A Long and Rich History

Father Charbonnier’s account of Christianity in China is an important contribution to a subject that is too often neglected or distorted.

Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese Catholic saints on October 1, 2000. Yet Western works on the Church in China remain scant. In such a small field, this book is warmly welcomed, and has the added benefit of being a very fine work.

Few English-speaking people will have heard about Saints Zhang Huan, Wu Anbang, Chen Changpin, or Wu Wanshu, and Father Charbonnier’s book will do much to make these holy figures known and appreciated in the Englishspeaking world. The book was first published in French in 2002 under the title Histoire des Chrétiens de Chine, and was translated into English by the emeritus archbishop of Birmingham, England, Maurice Noël Léon Couve de Murville, who passed away shortly after completing his translation (November 2007).

Charbonnier is a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP), an order dedicated to evangelizing the Far East, and an order that has produced several martyrs there. He is thus uniquely qualified to undertake such a work, and his discussion of Christianity in China is refreshingly balanced, both sensitive to missions in China as a religious endeavor and thoroughly scholarly, relying on a wealth of archival sources in several languages.

There has been a recent stream of Western books on Christian missions in China, but they are predominantly centered on cultural antagonisms between China and the West, and are written mostly by secular scholars who speak critically of Western missionaries in China. Liam Brockey’s Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724 (Harvard, 2007), is one recent work on missions in China, but as its title suggests its scope is quite limited. The most widely read and assigned book in university classrooms on Christianity in China remains Jacques Gernet’s China and the Christian Impact (Cambridge, 1985), a book that not only disparages Christian missions in China, but also suggests that Christianity cannot possibly be integrated into Chinese culture. Charbonnier’s book is more general, insightful, and hopeful than these two works.

Christians in China is divided into five sections organized topically from the arrival of the first Nestorian Eastern Christians to China in 636 to the knotty problem of the “underground” and “patriotic” Churches in China presently.

One of the work’s strengths is its inclusion of all Christians, including non-Catholics, into its narrative history. But one of its weaknesses is that it gives short shrift to Protestant missions in late-imperial and modern China. Drawing mostly upon Western sources (more Chinese sources could have been consulted), Charbonnier recounts the mission efforts of the Syrian, or Nestorian, Church in China during the Tang dynasty. In the first section of the book, he discusses important archeological discoveries that reveal an incredible history of Syrian priests and monks who settled in China and produced Christian “sutras” and the now-famous Nestorian stele of Xi’an.

Another strength of Charbonnier’s account of these early missionaries is the author’s ability as a theologian to address previous controversies regarding whether these so-called “Nestorians” were actually partisan to Christological disagreements settled at the Council of Ephesis in 431. After his cogent description of the Syrian missions in China, Charbonnier outlines the origins of Catholicism in China, discussing the Italian Franciscan archbishop of Beijing, Giovanni da Montecorvino, who lived there from 1294 until his death around 1330. The Franciscan mission in China faded away, however, shortly after Montecorvino’s death, and Catholic missionaries did not return until the Jesuit incursion of the late 16th century.

The second section of Christians in China considers the activities of such famous Jesuits as Matteo Ricci and his confreres, and I applaud Charbonnier’s decision to dilate on Chinese converts. In doing so, Charbonnier breaks away from the unfortunate trend to discuss Westerners almost exclusively when surveying Christianity in China, as if the native Chinese had little to do with the Church there. To remedy this, the book details the significant contributions of such Chinese Catholics as Paul Xu and his granddaughter, Candida Xu.

In the third section of his book, Charbonnier devotes his narrative almost entirely to important Chinese Christians who shaped the faith on their native soil. In chapters 14 and 16 we find excellent discussions of the first Chinese Catholic bishop, Luo Wenzao, a Dominican who was consecrated in 1685, and of a holy priest, Father Andrew Li. Bishop Luo was appointed by Rome in 1677, but most European prelates in China were stubbornly resistant to conceding some of their episcopal powers to a native. Several bishops evaded Luo, or refused to consecrate him, because he was Chinese. Charbonnier’s honest account does not conceal the less than admirable behavior of many Catholic bishops of this time.

Father Andrew Li was a tireless worker in the Lord’s vineyard, sleeplessly traveling great distances to care for the souls of native Catholics, bringing them the graces of the sacraments. As Charbonnier writes: “Andrew Li carried the treasure that is the Gospel in a ‘vessel of clay,’ but the power of the spirit manifested itself by his speech, his writings, and his constant concern for the Christian communities for which he was responsible.” Father Li ministered in the wake of the Rites Controversy, a debate between religious orders about whether Chinese rites are compatible with Catholic doctrine; it was an era of serious danger, since the Chinese authorities were incensed by Rome’s decree that the Chinese rites were forbidden to Chinese Catholics.

But the humble priest, as Charbonnier recounts, risked his life for the welfare of his sheep. After writing of Father Li’s life, the book includes a number of moving accounts of Chinese converts who offered their lives rather than apostatize, several of whom were recently canonized by Pope John Paul II. It is fortunate for English readers to have access to these stories; Charbonnier has written another work devoted largely to the martyr saints of China, but it is only available in French (Les 120 Martyrs de Chine).

After a historical sketch of the Jesuit era and the growth of a native clergy, Charbonnier devotes the fourth section of his book to the religious and political conflicts between China and the West from the Opium War of the mid-19th century up until civil wars between the Nationalists and Communists after 1911. There is an enormous amount of history to discuss here, and Charbonnier covers it admirably. This is an era when many new Catholic orders and Protestant missionaries flooded into China, while European governments entered the same ports with their eyes on profit. Needless to say, the unsavory profiteering and political intimidation tactics of these Western governments were, in Chinese eyes, conflated with the motives of Christian missionaries. As Charbonnier notes, “Foreign protection made it possible for Christians to build schools, churches, and orphanages” in China, but these benevolent establishments were built while other Europeans forced opium addiction on the native Chinese for profit. This contradiction caused popular anti-foreignism in China, and by the year 1900 more than 30,000 Catholics were massacred during the Boxer Uprising. The Church later experienced expansive growth under the military protection of European powers, and despite the turbulence of the Sino-Japanese and civil wars between the Communists and Nationalists, a native clergy grew while converts to both Catholicism and Protestantism experienced a meteoric rise.

The final section of this book traces Christian history in China after the Communist victory of 1949. Referring to this era as “The Great Ordeal,” Charbonnier outlines the afflictions of the Catholic Church in China under the Communist regime, which “rejected religion as an outdated superstition.” Even though the new government allowed the Chinese people to “breathe again after a long period of war and appalling sufferings,” Catholic and Protestant Christians were harshlypersecuted. After Catholic clergy were mostly expelled from China in the 1950s, bishops and faithful relocated to Taiwan and Hong Kong where they established large communities. Charbonnier describes these Catholic diasporas in great detail and outlines their respective roles in the preservation of a Chinese Church.

In mainland China there remain antagonisms between the “official” and “underground” groups, but Charbonnier offers a picture of hope in China today as young Catholics slowly erase the lines between them, choosing to work together under the Holy Father for the future of the Chinese Church. Both Protestant and Catholic churches are being reopened all over China, and new ones are being built. I cannot say that I agree with the extent of Charbonnier’s progressive hopes for Christianity in China —I share Pope Benedict XVI’s notion of a “hermeneutic of continuity”—but I do agree with his optimistic expectation for a Christian renewal in China, despite China’s current materialism. Certainly the Church in China is quite different from the rest of the Church, but young Chinese Catholics honor the Church of the past—Western, liturgical, and artistic—while at the same time embracing what it means to be a Chinese Christian today.

On a final note, Ignatius Press is to be commended for publishing such an important work and playing an important role in bringing the Church in China to the attention of Englishspeaking audiences. I also applaud the editors for generously including so many images in the text, while many other presses skimp on pictures for the sake of economy. These images are indispensable to understanding how different China is from the West, and how the Church in China has developed its own indigenous culture.

As China becomes an increasingly powerful economic presence—it is now the world’s fourth most powerful country— we shall hear more about life there. Chinese Christianity is thriving, and Protestantism is burgeoning alongside a creeping Catholic membership. Father Charbonnier’s Christians in China is an exceptional work that should rightly be added to the bookshelf of any Christian or secular scholar who wishes to better understand what is certainly one of the most important religious traditions in China’s long history.


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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 54 Articles
Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.