Modern History Sourcebook:
The Chinese Rites Controversy, 1715
One of the religious debates in 18th century Catholicism focused
on the issue of "Chinese rites." The Society of Jesus
(Jesuits) was successful in penetrating China and serving at the
Imperial court. They impressed the Chinese with their knowledge
of astronomy and mechanics, and in fact ran the Imperial Observatory.
Other Jesuits functioned as court painters. The Jesuits in turn
were impressed by the Chinese Confucian elite, and adapted to
The primary goal of the Jesuits was to spread Catholicism,
but here they had a problem. The Chinese elite were attached to
Confucianism which provided the framework of both state and home
life. Part of Confucian practice involved veneration of the ancestors.
The Jesuits tried to argue, in Rome, that these "Chinese
Rites" were social, not religious, ceremonies, and that converts
should be allowed to continue to participate. [The debate was not, as is sometimes thought, about whether the liturgy
could be in Chinese rather than Latin]. This claim by the Jesuits
may have been disingenuous. Although in later European commentary
on China it has continued to be claimed that Confucianism is a
"philosophy" and not a "religion" - because
it does not conform to the model of western religions, the pope
was probably correct in his assessment that the Confucian rituals
were indeed in conflict with Christian teaching. As a result,
he gave up a very good opportunity to convert a significant part
of the Chinese elite to Catholicism.
The Kangxi emperor, one of China's greatest, was at first friendly
to the Jesuit Missionaries working in China. By the end of the
seventeenth century they had made many converts.
From Decree of K'anghsi (1692)
The Europeans are very quiet; they do not excite any disturbances
in the provinces, they do no harm to anyone, they commit no crimes,
and their doctrine has nothing in common with that of the false
sects in the empire, nor has it any tendency to excite sedition
. . . We decide therefore that all temples dedicated to the Lord
of heaven, in whatever place they may be found, ought to be preserved,
and that it may be permitted to all who wish to worship this God
to enter these temples, offer him incense, and perform the ceremonies
practised according to ancient custom by the Christians. Therefore
let no one henceforth offer them any opposition.
From S. Neill, A History of Christian Missions (Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books ]964), pp. 189l90.
From Decree of Pope Clement XI (1715)
The Jesuits claim Chinese terms could be used to designate
the Christian God and that the Confucian ceremonies were merely
civil rites that Christians could attend and that Chinese ancestor
worship was compatible with Christianity was condemned by Pope
Clement XI in 1715.
Pope Clement XI wishes to make the following facts permanently
known to all the people in the world....
I. The West calls Deus [God] the creator of Heaven, Earth,
and everything in the universe. Since the word Deus does
not sound right i n the Chinese language, the Westerners in China
and Chinese converts to Catholicism have used the term "Heavenly
Lord" for many years. From now on such terms as "Heaven"
and "Shangti" should not be used: Deus should
be addressed as the Lord of Heaven, Earth, and everything in the
universe. The tablet that bears the Chinese words "Reverence
for Heaven" should not be allowed to hang inside a Catholic
church and should be immediately taken down if already there.
II. The spring and autumn worship of Confucius, together with
the worship of ancestors, is not allowed among Catholic converts.
It is not allowed even though the converts appear in the ritual
as bystanders, because to be a bystander in this ritual is as
pagan as to participate in it actively.
III. Chinese officials and successful candidates in the metropolitan,
provincial, or prefectural examinations, if they have been converted
to Roman Catholicism, are not allowed to worship in Confucian
temples on the first and fifteenth days of each month. The same
prohibition is applicable to all the Chinese Catholics who, as
officials, have recently arrived at their posts or who, as students,
have recently passed the metropolitan, provincial, or prefectural
IV. No Chinese Catholics are allowed to worship ancestors in their
V. Whether at home, in the cemetery, or during the time of a funeral,
a Chinese Catholic is not allowed to perform the ritual of ancestor
worship. He is not allowed to do so even if he is in company with
nonChristians. Such a ritual is heathen in nature regardless
of the circumstances.
Despite the above decisions, I have made it clear that other Chinese
customs and traditions that can in no way be interpreted as heathen
in nature should be allowed to continue among Chinese converts.
The way the Chinese manage their households or govern their country
should by no means be interfered with. As to exactly what customs
should or should not be allowed to continue, the papal legate
in China will make the necessary decisions. In the absence of
the papal legate, the responsibility of making such decisions
should rest with the head of the China mission and the Bishop
of China. In short, customs and traditions that are not contradictory
to Roman Catholicism will be allowed, while those that are clearly
contradictory to it will not be tolerated under any circumstances.
From China in Transition, 15171911, Dan. J. Li, trans.
(New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1969), pp. 2224
From Decree of Kangxi (1721)
The Kangxi emperor was not happy with Clement's decree, and
banned Christian missions in China.
Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the Westerners
are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because
they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in
China. There is not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works,
and their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous. To judge
from this proclamation, their religion is no different from other
small, bigoted sects of Buddhism or Taoism. I have never seen
a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners
should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.
From China in Transition, 15171911, Dan J. Li, trans.
(New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1969), p. 22.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997