Summary: The first Jesuits in China


1338                                [Death of Giovanni di Monte Carvino, first archbishop of Mongol Beijing (Khanbalik)]


1534                                Ignatius Loyola founds the Jesuit order with the objective of 'converting the pagans’

1549                                St. Francis Xavier, a Spanish Jesuit, lands in western Japan.

In this time, Macao serves as a trading port to the Portuguese for their trade between China and Japan

1583                                Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) enters China in Guangdong province, settles first in Nanchang (1595; Jesuits dress as Buddhist monks), then in Nanjing, after 1601 in Beijing. (In the 19th century Ricci is revered as the deity of Chinese clockmakers, Bodhisattva Ricci  (Li Matou pusa). The Jesuits serve the emperors as mathematicians, astronomers, cartographers, interpreters, painters, and musicians.

Missions are established in Zhaoqing, Shaozhou, Nanxiong (Guangdong province) in the south, in Ganzhou and Nanchang in Jiangxi province (SE), in Nanjing, Huai’an, and Jinan. By the end of the Ming Dynasty they had spread to almost all provinces, but most of their missions concentrated in the lower Yangzi area and in Fujian province in Eastern China.                               


Though the emperors were impressed by the scientific knowledge and the European inventions introduced to them by the Jesuits, the Christian religion and the hierarchical institution of the church did not appeal to them. Christian communities in the cities seemed to be a threat to public order. On the philosophical level the Chinese “were unfamiliar with the category of the transcendent because of their basic concept of an immanent order that was at the same time cosmic and human, natural and social.” (Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1982, p. 454-455).


Major points of confrontation between the Jesuits, the Chinese authorities, and Chinese converts:

  1. The Jesuits initially (and the Vatican throughout their active period as missionaries) did not tolerate the ancestor cult.
  2. Converts could not have concubines.
  3. The Jesuits did not tolerate statues related to Chinese cults.
  4. The Jesuits were accused of creating secret societies when they held secret meetings for mass with members of the lay community.
  5. They were also accused of spying for the Japanese and the pirates at the coast.
  6. The Christian belief focused on a rebellious person who had been convicted as a criminal by the local authorities.
  7. Matteo Ricci in one of the theological disputes held in Nanjing Ricci eloquently but in an arrogant manner ridiculed the famous Buddhist teacher, Zhuhong who shortly after the discussion died. It was believed by some that Zhuhong died of a broken heart because Ricci had mocked the concepts of ‘releasing life’, vegetarianism and reincarnation.


1. Matteo Ricci and the most famous Chinese convert, the Shanghai scholar Xu Guangqi (1562-1633)

2. Portrait of Matteo Ricci

3. Portrait of Matteo Ricci on a stamp of the Republic of China, Taiwan, in commemoration of the founding of the first Jesuit mission in China