Chinese Catholics who changed China and the world

The inspiring and little-known stories of Fr. Ma Xiangbo, SJ, Princess Yu Deling, Ying Lianzhi, Abbot Lu Zhengxiang, OSB, and Bishop Fan Xueyan.

After Mao Zedong (1893-1976) declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, missionaries and Chinese clergy flooded out of mainland China to escape the coming anti-Christian persecutions. There were some clergy, however, who remained with their beleaguered flock, such as the American Jesuit, Father Charles McCarthy, SJ, (1911-1991) and the Chinese Jesuit, Father Zhu Shude, SJ (1913-1983). In 1949, Father Zhu was in Hong Kong receiving his fellow Jesuits fleeing the mainland, and he decided that the Christians in Shanghai needed him to remain with them through the storm. Despite the entreaties from his fellow priests to stay in the safety of Hong Kong, Zhu boarded a plane for Shanghai. In a poignant letter left for his brother, he wrote:

Every day many people are escaping from China to Hong Kong. Yet I cannot find anyone, apart from myself, who is preparing to leave Hong Kong for China. Everyone laughs at me for being a fool. In the eyes of the world I am indeed the biggest fool ever born! When a merchant cannot make a profit in one place, he will move somewhere else. Yet I am a priest, and the life of a priest is to serve his flock. As long as there are Christians left in Shanghai, I must return there. Because I am a priest. I represent Christ and his Church. Wherever I am, the Church is. I am willing to stay in Shanghai, to let the communist party know that the Catholic faith is still alive.i

Zhu was arrested in 1953, and finally died in a labor camp in 1983 after thirty years of hardship and torment. He remains a heroic example among Chinese Catholics today of what it means to love Christ, the Church, and China enough to bear fear and imprisonment in order to stay there when needed.

In October 2017, Christianity Today posted a fine tribute to Chinese Protestants entitled “10 Chinese Christians the Western Church Should Know” with the subtitle “Meet the men and women who have rooted the gospel message within the Chinese soul.”ii I would like to offer here a few examples of Chinese Catholics who were also an unwavering witness to the resilience and perseverance of Christians who have filled China’s pews for nearly five centuries. It is a good time to remember some of these Chinese Catholics whose names are seldom discussed in print, but who have transformed the landscape of Chinese Christianity and Chinese society.

Fr. Ma Xiangbo, SJ. Right: Fr. Ma (left) with the first professors of Fudan University, which was founded in 1905. (Anthony E. Clark Private Collection)

Fr. Ma Xiangbo, SJ (1840-1939)

Few people know that one of China’s most prestigious universities, Shanghai’s elite Fudan University, owes its existence to the vision of the Jesuit priest, Father Ma Xiangbo, SJ. Ma was born into one of China’s most prominent Catholic families at a time when the empire was collapsing under the strain of transition and modernity. Along with Ying Lianzhi, another devout Chinese Catholic, Ma Xiangbo viewed himself as a reformer of a society he believed was frail and obsolete; his life was spent largely in a state of frustration that he could not fully inspire the kinds of major changes he envisioned. Toward the end of his life he was often heard saying, “I’m like a dog that only knows how to bark – I’ve been barking for a century and I still haven’t been able to awaken China!”iii As a man acutely dedicated to the Catholic ideals of social equality and the value of human dignity, Ma was exasperated that China was slow to change. His father, Ma Songyuan, was a Confucian scholar, and so Ma was raised in the tradition of classical learning, discipline, and a strong attachment to virtuous behavior. After receiving a rigorous Western education in Shanghai’s Jesuit-run St. Ignatius School, Ma entered the Jesuits in 1864 and was ordained a priest in 1870. Finding the arrogance of the French clergy in Shanghai unbearable, Ma Xiangbo left the order in 1876; it did not help matters that many of the European Jesuits then displayed contempt for traditional Chinese culture.

While maintaining strong ties to the Catholic hierarchy in China, Ma Xiangbo left active ministry as a priest to help reform an embattled China, though he returned to the Jesuit community at Xujiahui in 1919.iv In 1903, he founded the Jesuit-operated Aurora University, which ceased being a Catholic university in 1953 when communist authorities forced it to secularize. In 1905, he founded Fudan University, and in 1926 he co-founded Beijing’s prestigious Fu Jen Catholic University with Ying Lianzhi. He spent most of his later years attempting to influence China’s political climate, and he died in 1939 while traveling to Kunming to escape the horrors of the Japanese invasion of his native Shanghai. He died an “old patriot” of his native homeland, and left a legacy of some of China’s most elite universities. His spiritual writings and example of Catholic patriotism remain a strong witness to the particular traits of the Chinese Church. In 1932, Ma Xiangbo wrote a summoning essay, titled “Using Scholarship to Spread Religion,” wherein he called China’s Church to spread the truths of the Catholic faith through education.v Ma’s plea to his fellow Chinese Catholics was simple: “Whatever scholarship or ability Chinese members have, they must use it to undertake the work of evangelism.”vi

Left: Yu Deling in court regalia; right: Yu Deling with the Empress Dowager Ci Xi and a eunuch at the Forbidden City. (Anthony E. Clark Private Collection)

Princess Yu Deling (Der Ling, 1885-1944)

Among the most colorful characters of Chinese history was Yu Deling, a court lady during the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Yu Deling served as Empress Dowager’s first lady in waiting in the Forbidden City, married an American, Thaddeus White (1878-1953), and finally moved to the United States, where she taught Chinese at the University of California, Berkeley. Yu’s legacy revolves around the eight books she wrote about the inner-workings of Beijing’s Forbidden City during the era of Emperor Guang Xu (1871-1908) and the “Old Buddha,” Empress Dowager Ci Xi (1835-1908), who was hated by foreigners for her support of the Boxers during the Boxer Uprising (1898-1900). Her most famous book, Two Years in the Forbidden City, is among the best accounts of the vanished world of China’s imperial court, replete with descriptions of extravagant meals, elaborate silk gowns, and Eunuchs who were often flogged for displeasing members of the ruling family. Yu Deling was highly trusted by the Empress Dowager, and thus she witnessed and heard about events few humans had access to, though her later writing suffers from occasional embellishment that calls some of her assertions into question.

Scholars know much more about Yu’s non-Christian life, such as her studies in Paris with the eccentric American dancer, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), and her friendship with Ci Xi, than they do about her personal faith as a Catholic. She was baptized by no less than China’s most powerful prelate, the bushy-bearded and large-girthed Frenchman, Alphonse Favier, CM (1837-1905).vii While a young girl, Yu Deling travelled with her father to Rome, where her family was greeted in a private audience with Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903); she recalls that when she knelt to receive his blessing, the Holy Father “patted my head and told me I would be a great woman.”viii Yu Deling had to conceal her Christian faith while serving the Empress Dowager in the Forbidden City, but she was perhaps closer to China’s center of power than any other Catholic in the history of imperial China.

Left: Ying Lianzhi; right: Ying Lianzhi with his family. (Anthony E. Clark Private Collection)

Ying Lianzhi (1867-1926)

Other than Ma Xiangbo, the most famous Catholic reformer in China during the transition from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries was the layman Ying Lianzhi, founder of the popular newspaper, Dagongbao (L’Impartial). Ying was the son of a Manchu bannerman, and thus a member of the imperial military system devised by China’s ruling Manchus. He was, as D. E. Mungello writes, “athletic and studious. He lifted weights, was a good swordsman, and could shoot an arrow accurately from horseback.”ix Ying Lianzhi was not only interested in martial arts; he also immersed himself in the Chinese classics and writings on religion, such as books on Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity. When his fiancée grew severely ill and Chinese physicians could not cure her, Ying took her to a hospital run by the Sisters of Charity. At the hospital, Ying encountered Western medicine (his fiancée was cured) and the selfless dedication of the sisters. He converted to Christianity. After his baptism in 1895 at Beijing’s famous West Church, his entire family followed him into the Church. He moved to Tianjin and founded his newspaper there in 1902.

Ying Lianzhi’s new periodical was a pioneering venue for social and political reforms in the turbulence that precipitated the collapse of Qing rule, passionately criticizing the imperial court’s resistance to change and such dehumanizing cultural practices as subjecting young girls to the agony of footbinding. After the 1911 Revolution that brought an end to the Qing dynasty, Ying turned his attention to increasing the influence of Catholic education in China. In 1917, Ying wrote an essay that exposed the cultural chauvinism of the French missionaries in China at that time; he criticized them for obstructing the growth of Chinese bishops and flouting the Chinese priests who clamored for reform.x His essay was translated into French and sent to Rome, where it influenced the decision of the pope to push for greater indigenization of the hierarchy in China. Ying’s essay also argued in favor of opening more Catholic schools in China, beginning with, as Ernest Young puts it, the assertion that education is “not a substitute for the virtues necessary for salvation,” but that “the church has gloried in its learned saints, . . . and the neglect of education and the mistrust of learning do not serve the church well.”xi Largely responding to this essay, Pope Benedict XV (1854-1922) supported the opening of Fu Jen University in the center of Beijing.

Left: Lu Zhengxiang in his diplomatic regalia; right: Lu Zhengxiang, OSB, in his abbatial regalia. (Anthony E. Clark Private Collection)

Abbot Lu Zhengxiang, OSB (1871-1949)

It is not hyperbole to identify the Chinese diplomat Lu Zhengxiang as the most influential Chinese Christian to have lived during the Republican Era (1911-1949). Not only was he appointed the premier and prime minister of foreign affairs, he was also the diplomat who led the Chinese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where his resistance to foreign bullying made him an instant hero among the people of China. Article 156 of the Treaty of Versailles transferred German colonial territory in Shandong to Japan without consulting China or recognizing its sovereignty as an independent government. When addressing the assembled world delegates, Lu chastised them for, “giving (no) due regard to the consideration of right, justice and the national security of China.”xii The Western powers did not support Lu’s request to deny the transfer of Chinese land to Japan, and so he refused to provide his signature, making China the only country that did not sign the Versailles Treaty. Earlier, while serving at St. Petersburg, Russia, he met and married a Belgian Roman Catholic woman named Berthe Bovy, whose abiding example of faith inspired Lu’s conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism in 1912. The same priest who had witnessed their marriage in 1899 received him into the Church in 1912. In his personal memoir, he wrote about his conversion: “The last division between her and me had disappeared.”xiii He received fist Holy Communion and was confirmed by the Catholic archbishop of St. Petersburg.

After his wife’s early death, Lu Zhengxiang retired from political service and became a postulant at the Benedictine abbey of Sint-Andries in Bruges, Belgium. He was ordained a priest in 1935, and in 1946 Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) appointed him the titular abbot of the Abbey of St. Peter in Ghent. China’s Catholics know him best for his writings as a Benedictine monk, especially for his stirring autobiography, Souvenirs et Pensées, first published in 1945 while China was straining under the burden of a ruthless Japanese occupation and a civil war between nationalists and communists. This intimate memoir outlines his long political career and his vocation to the religious life and priesthood. What makes his writing particularly appealing to Chinese Christians is his insistence that Christianity is a fulfillment of Confucianism and, furthermore, that Benedictine monasticism could be the fulfillment of Buddhist monasticism in China. After acknowledging the successful implantation of Buddhism in China through monasticism, he suggests that it could be Catholic monks who finally infuse into China the truths of the Catholic faith. In his memoir, Lu Zhangxiang recalls some advice given to him by another Chinese statesman: “Europe’s strength is found not in her armaments, nor in her knowledge — it is found in her religion. . . . Observe the Christian faith. When you have grasped its heart and its strength, take them and give them to China.”xiv Lu’s loudest exclamation to the people of China has been that despite the hackneyed refrain that “Christianity and Chinese culture do not mix well,” exactly the opposite is true. For Abbot Lu, Christianity is the most effective way to complete the insights of Chinese philosophy and bring harmony to his native China.

Left: Bishop Fan Xueyan; right: Bishop Fan imparting his episcopal blessing. (Anthony E. Clark Private Collection)

Bishop Fan Xueyan (1907-1992)

China’s most admired modern bishop is Fan Xueyan, an “underground” prelate who defied the state and, according to the Chinese faithful, helped preserve Christianity during an era when many thought the Church had vanished. Pope Pius XII appointed Fan the bishop of Baoding (Hebei Province) in 1951, while the Maoist anti-Catholic campaigns were at a fevered pitch. When the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was established by the communist party in 1957, Bishop Fan asserted his loyalty to the pope and refused to join, after which he was arrested and sent to a labor camp.xv He remained there until 1979, when he was released to return to Baoding. Some Catholics expected him to be more conciliatory with the Beijing government, but instead he remained persistently opposed to communist rule and was arrested again in 1984 and condemned for another ten years of imprisonment. In November of 1987, he was again released on parole, and in 1988 he wrote a pastoral letter denouncing Catholics in China who attended Mass at churches sanctioned by the Patriotic Association. He also consecrated additional bishops, and according to Father Jean Charbonnier, MEP, because “he was charged with unofficially consecrating bishops for the underground Church, he was committed to strict surveillance in Baoding and died of ill treatment on April 13, 1992.”xvi

The circumstances of his death are appalling, and China’s Catholic community is still troubled by how he was treated by the state authorities. On April 16, 1992, local police delivered his body in a plastic bag to his relatives’ home, claiming that he had died of pneumonia, though his family reported that his body showed signs of abuse. Officials ordered that he be given a small private funeral, but in defiance more that 40,000 people attended the Requiem Mass and China’s bishops and priests offered novenas for Bishop Fan, who they insist was a martyr for the faith. Online photographs of the funeral are easy to find, and Chinese Catholics are fond of recounting that on June 3, 1976, Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) sent a letter and blessing to Fan Xueyan on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his consecration: “Your Excellency is a loyal son,” the letter exclaimed, “and a worthy example to the flock of a most lovely part of the Universal Church, a good leader and pastor.” When still a priest, Fan Xueyan is reported to have said, “Obedience is the vocation of priests, but also God’s gift to me – I believe He has given me a great burden, because the Lord has given me the most beautiful religion.” Chinese Catholics, both in the sanctioned and unsanctioned communities, proclaim Bishop Fan as an example of the obedience that all Catholics are called to, and he remains an example of faithfulness to the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic faith, both among Chinese faithful within mainland China and those who live abroad.

Keeping the Catholic faith alive in China

When Father Zhu Shude decided to travel to Shanghai rather than remain in the safety of Hong Kong, he returned “to let the communist party know that the Catholic faith is still alive.” In large part, the Chinese Catholics I have discussed here have contributed to keeping the faith alive in China, a faith that has been often challenged by authorities who insist that Christianity is untrue. St. Paul has said that, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”xvii When I met with the now-deceased “underground” bishop of Guiyang, Hu Daguo (1921-2011), nearly a decade ago, he told me that he was grateful to God for allowing him to suffer under communist persecution for his unrelenting faith. It was precisely that suffering, he insisted, that taught him to rely on God’s support, who had comforted him beyond measure. Anguish has become one of the marks of being a Catholic in China, but so has consolation. The first-century work, the Didache, reminds Christians that, “The workings that befall you receive as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass.”xviii We always have a choice when confronted by danger or suffering. We can either receive the gift that God bestows upon us and grow in wisdom and faith, or maintain that we know better than God what is good for our souls . . . and the souls of others. Chinese Catholics have much to teach the Universal Church; they are living examples of St. Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”xix


iFr. Zhu Shude, SJ, quoted in Kim-Kwong Chan and Alan Hunter, Prayers and Thoughts of Chinese Christians (Boston: Cowley, 1991), 22-23.

iiAndrew T. Kaiser and G. Wright Doyle, “10 Chinese Christians the Western Church Should Know: Meet the men and women who have rooted the gospel message within the Chinese soul,”, 3 October 2017.

iiiZhang Ruogu, Ma Xiangbo xiansheng nianpu [Chronology of the Life of Mr. Ma Xiangbo] (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1939), 234.

ivRuth Hayhoe and Lu Hongling, Eds., Ma Xiangbo and the Mind of Modern China (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharoe, 1996), 4.

vThis essay is translated in Hayhoe and Lu, 269-271.

viMa Xiangbo, “Using Scholarship to Spread religion,” in Hayhoe and Lu, 269.

viiDiscussed in Grant Hayter-Menzies, Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008), 26.

viiiIn Hayter-Menzies, 117.

ixD. E. Mungello, The Catholic Invasion of China: Remaking Chinese Christianity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 51.

xSee Ernest P. Young, Ecclesiastical Colony: China’s Catholic Church and the French Religious Protectorate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 175-176.

xiYoung, 176.

xiiSee Lu Zhenxiang’s address before the diplomatic assembly at the Paris Peas Conference in 1919, in Why China Refused to Sign the Peace Treaty (Beijing: Chinese Patriotic Committee, n.d.), 4-5.

xiiiLu Zhengxiang/Dom Pierre-Célestine Lou Tseng-Tsiang, Ways of Confucius and of Christ, Transl. by Michael Derrick (London: Burns Oats, 1948), 27.

xivLu, Ways of Confucius, 12.

xvSee Edmond Tang and Jean-Paul Wiest, Eds., The Catholic Church in Modern China, Perspectives (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 134, n. 3.

xviJean Charbonnier, MEP, Christians in China: A.D. 600-2000, Trans. by M. N. L. Couve de Murville (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 526.

xviiHebrews 11:1.

xviii“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Arthur Cleveland Coxe (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 378

xixGalatians 6:9.

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About Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. 52 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.


  1. What heroic devotion displayed by these Chinese Catholic bishops, priests and people…in the face of brutal persecution. They swell the ranks of Catholic witnesses and martyrs.

  2. I learned so much in this article. Thank you. The current situation, since the Vatican decision on government approved bishops is of concern. We must pray for the Chinese Catholics.

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  1. {bits & pieces} ~ Like Mother Like Daughter

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