The Dream of Catholic China

From the later sixteenth century until the end of the seventeenth, the Jesuit educational system was the most rigorous and effective in Europe. As one senior Jesuit wrote proudly in 1647, each Jesuit college was a “Trojan horse filled with soldiers from heaven, which every year produces conquistadors of souls.” Most of these young “soldiers,” before being assigned to their full-time studies in the Society of Jesus, would have spent several years learning the fundamentals of Latin and Greek grammar. They would then embark on a nine-year cycle of further work: two years of humanities, three years in the arts course, which focused on Greek philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, and four years of advanced theology studies. This final four-year course consisted of two years of moral theology and casuistry, and two years of speculative theology. Those who completed this roster would normally be assigned to teach young novices for a few years before receiving their final advanced training and preparation for the priesthood.

During these protracted years of scholarly training and moral discipline, as Liam Brockey demonstrates by his skillful examination of Portuguese Jesuit archives, the future Jesuit priests were subject to constant evaluations and reviews from their superiors. These reviews were sent to Rome in batches every three years, and filed there in the headquarters of the Society of Jesus. As well as giving details of each young man’s family background, academic record, and physical health, the evaluations made more subjective estimates of the scholastics’ “ingenuity, judgment, prudence, practical experience, and academic proficiency,” along with a brief profile of their “humors,” as these were defined at the time: sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic.

The same Jesuit who in 1647 had defined his young college charges as being “conquistadors of souls” drew on a different metaphor to describe their period of prolonged nurturing, borrowing from Pliny’s description of the two-year gestation period needed by baby elephants. Just as these baby elephants in later life, he wrote, would charge into battle and strike fear into other creatures, so would the newly trained Jesuits be ready for action of the most demanding nature:

To travel the entire world, conversing with the most pertinacious heretics, dealing with the most dissolute sinners, breaching all boundaries regardless of danger to hear confessions, to preach to heathens, to dispute with Lutherans, to work with barbarians, grappling with the dangers of the whole world.

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Brockey neatly matches his analysis of these archival Triennial Catalogues from Portugal with his examination of the contents of the seventeenth-century files known as the Indipetae—petitions to go to the Indies, a broad geographical term that also included missionary service in either Japan or China. Some of the young men were frankly in search of martyrdom, which could most assuredly be found in Japan, where the savage and thorough suppression of Christianity by the Tokugawa shoguns had made death for the Catholic faithful a regular occurrence. Some had been deeply stirred by the accounts they read of Francis Xavier’s missions to the Indies and Japan, petitions that increased in number after Xavier’s canonization in 1622, and led to several young petitioners changing their names to Francis, writing that the saint had visited them in their dreams.

Some others had been deeply moved by Matteo Ricci’s journal of his long sojourn as a China missionary between 1583 and 1610 (Ricci had died that year in Peking), an account that was brought to Europe after Ricci’s death by Father Nicolas Trigault, published in Latin translation in 1615, and led some of the young to “tears and sighs for China.” The practice of reading aloud from such inspirational texts at mealtimes in the Jesuit refectories must have further spread the sense that there were worlds enough to conquer outside the college walls. Though many different destinations were mentioned for mission work, China was high on the list, and clearly many petitioners shared, at least in their hearts, the sentiments of one young petitioner who wrote, “Oh, how I long to be Chinese!”

The exact total of such petitions sent to Rome is hard to gauge exactly, but Brockey cites one study which tabulates over two hundred petitions sent by ninety different young men from the southern Netherlands, of which only eight received a positive response. Some petitioners showed an astonishing tenacity. A young teacher of rhetoric and humanities from the same area, Antoine Thomas, wrote at least seventeen petitions to his superiors between 1663 and 1675, before he finally got his wish and sailed for the East in 1678. Even so, it was not until 1682 that he arrived in Macao, after long detours to Goa, Cambodia, and Siam.

The rich data on such details as the nature and duration of Jesuit education, the thoroughness of the supervision system, and the passion for Far East mission work among the young Jesuit scholastics and teachers are an essential part of Brockey’s book, for they help us to zero in on the central questions that most absorb him: What was it that gave the Jesuit China mission such a mystique? Why, for what is now almost four centuries after Matteo Ricci’s death, has the myth of something unique about China clung to this particular mission? And did the Jesuits in fact develop a series of techniques, practices, or protocols that somehow separates out their work in China from their own work elsewhere, and from the work of (often equally dedicated) missionaries from other Catholic orders at the same time? They are strong questions, which cut into the heart of a flourishing historiography, and they are worth taking seriously.

The older interpretations of the Jesuit China mission, and the one propagated assiduously by the Jesuits themselves and by many other scholars and writers, is that the secret of the Jesuit success lay in the superior technical and scientific training of those chosen to serve in the Far East, and in their extraordinary gifts with languages. This led them, in a short time, to master both classical and colloquial Chinese, and thus to impress leading members of the Chinese intellectual elite by the range and depth of their knowledge.

Mathematics and astronomy were especially important, runs this argument, because the creation of accurate calendars and precise calculations of solar and lunar eclipses were crucial to the prestige of the Chinese court, which gave its final imprimatur to all such calculations. Thus the Jesuits chose unusually brilliant missionaries with skills in such fields, young men who had shone as novices and scholastics in the Jesuit colleges. Furthermore, by devoting so much labor to learning the Chinese language, the Jesuits were able to engage the Chinese elite in philosophical and religious debates at a high level, and even, after the Qing dynasty came to power in 1644, to become members of the emperors’ own inner circle of teachers and advisers. In other words, this was top-down history, with the main story line running through a small group of unusually gifted scholar-missionaries of whom three in particular—Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall von Bell, and Ferdinand Verbiest—were seen as the most prominent and the most successful, until their promising initiatives inside China were brought low by flawed papal policies and squabbles within the Catholic Church.

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Liam Brockey doesn’t buy it, and the reasons for his skepticism lie at the heart of this absorbing and strongly researched book. “Not all adventures are epics,” as he puts it, and he has no intention of recapitulating the old heroic narrative line. On the other hand he is not, he informs us, either moved or convinced by temporarily fashionable polemics:

It is assumed in this book that there is no urgent need to celebrate missionary triumphs, to provide apologetics for the perceived failures of Christian churches in China, to denounce subtle (or direct) forms of Western imperialism, or to lament the corruption of Chinese culture by foreign taint.

That we still believe there was something extraordinary about the China Jesuits, says Brockey, and think that “they were a uniquely talented set of men who had been handpicked by their superiors in Europe to confront the challenges of China” must be recognized as fruit of our willingness to be taken in by a myth, which itself can be seen as a “tribute to the genius of the Society’s publicity enterprise.”

So, without the strong narrative line provided by the lives of exceptionally talented men, without the interlocking play of cross-national scholarly elitism, without the sense of destiny and uniqueness, what do we have to help us understand how the Jesuits achieved what they did in China? Though undramatic, Brockey’s answer is cogent: there was simply no systematic plan in the top Jesuit leadership to locate brilliant young men for the China mission; there was just a “largely uniform academic program and probationary experience” that gave all young Jesuits a “diverse set of mental tools,” tools equally useful in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Americas.

The key skills that the novice Jesuits learned during their basic training were threefold, says Brockey: the ability to analyze linguistic structures, skill in “logical argumentation,” and “techniques for dealing with abstract philosophical and theological concepts.” To supplement those basics, the young Jesuits learned how to teach large classes of often lively or argumentative students, and to cultivate a “methodical frame of mind.” Jesuit practice taught the young teachers how to enliven their sessions with “pious competition” and “academic games” that further sharpened the mind. There was also the experience gained in pastoral work, not only in the towns where their colleges might be situated but also in the long months—stretching sometimes for years—spent on board ship en route for the selected site of missionary activity. The passengers and crew on these voyages, Brockey explains, formed a lively microcosm of the real world on land, with the same extremes of violence, class consciousness, racial difference, and attitudes toward religion and scholarship.

Other helpful lessons learned by the young Jesuits that Brockey singles out were related to the simple everyday tasks of living outside the church or the schoolroom, including the “institutional maintenance” of their rooms and refectories, and the management of a “domestic economy” as experienced through doing laundry, sweeping and cleaning, kitchen work, and tending the sick. When each of the future missionaries had absorbed such experiences, even were he not outstanding as a scholar, linguist, mathematician, or theologian, he would be able to adjust swiftly to the intellectual and practical challenges of running a residence on his own, whether at home or in China.

Brockey does not altogether reject the old-fashioned story line, which featured Matteo Ricci’s journey from south China in the 1580s, to central China in the 1590s, and finally to Peking for the last decade of his life, from 1601 to his death in 1610; but he is at pains to make sure that Ricci does not dominate the story, as he so often did in the past. One way Brockey does this is to demonstrate that Ricci’s death was not only not the end of an era, but was indeed a necessary stage in the dramatic expansion of the Jesuit China mission as a whole: while some one thousand Christian Chinese converts could be claimed by the year 1606, in the year of Ricci’s death the number was 2,500, and the figure had risen to five thousand by the year 1615. By this measure, Ricci’s death can be seen as releasing the China Jesuits for a more energetic and numerically significant quest for converts, a feat accomplished by Ricci’s energetic and forceful successor Niccolò Longobardo. Brockey suggests that the special honors given to Ricci by the Ming court after his death, far from being special, were really no more than the “boilerplate” eulogies that were customarily given to any deceased ambassador from afar.

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The nature and durability of this seventeenth-century expansion of the Jesuit mission in China are explored in the first half of Brockey’s book and he brings many less-known missionaries into his story, broadening the canvas dramatically, and also giving serious attention to the problems the missionaries faced from hostile Chinese literati and senior officials. These men and their motives interest him more than the handful of august Chinese converts normally featured in past accounts, and the result is a narrative that emphasizes such moments as the establishment of firm standardized practices for the mission in 1621, which downplayed many of Ricci’s touted techniques for using Western science as an entry point to the minds of potential Chinese converts. Also given careful attention by Brockey is the convening of a major Jesuit conference in the Yangtze delta city of Jiading in 1627, in an attempt to solve the deeply vexing problem of how to find a satisfactory Chinese rendering for the word or concept of God, a rendering that would be free from the ritually and doctrinally loaded terms that the Chinese used for their own—non-Christian—gods or divine beings.

As part of this analysis we learn the startling fact that Ricci’s most important publicist in Europe, Nicolas Trigault—who had translated into Latin and published to great acclaim Ricci’s China memoir in 1615, and subsequently returned to China with important new recruits for the mission—committed suicide in 1628, after the Jiading meeting, out of despair that he could not get his Jesuit colleagues to agree with the Chinese term for God’s name that he personally favored. Brockey points out that Trigault was “mentally unstable,” which may of course be true, but the phrase further serves to deftly undermine Ricci’s reputation, since if Trigault was unstable mentally, what did that say retrospectively about his translation, emendation, and circulation of Ricci’s memoirs?

Brockey’s wider canvas also allows him to give a deeper description of the plight of the Church during the momentous decade of the 1640s, when the Ming dynasty was destroyed by the military forces of indigenous peasant rebellions exacerbated by the successful invasion of China by a Manchu federation from the north. By giving us a much clearer sense of how several Jesuit priests lost their lives at this time, Brockey increases our understanding not just of the vagaries of fate in the missionary enterprise, but of the ingenuity that the Jesuits displayed in adjusting to the new regime and reestablishing their privileged position both in the court and out in the provinces.

Throughout these chapters of his study, Brockey keeps us informed of the spreading numbers of Christian converts, as they reached a total of 105,000 in 1663 and perhaps as many as 200,000 by 1695. By comprehensive examination of the Portuguese sources dealing with the mission, he is able to show how complex were the problems that came along with the increased numbers of the faithful. Each increase in numbers put new burdens on the priests already in China, especially since there was real reluctance to move swiftly to train Chinese priests from Macao or elsewhere for service in China. The mission was short of personnel and short of funds, while at the same time feeling compelled to open new residences to cope with the expanding congregations.

Brockey discusses the many techniques devised by the Jesuits to cope with their apparent success: the development of lay sodalities of the faithful; the increasing bestowal of baptism on women and children as the reach into the countryside deepened; the receipt of permission from Rome to translate devotional texts and tracts into Chinese without having the materials first vetted by the upper Church hierarchies; the spreading attempts to appeal to the new mass congregations by displays of devotional objects, paintings, rosaries, and altar coverings; and a new concentration on demonstrative prayer and symbols such as the sign of the cross—to all of these manifestations, as Brockey shows, there clung an aura both of power and even of magic, an aura that was only increased by public processions of the faithful with displays of the cross, and the formation of penitential communities which sometimes performed flagellation and preached sexual abstinence. Financially, expansion brought dramatic new demands for funding, in part to pay for real estate for new residencies and churches. As support from sources in Macao dwindled, Brockey shows that the Jesuits were sometimes led to take out loans from local Chinese moneylenders to tide them over lean periods.

Nevertheless, Brockey points out, despite the roster of expanding numbers and activities, the Jesuit mission as a whole was “a massive house of cards,” one “that would come tumbling down if a strong wind blew against it.” And that wind did indeed begin to blow especially strongly in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as a major new influx of French missionaries highlighted old feuds with Spain and Portugal and the Holy See, as polemical struggles were waged between papal legates and Qing emperors intent on preserving their turf from foreign interference, and as tensions generated with the bureaucracy owing to the Chinese sectarian use of Christian symbolism seemed to point to a breakdown of societal controls and induced the emperor in 1724 to declare the Christian religion “heterodox.”

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Even if some parts of these opening chapters of Brockey’s book may cover ground familiar to historians of missions, there will be few who do not find important new materials in the second half of Journey to the East, which draws on a rich range of original sources to deepen our sense of Chinese society and the attempted Jesuit impact upon it. Chapter seven, for instance, engagingly titled “Learning the Language of Birds,” is the best analysis of the experiments and challenges surrounding the learning of the Chinese language by foreigners that I have ever seen. In a succinct forty pages or so, Brockey discusses the wide range of options tried by the missionaries as they struggled to learn Chinese. The attempt began in the early 1580s, with Ricci’s precursor in Macao and South China, Michele Ruggieri. Ruggieri decided that the best approach was to start by learning the Chinese school text known as the Thousand Character Classic, supplementing this reading with drill lessons from native Chinese speakers that would help the Western neophyte grapple with the Chinese system of tones. Ruggieri, Ricci, and their successors also sought to separate out the so-called elite speech or “mandarin”—which they identified with the dominant forms of official Chinese spoken in Nanjing—from the colloquial Chinese spoken in Macao or Canton.

Later missionaries faced the task of learning many local dialects, some of them covering just a few villages, a task that naturally grew more complex as they expanded into ever new areas of China. One Jesuit solution was to use Chinese native-speaker interpreters in the more scattered rural areas when dealing with the poor and uneducated. Another was to try to induce all the new Western arrivals to only speak Chinese with one another, and also to do constant language training with the servants in their own residences. Gradually there was agreement that a basic “working vocabulary” of about five thousand characters might suffice, especially if certain of the vexing doctrinal terms were still to be written only in phonetic transcription rather than in a fully translated form.

How long this process should or need take, and how one was to proceed with pastoral details in the meantime, was of course at the heart of the problem. Brockey has unearthed some sources that give the rates paid to educated native Chinese-language instructors—the rates were between sixteen and eighteen taels (ounces of silver) per year, a sizable sum for the time. There were also debates on whether Westerners with preliminary knowledge of Chinese should spend some of their own time teaching the basics to newcomers so that the Chinese instructors could concentrate on the advanced students. Then there was the question of how much time to devote to the basic curriculum of Confucian classics studied by the Chinese elite for their own competitive examination system: the Jesuit decision was to get a familiarity with certain basic philosophical concepts, but not to learn the difficult Bagu or eight-legged system mandated for the formal examination answers.

To illuminate this process, Brockey gives some examples from the handbook written in 1700 by a longtime China missionary, José Monteiro. With engaging directness, Monteiro titled his book The True and Only Brief Method for Quickly Learning to Speak the Chinese Language which by its nature is very difficult* The handbook was, as promised, both condensed and practical. Monteiro’s sample sentences, each given in Latin and in Chinese Romanization, were designed to cover different aspects of the missionary life. To the missionary’s question “What is your name?,” for example, a sample response from the Chinese was given as “My Christian name is Paulo…. I am eighty-five years old…. My wife is not a Christian…. She’s got the Devil in her head.” To which the priest might reply “Even the Devil obeys God”…or, perhaps, “Our merits are not enough for reaching eternal glory.” Nor were the missionary’s more worldly needs ignored completely: “This meat is not cooked enough” ran one sample sentence. “These greens have no taste…. The rice is poorly cooked…. This tea is poorly made.”

Far from saluting the practicality of Monteiro’s handbook, Brockey shrewdly points out how Monteiro’s clumsy Chinese sentence structures reveal the impoverishment of Chinese study among the missionaries, as the expanding numbers of converts and the dwindling supplies of new mission recruits cut back the time for language learning ever more sharply. Monteiro’s handbook illustrates how new missionaries were being pushed out into the field with only a few simplified thoughts—in Romanized form—as they tried to handle the basic problem of running their mission stations. Conversation at any deeper level was out of the question. Elsewhere, Brockey tells of priests who had to hear confessions through interpreters, or carried with them little booklets in which converts could simply point to the numbers of sins committed since the last pastoral visit.

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Brockey’s conclusion, which is hard to fault, is that the Jesuit mission in China was essentially brought down by its overrapid expansion: the increase of mission stations to twenty or more produced a demand for trained manpower that could not be met. In the absence of enough trained European priests, and with little increase in Chinese priests, the scattered clusters of the Chinese faithful had to be left largely to their own devices. They appear to have acted with devotion and efficiency, as they expanded lay organizations that could keep the faith alive without fatal distortions. In the absence of ordained priests, the local Catholics often circulated tracts among their own membership: in one aside Brockey notes that such tracts could occasionally be found at secondhand book fairs in China. Local Chinese church leaders would convene meetings, supervise baptismal and burial ceremonies, hear confessions, and circulate relics, even if sometimes of somewhat suspect provenance—copies of Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s signature, for example, or swatches of cloth from Saint Francis Xavier’s garments. They also constructed small sanctuaries in their own homes. Thus the catechists rather than their priests became the keys to local church organization.

Local congregations of the faithful tended to drift in the direction of familiar rituals, in which food and drink were integral parts of the celebration, and the Chinese hui—local associations composed of native place or occupational groupings—were integrated into parish structures, handling matters that had traditionally been in the associations’ sphere of operations, such as prayer ceremonies for the sick, providing wood for coffins, and locating burial sites. Christianity became, in such settings, a “family religion” as both wives and children were fully incorporated in the local groups. In another of his informative asides, Brockey mentions that these local catechists, many of whom were women, were paid for each pastoral visit outside their own locality, at a rate of six or seven tenths of a silver tael per visit.

Even if priests were able to make occasional annual visits to such widely dispersed groupings, that was still a long way from running a disciplined parish, and even if time permitted a day-long visit to a local community it was literally impossible for the priest himself to hear all the accumulated confessions. During times of major crisis, furthermore, the local catechists carried the full organizational burden, and the priests were reduced to a “negligible” role. Thus, as Brockey observes, the urban sodalities in Chinese communities often developed a “European” look as they took over such tasks as printing and circulating religious tracts, supporting orphanages, and supervising the distribution of alms. Some separated themselves out from other Christians by the intensity of their devotion, even “reliving” incidents from Christ’s own passion. So without having intended to do so, and without prior models to guide them, the rank and file of the Jesuit order had ended up mirroring their own societies on the other side of the globe.

Liam Brockey has written a challenging book. Even those of us who would still like to cling to the fact that many of these Jesuit pioneers in China were truly remarkable men, with enormous mental resources, have to realize that he has changed the ground rules of the debate. It is clear that the Chinese Catholics themselves were much more in charge of their own destinies than we had suspected. And with that knowledge in place, we can no longer tell the same old stories in the same old way.

* The Latin title of Monteiro's book is Vera et Unica Praxis breviter ediscendi, ac expeditissime loquendi Sinicum idioma, suapte natura adeo difficile.