Throughout its turbulent history, the Catholic Church in China has survived many movements of persecution because of the persistent faith of rural Catholic communities. In good times, the Chinese Catholic Church flourishes politically and intellectually in the cities; but in bad times, which have been frequent since the Franciscans first arrived during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1321 CE), the Catholic Church has maintained a presence in China through its rural strongholds. The earliest evidence of Roman Catholicism in China (not including the Nestorian Christians) is John of Montecorvino’s mission during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1321) and the creation of the Archdiocese of Beijing in 1307. By the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the Jesuits and other missionary organizations arrived in China, establishing a Catholic presence that has continued up to the present.
Unlike other Catholic mission groups such as the Franciscans or Dominicans, the Jesuits sought to spread Catholicism through the Chinese political and intellectual elites, a strategy initiated in China by Matteo Ricci (1552–1610). The Jesuits grounded themselves in the Confucian classics, used Confucian-style philosophical debates to present Christianity, and introduced Western science and technology to win the support of the Chinese literati; for example, Jesuits Adam Schall (1591–1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–88) wrote definitive treatises on gunnery and designed cannons for both the Ming and Qing (1644–1911) imperial courts. An important legacy of Ricci was his translation of the word ‘God’ as ‘Master of Heaven’ (tianzhu) in an attempt to distinguish the Catholic notion of God from other Chinese concepts. Catholics still use the term today, and Catholicism is called ‘the teachings of the Master of Heaven’ (Tianzhu jiao) as distinct from Protestant Christianity, which is known as ‘the teachings of Jesus’ (Jidu jiao). The Jesuits also tried to reconcile Catholic doctrine with Confucianism by accommodating Chinese funerary and Confucian rituals as civil rituals. However, the Vatican rejected this mission strategy in the ‘Rites Controversy’, which resulted in the Kangxi emperor’s proscription of foreign missionary activity and the worldwide disbanding of the Jesuit order in 1773.
A resurgence of Catholic missionary activity in China accompanied the concessions granted to Western imperialist powers through the unequal treaties of the Opium War (1839–42). With the strong support of the French government, Catholic missionaries expanded their activities throughout China. Because of extraterritoriality for Catholic missionaries and Western imperialist expansion in China, Catholic missionaries (and through missionary patronage, their converts) had strong political influence in both city and countryside. In south China, many Han Chinese who had converted to Catholicism after emigrating to various parts of southeast Asia returned to their villages and invited Catholic mission orders to send missionaries and support (financial and political) to the Chinese countryside. In north China, these Catholic communities became targets for rebels during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1900). With the fall of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China (1911–45, in the mainland), the Catholic Church in China continued to expand and achieved strong linkages to the ruling Nationalist Party (Guomindang) through the continued support of foreign missionaries (backed by foreign states) and the Church’s institutional expansion (schools, universities and hospitals) in Chinese society.
Because of the dominance of foreign missionaries in the Chinese Catholic Church when the People’s Republic of China was established, the Church was targeted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) first for co-optation through a United Front, and then later for nationalization due to the worldwide Catholic Church’s anti-Communist stance. In 1957, the CCP established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association as the official institution of the Chinese Catholic Church, forcing many Catholic communities who retained allegiance to the Vatican to go underground. With the ‘reform and opening’ (gaige kaifang) of Deng Xiaoping starting in 1979, CCP restrictions over religion were loosened, and in 1982 through a directive called Document 19, a new religious policy promoting state tolerance for officially recognized religions (including Catholicism) allowed for the resurgence of the Chinese Catholic Church. In 1992, the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference was established as the highest Catholic organization in China (superseding the Patriotic Association), thus aligning the structure of the Chinese Catholic Church to the structure of the worldwide Catholic Church. In 2002, some underground churches have resurfaced, and others continue to remain underground because of historical infighting, while the worldwide Catholic Church fosters its relationships with the above-ground Church. One of the main obstacles to full reconciliation of the Chinese Catholic Church with the Vatican is the lack of normalized relations between the Vatican and the PRC; in 2002, the Vatican still had diplomatic relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan. Although it is impossible to get precise numbers of Catholics, in 2002 there were probably around 10 million Chinese Catholics (the CCP claims there are 4 million Chinese Catholics, while the Vatican says 12 million). Catholicism continues to grow in an increasingly open and globalized China.
See also: Catholic villages; house churches; Document 19 (1982)
Lozada, Eriberto P. (2001). God Aboveground: Catholic Church, Postsocialist State, and Transnational Processes in a Chinese Village. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Madsen, Richard (1998). China’s Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.
——(2003). ‘Catholic Revival during the Reform Era’. In Daniel Overmyer (ed.), Religion in China Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 162–83.
Tang, Edmond and Wiest, Jean-Paul (eds) (1993). The Catholic Church in Modern China: Perspectives. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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