Christianity in China

From Matteo Ricci's visit in 1540 to Media Evangelism's cheap, digital video movies trumpeting the value of accepting Jesus as your personal saviour, this is the story of Christianity in China and how it made its way into Hong Kong cinema.

Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits

Ricci was a member or the Society of Jesus, also called the Jesuits, founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola specifically to convert the heathen overseas. They conceived their mission as conquering the world for Christ. They placed great stress on education, and it was not by accident that Ricci was a deeply learned man with knowledge of a wide variety of subjects.

Matteo Ricci was not the first Catholic missionary to enter China, that honor probably going to John of Montecorvino, a Franciscan, who went to the east in the first years of fourteenth century. He reports making many converts and staying at the court of the great Khan. But by the end of the fourteenth century, the Black Death devestated Europe and interest dissolved, while the eventual end of the Mongol empire and rise of the native Ming Dynasty rendered Central Asia impassible and China, having just expelled a foreign dynasty, inhospitable to further outside influences. Although John wrote in letters to Rome that he converted over six thousand, and built a church to minister to them, no trace remained by the time Matteo Ricci came to China at the turn of the 17th Century.

When Ricci and his companions first entered China to preach in 1583 after rigorous study of the language while residing in Macao the year prior, they elected to dress in the same robes as a Buddhist priest, so that the people would understand they are people of religion. However, they soon realized that Buddhist priests had little social status in China, and in fact were considered to be lecherous drunks of ill repute. By 1594 Ricci decided to discard his grey robes and replace them with a scholar's robe. The transition was an immediate success with the literary class, who accepted him as an equal and thought highly of his knowledge, his friendliness, and his books, which he wrote in Chinese.

All the while Ricci moved closer and closer to Peking, and to the Emperor whom he hoped to influence, and if possible, convert. In 1601 he at last entered the capitol, where he stayed until his death in 1610. He became well established in the highest circles, and given the utmost respect. But in regards to the Emperor himself he met disappointment, as the Ming dynasty was in drastic decline under the lack of rulership of Emperor Wanli, who stopped holding court audiences or reading state papers, while court eunuchs, who controlled access to the Emperor, consolidated their control. Still, even without seeing the Emperor, Ricci was able to ingratiate himself to the court and convert several eunuchs, officials, and scholars.

Ricci hoped his work would establish the permanent presence and acceptance of Catholicism in China, in this, he failed. A brilliant and respectable man himself, he made three decisions that were perhaps too smart for his own good, and these choice proved the eventual undoing of the Jesuits work. Ricci was not alone in his convictions, though, in most cases he followed the same beliefs that drove Ignatius of Loyola himself. It is ironic that Ricci's greatest successes were eventually to cause the Jesuits their greatest failures. These decisions were to focus on ministering the ruling class, to teach western knowledge as an enticement to conversion, and to accept Confucian ancestor worship as an act of filial piety, not of worship, and thus an acceptable behaviour for Christian converts to practice.

To minister to the ruling class, the elites, the scholars, was not in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, although conversions may be fewer as a result, the prestige of the religion would increase infinitely more. This technique, though slow, nevertheless reaped great rewards for the Jesuits and likely would have continued to do so had they not been swept up in historical forces beyond their control. When the Manchu forces took advantage of a fierce and bloody civil war sweeping northern China in 1644 and took the capital, the reigning Ming Emperor hanged himself, and the Qing Dynasty began. Some Jesuits accompanied the fleeing Empress Dowager and the remainder of the Ming court, and converted many of them, who then wrote letters to Rome to plead their case and ask assistance (perhaps the reason for the rapid conversions). But most of the Jesuits, who still remained in Peking, immediately switched over to serving the Manchus. The Manchu court welcomed them freely, and the Jesuits influence seemed undiminished. But in actuality, their immediate turn to the Manchus alienated the Jesuits from the scholars and officials who were the original focus of the ministry. The ethnic Chinese scholars, although no longer in power, were still an influential force. They were not yet committed to the new rulers, and indeed, Confucian ethics required that they fight and die for their former soverign. Many chose not to do so, but neither did they choose open acceptance of the Manchus. The Jesuits were perceived as political pawns at best, traitors at worst. Never again were they able to convert highly respected men of great power and influence, as Ricci did just over thirty years earlier.

Ricci drew maps, taught astronomy and Euclidian geometry, presented prisms and mechanical clocks. It was his idea that to illustrate these solid and powerful truths in mathematics and science would then by association prove Christianity to likewise be true. He attracted a great amount of students to him through the use of these aids, some of whom converted to Christianity. In the short term, it interested elites in the Jesuits and gave them influential positions from which they could preach the gospel, and aided the mission. But in the long term, it may have caused permanent damage to relations between the Western nations and China which still reverberate today. The educated Chinese soon realized that there was a 'bait-and-switch' going on, and they didn't like it one bit. They grew to be suspicious of all Western learning that was offered, because they were suspicious of what the Westerner's intent truly was. This feeling wasn't helped by the fact that the Jesuits often did not even mention Christianity until they had already engaged their audience with some other scientific topic of interest. If merchants were the first to use this technique, the final result would have perhaps not been as profound, since their interest is easy to understand: profit. But to teach science as an attempt to change a person's religion to that of a foreign land, a religion that in many cases did not respect traditional Chinese morality and learning, this is something to be concerned about.

But the straw that broke the camels back was without a doubt the Rites Controversy. Ricci believed that accomodation was an important part of the mission. Without in some way incorporating and accepting some Chinese ways and habits, they could not succeed. It was with this in mind that they first donned priest's cowls, then scholar's robes, instead of wearing western vestments. It was with this in mind that they studied Chinese, and read widely the classic texts. The issue of accommodation arose most importantly in the matter of Confucian rites. Several times a year, Chinese families would offer fruit, meat, silk, and incense in front of their ancestral tablet. Each household contained one, on the surfaces of which the names of dead ancestors were written. Ricci had to determine whether this was worship, idolatry, or crude spiritualism, or was this in fact an act of filial piety, and nothing more. Ricci quoted from the classic book the Doctrine of the Mean, which describes King Wu and the Duke of Chou as "serving the dead as they would have served them had they been living, which is the summit of filial piety." The offerings then were simply an expression of love and gratitude, much as placing flowers on the grave of the deceased in Western countries. The Jesuits rallied around his decision, and were eventually in nearly complete agreement as to its correctness.

But before long the Jesuits weren't the only game in town. By the 1640's, Dominicans and Franciscans entered the scene and were scandalized by what they perceived to be the weak compromises of the Jesuits. The argument erupted and was carried back to the West, which sent back acceptance of first one side, then the other. Soon the Rites Controversy was the hottest topic of debate from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Books and broadsides were published in Paris and Rome. Leibnitz, a Protestant, came out in support of the Jesuits. The theological faculty of the University of Paris and the Inquisition came out against. In 1700, the Jesuits actually petitioned Emperor Kangxi for an opinion. He sided with the Jesuits, stating that the Rites were meant as commemoration not worship, affirming Ricci's view.

The issue was finally decided against the Jesuits by a number of papal decrees. As always, it seems, the people in 'the field,' who understand what is happening, are overruled by the 'home office,' who consist of completely clueless bureaucrats. The Emperor Kangxi just got more and more pissed off, writing at one point, after reading a decree, "Seeing this proclamation, I at last realize that their doctrine is of the same kind as the little heresies of the Buddhist and Taoist monks...These are the greatest absurdities that have ever been seen. As from now I forbid the Westerners to spread their doctrine in China; that will spare us a lot of trouble." Oops.

With the conclusion of the Rites Controversy, the failure of Catholic missions was pretty much complete. They were no longer welcome in China, and when they were there the only converts they could get were poor farmers and villagers of low social standing, who would forever more be the main source of converts.

Christianity vs. Opera

By the 19th Century, Catholic presence in China was at an all time low. But by the middle of the Century, China was pried open once again. During this time period, Christian conversion on a local, village level, caused no end of trouble to local elites, and these new Christians often ended up swinging from the nearest tree.

Under the unequal treaties coerced from the Chinese after the second Opium war in 1858 and 1860, Christianity was to not only be tolerated but protected. Missionaries were for the first time allowed to travel freely into the interior. Additionally, all establishments confiscated from Catholics were to be restored to them. For the first time, Christian missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, could bring their missions to the people outside the treaty ports, and do it with the backing not only of Peking, but of foreign governments and gunboats.

So, in rural villages throughout China, small land-holders and farmers were seeing foreign missionaries for the first time. Missionaries would reside in the larger, commercial towns, and venture to smaller communities irregularly, sometimes not visiting them for years at a time. When a missionary arrives in a village, they may convert some of the locals, and establish a small chapel where they can conduct services, before moving on to the next village. Leaving the Chinese Christians to work and live within the village according to their best understanding of Christian law.

Two things collided to create conflict in small villages: the nature of Christianity, and the nature of the village community. Christianity is an exclusive religion -- that is, those who practice it must do so at the expense of all other religion. Furthermore, they need neither participate in nor give money to support activities that are harmful to their beliefs. But the village community was neither entirely secular nor completely religious. Each village had its own temple, which was usually the focus of fairs and festivals for the entire village. Levies were assessed on all villagers to help pay for these events. Sometimes, Christians would refuse. And be lynched.

So in the second half of the nineteenth century, the greatest roadblock to Christian acceptance was not the government, who signed treaties protecting them; it was not the local elites, who were interested in maintaining their own power and certainly did what they could to undermine the missions, though for the most part they didn't do very much; it was not the local magistrates, who time and again interpreted the law in a fair and just fashion whether the accused was Christian or not; no, it was the Christians themselves and their inability to function within and contribute to the village community.

The village temple itself was considered public property, shared by all residents of a village not as a result of their religion, but as a result of their residence. When part of a community converts, often conflict arose regarding the proper use of this public land. In one case (as recorded by the Zongli Yamen, the Chinese Bureau of Foreign Affairs), Christians moved into a section of the temple and started using it as a church. Villagers protested, but the Magistrate ruled that it was fair for the Christians to use it for this purpose. When a temple festival was being organized, villagers asked them to vacate temporarily, causing one dispute after another and leading to a legal case lasting years. In other cases where the resolution is known, the local Magistrate has decreed that, since Christians wished to use some of the temple land, it be determined what portion of it belongs to them, and it be given to them to build a church on or whatever. In other cases the Magistrate would determine the value of the land which the Christians could claim, and gave a cash payout in exchange. In another case Christians actually started pulling up bricks from the village temple and temple walls, since they were owned by the community, they felt these could be used by them to build a church if they wanted to.

There were often common ceremonies which everyone was expected to take part in. Prayers for rain, for example. In one village, the Christians refused to pray for rain to the Gods, and at first the villagers accepted that. Then when it rained, however, villagers were bitter toward the Christians, since they did not do any of the work but reaped the benefits along with everyone else.

But tensions between Christians and other residents were at their most acrimonious in cases regarding opera subscriptions. Opera troupes would come to town to perform at temple festivals. These festivals and performances were held to appease the Gods of the temple, but they were just as surely the most important source of entertainment for the village as a whole. The temple festival was an integral part of the social structure of the village, it was a time to see entertainment, to meet with friends and relatives, to socialize and fall in love. In addition, it was an important market time which helped fuel the local economy. But when it came time to gather funds for this event, many Christians in communities throughout China refused to pay. Some were beaten severely by angry mobs. Others were simply ostracized socially. One Christian who did not pay but was later discovered at the festival was hunted down and nearly killed.

Christians who refused to pay this supposedly religious portion of their taxes would often find their water cut off as well. in one village a sign was posted declaring if Christians refused to pay temple taxes, the village Council would also refuse all lawful taxes from them, and free themselves of all responsibility toward the Christians and their property. A Magistrate declared:
If you are a person of the Qing dynasty then why are you following the foreign devils and their seditious religion? You didn't pay your opera money when requested by the village and you were beaten. But how can you dare to bring a suit? You certainly ought to pay the opera subscription. If you don't you won't be allowed to live in the land of the Qing. You'll have to leave for a foreign country.
The height of this conflict occured under the unequal treaty system, but it is still a largely unresolved issue. Maybe if someone pointed out that many non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Surely then Christians can celebrate lunar festivals? Apparently not. Here then is an excerpt from a letter published in 1994, not a typo, that's 1994, from a Chinese Christian living in Inner Mongolia:

...On the 15th day of the first lunar month, incense and paper are burned at the temple...and there is sometimes a performance of local opera and everyone in the village is asked to contribute their share of the expense. We Christians, concerned to keep our faith pure and maintain the true way, refused to give any money, and so relations between believers and non-believers went sour...

Colonial Christians

The Christian presence in Hong Kong began immediately upon its seizure by Great Britain after the end of the first Opium War, in 1841. Being a British outpost meant that for once, the Protestants could set up camp and not be harassed by the Portugese, French, and Spanish Catholics who for the most part tied up the treaty ports.

In the early history of Hong Kong Christianity the Missionary Karl Gutzlaff stands out for his formation of what he dubbed the Chinese Union. He believed that the best way to penetrate China and convert the people was through Chinese converts, not foreigners. To that end he gathered Chinese believers, trained them to become priests, and sent them far afield in China, to all the provinces, places where foreign missionaries could not travel (at least not for another twenty years). The Chinese missionaries brought back glowing reports of their successes, and from 1844 - 1848 the Chinese Union kept growing and growing. Gutzlaff's fame kept growing as well, causing some resentment in the Missionary community of Hong Kong. Especially since he was not a full time Missionary. He had a day job. The Missionary work was something he just did on the side. His work gained fame in the West, as news spread of his accomplishments.

The rug was pulled out from under Gutzlaff when a panel of Missionaries in Hong Kong investigated his claims and interviewed Chinese Union preachers early in 1848, while Gutzlaff was in Europe securing funds and backing for his project. The findings of the panel were damning -- many of the preachers it turns out never went very far outside of Hong Kong, and just made up conversion figures. Many of them were found to be unclear on basic Christian fundamentals when questioned. Gutzlaff fought the accusations, but was not in good health, and when he died, the Union went with him.

It is without question that some of the Chinese Union preachers were dedicated Christians. Many others however were more interested in a paycheck and a rise in economic status. When word spread that joining the Union meant easy income, many members joined of low moral character. Some of them were opium addicts, and used their money for drugs, but then again some of them were addicts and joined hoping the Church could help them break their drug habit. Gutzlaff himself wasn't too concerned about his priests not knowing all the details of Christianity -- he emphasized extensive conversion, not intensive. If you feel a sense of sin and accept Jesus Christ, well, then, that's good enough. Forget all the little nitpicky denominational issues. So his net was tossed wide, but the waters were shallow. The Chinese Union prefigured the growth of native Chinese priesthood, but he was before his time. It also began the ongoing use of the Church in Hong Kong by converts who profess faith simply for monetary or economic gain.

Statistics available about Hong Kong Christians just before the 1997 handover shows that a scant 2% of the population is Christian. This figure may yet still decline, as the Christian community may be the first to face persecution should Beijing attempt to tighten its hold on the territory, and they have been leaving in droves.

Such a tiny amount of the population, yet they wield great influence in Hong Kong. To begin with, a large proportion of schools have been founded by Christian organizations -- nearly 40% of primary schools, and 60% of secondary schools. They also operate several post-secondary colleges. In addition to the field of education, Christian organizations cover a large part of the medicine and health care field, funding seven hospitals, 72 day care centers, 97 centers for the elderly, and 21 training centers for the physically or mentally challenged. Upon investigation of public figures and politicians, it can be found that many of them received a Catholic education, and may in fact be Christian themselves. The total number of Christians in power in Hong Kong far exceeds their numbers as a percentage of the general population. The majority of agitators for Democracy are Christian, as well.

For most of the history of Hong Kong, control has been in the hands of a select few. These few were almost all foreigners, and almost all Christian. So conversion to Christianity became, early on, a path to climb up the social and economic ladder. The Christian schools became the 'right' schools, so to speak, and an unwritten hierarchy of education developed, much like the one in America which says most Presidents graduate from Yale or Harvard. In many ways the system could be said to resemble the situation of the Chinese Union, or even the "rice Christians" of mainland China, who joined the Church to get relief aid and nothing else. There are still many Christians and Christian educated politicians with power and influence in Hong Kong, so it will still be some time before this power structure evaporates, if indeed it ever does. It remains to be seen whether the Christian minority in Hong Kong will continue to grow or if the no longer priviledged minority will diminish under Beijing's rule.

Christianity in Hong Kong Cinema

To a large extent, the story of Christianity in China remains to be told in film. Few films depict historical China as inclusive of a Christian element, fewer still take that element seriously. Most often, when a story calls for a Jesuit, or Franciscan, or priest of any kind, directors find a local gwailo to play the part, whose acting ability, if existant at all, leaves much to be desired. Christians are almost always depicted as outsiders, foreigners, and the many thousands of Christian converts who were native Chinese are ignored.

In stories which take place in modern Hong Kong, Christianity fares much better, as it is an accepted part of life for many there. Priests in these films are most often Chinese, and represented as an indigenous faith rather than a foreign intrusion. Actor Spencer Lam has made a career out of portraying a priest in the Young and Dangerous films, providing moral guidance to the young Triad boys in his care.

A new production company, Media Evangelism, has appeared in recent years creating films with overtly Christian messages of personal redemption. While not spectacular, these films to have something to recommend them; often a strong cast or dramatic narrative or both.

But ultimately, those looking for deep, thoughtful films about Christianity from the Hong Kong film industry will be disappointed. Watching these films can lead one to believe the only book of the Bible is Revelations. But then, the same is true of Hollywood films about Christianity. I guess wild predictions about the end of the world make for more interesting films than geneology lessons about the first Israelites.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on January 15, 2001.


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