a mainstream historiographical trend favoring an idea of Christianity in China shaped by Confucian culture and values.

  • Mungello, David E. “Reinterpreting the History of Christianity in China.” Historical Journal 55.2 (2012): 533–552.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X11000574

    This article offers an in-depth study of the history of Christianity in China, with a strong focus on the Jesuit mission, including a review of its main sources, and a historiographical analysis highlighting the main trends and shifts in the analysis of the Jesuit China mission.

  • Standaert, Nicolas. “New Trends in the Historiography of Christianity in China.” Catholic Historical Review 83.4 (1997): 573–613.

    DOI: 10.1353/cat.1997.0178

    This article proposes a reflection on methodological and hermeneutical questions, interpretative schemes, and possible research topics, among other aspects, regarding the encounter between Christianity and China. It points to a reorientation toward a Sinological and China-centered approach to the history of Christianity in China.

  • Standaert, Nicolas, ed. Handbook of Christianity in China. Vol. 1, 635–1800. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.

    The first of two volumes of a comprehensive reference work approaching the main themes regarding Christianity in China, with a synthesis of thorough research to explain each of them, accompanied by a list of primary and secondary sources in both European and Chinese languages. The section “Late Ming-Mid Qing” (pp. 113–906) outlines the major themes concerning the Jesuit mission to China.

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