Defending Christianity in China: the Jesuit defense of Christianity in the lettres edifiantes et Curieuses & Ruijianlu in relation to the Yongzheng proscription of 1724



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Kansas State University


Jesuits presented evidence in both French and Chinese to defend Christianity by citation of legal and historical precedents in favor of the "Teaching of the Lord of Heaven" (Catholicism) even after the Yongzheng Emperor's 1724 imperial edict proscribed the religion as a heterodox cult. The Jesuits' strategy is traceable to Matteo Ricci's early missionary approach of accommodation to Chinese culture, which aimed to prove grounds for a Confucian-Christian synthesis based upon complementary points between Christian theology and their interpretation of Yuanru (Original Literati Teaching).
Their synthesis involved both written and oral rhetorical techniques that ranged from attempts to show compatibility between different religious values, to the manipulation of texts, and to outright deceit. Personal witness, observation, and interpretation played a key role in Jesuit group translation projects. French and Chinese apologetic texts composed to prove grounds for the repeal of the 1724 proscription edict contain these approaches. The Lettres edifantes et curieuses ecrite par des missionnaires jesuites (1702-1776) contain examples of this approach, as well as the Ruijianlu (1735-1737). Memorials in the Ruijianlu cited favorable legal precedents and imperial patronage rendered to Xiyangren (Men from the West). Jesuits presented their case for toleration of Christianity in the Ruijianlu in terms of Chinese notions of hospitality, diplomacy, and defense found in texts from as early as the Zhou dynasty. They cited an enduring Chinese defensive notion of "welcoming men from afar" (rouyuanren), but the court refused to return to this soft policy. The Qianlong Emperor rejected the Kangxi era policy of "welcoming men from afar" regarding established missions.
In 1735 the imperial Board of Punishments re-enforced the proscription order against Christianity in military units and also ruled that baptism of abandoned infants by a Chinese convert constituted religious heterodoxy based on the Qing Code (Article 162). The twenty-one Jesuits (not expelled in 1724) remained in imperial service and at liberty to practice their religion among themselves. Officials pursued a severe policy of punishing any cult deemed heterodox according to statutes of the Code. Persecution of Christians increased throughout the eighteenth century, but abated during the reign of the Daoguang Emperor (1821-1851) when most anti-Christian edicts were rescinded and a subsequent imperial edict pardoned those Christians who practiced the faith for moral perfection.



History, European, History, Asia, Australia and Oceania, Religion, History of

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Doctor of Philosophy


Department of History

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Marsha L. Frey; Donald J. Mrozek