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Notes on History of Christianity in China

Updated on August 22, 2012
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Matteo RicciThe Younger Brother of JesusVirgin Mary and Jesus in Chinese costumes
Matteo Ricci
Matteo Ricci
The Younger Brother of Jesus
The Younger Brother of Jesus
Virgin Mary and Jesus in Chinese costumes
Virgin Mary and Jesus in Chinese costumes

The father of the Church of China

The founders of the Romish church in China were three Italian Jesuits , who were sent by their order towards the end of the sixteenth century. Two of them, Paso and Roger, were shortly recalled to Rome, Matthew Ricci was the only one remaining, and he was given the title , by his order, of father and founder of the church of China.

He learned Chinese Languages and customs from Literati, and Buddhist Priests whom he called Bonzees. He wrote some books in recommendation of Christian faith, which were eagerly read. He lived, wrote, conversed, and dressed like a Chinese philosopher and scholar.

He signified to Chinese people that he preached the same Tian (Heaven) or Shang-Di (Supreme God), and the same moral system that was proposed by the great philosopher Cong-fu-zu or Confucius.

The Lord of Heaven

The Chinese word Tian means material sky, or Heaven, or the Infinite Spirit, who dwells in heaven, and governs the universe; while the Chinese word Shang-Di means supreme God. As an chief object of worships, Tian and Shang-di means same thing.

Does Chinese regard this Tian as intelligent Being, Lord and Creator of heaven, earth, and all things? Is it not likely that our vows and homage were addressed to the visible and material heavens, or, at least, to a celestial energy void of understanding, inseparable from the identical matter of which they are composed?

To answer these question, we need some knowledge of Chinese language and history.

In China, the subjects of a King were not allowed to address him by name; instead we use indirect references such as “Under the Steps to the Throne” (bixia) or “Superior One” (shang). Bixia actually means the servants who are waiting at the Steps to the Throne. The second, Shang, has same meaning as His Majesty; In the same way, Chinese address a prince as “under the court”, which refers to the servants in the prince palace. Generally, it's a custom to address a person by where he most frequently resides, the celebrated Tang poet Su Shi, his courtesy name is Dongpo, “Eastern Slope”, a residence he built while an exile in Hainan Province.

Tian is where the Supreme God's residence, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” But Chinese don't address God by His name, and He has no name. In this respect, Tian or Heaven and Shang Di are the same. We simply refer the God by where he lives.

These two Chinese word Tian and Shang-di caused great confusion and disputes, even result the death of a Bishop who were prisoned and allegedly poisoned by Jesuits in Macau. In 1704, Pope Clement XI, issued his bull, forbidding, “That the two Chinese words, Tian and Shang-di should any longer be applied to God, but instead of them the Tian-zhu, which signifies lord of Heaven, should be introduced.”

According to myth, heaven and earth were created by Pan Gu, and human were created by Nü Wa. Pan Gu seems to be a male, and Nü Wa female. Shang Di seems to be an intelligent Being, but not a manual labourer, who is not directly involved with the Creation of heaven, earth, and all things. He is the One, who produced two, and two produced three, and three produced all things.

The Emperor was called the Son of Heaven of True Dragon. Japanese Christians complained that Japanese King still regards himself as the Son of Heaven. "This is not right," says Japanese priest, "Jesus is the Son of God, how can the Japanese King be Son of God?"

In ancient China, the Emperor, at certain times such as at Equinox in the spring and autumn, offers a sacrifice to Tian or Shang-Di, the spirits presiding over the mountains, rivers, forests, and other parts of the earth, and in some duties necessary to the welfare of the public.

Ancestral Worship

Every family in China is bound at certain times to assemble in a hall, which is called the Ancestral Hall or the Hall of the Fathers and Forefathers, and there to pay tribute to their ancestors, whose names are written on little tablet or registers hung up in the hall. They prostrate themselves before these Memorial tablets, kill beasts, burn gilt paper in honour of their fathers, and promise themselves, that heaven will reward these marks of love and respect: towards those, from whom they are descended.

Much the same tribute of respect is paid by all the Literati to the great teacher of the empire, Confucius.

Ricci believed that the veneration of ancestors and of the great philosopher Confucius were not superstitious or idolatrous. The Jesuit permits the Chinese Christians to hang up in their houses tables with the names of their ancestors inscribed, and to burn incense, light candles and place meats before the ancestral tablets, and to prostrate themselves before the tablets of their forefathers; permits all such ceremonial honours to the deceased, to burn incense and lights at funerals; permits the tributes paid to Confucius by Literati.

But other orders, such as Dominican, and Franciscan, declared that the Chinese words Tian, and Chang-Ti were improper to denote the true Christian God, since they signify no more than the visible heaven. And the rites performed in the Ancestral Hall, at funerals, or before Confucius were superstition and idolatry.

Reincarnation, Resurrection, and Filial Piety

Chinese society was founded upon the mutual relation of parents and children, which is filial piety from the teachings of Confucius. Ancestral worship is the extension to the filial piety. Elders, seniors, extended families and particularly parents are to be respected, heeded and looked after. Respects continue after their deaths. Why is this so important? We may find the answer from other religions.

Christians believe resurrection, which refers to the literal coming back to life of the dead. It is used with respect to particular individuals or a General Resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. While Buddhist believes reincarnation, that the soul or spirit, after the death of the body, return to live in a new human body, or, in some traditions, either as a human being, animal or plant. But Filial piety is based upon genes (DNA or RNA), which is a molecular unit of heredity of a living organism, and holds information to to build and maintain life and passes genetic traits to offspring, both biologically and spiritually by self-replicating.

We don’t see actual resurrection of any individuals after death so far except for biblical records of the resurrection of Jesus, neither have we proof for reincarnation of human soul which returns to live into another individual, either a human, an animal or plant, except for Dalai Lama. But we can see, touch, and calculate human genes passing through one individual to its offspring.

Filial piety is the first virtue of in Confucius ideals. The reason has been kept in dark for centuries until the development of modern genetic science.

Localized Christianity and Cult

Some Chinese drew images of Virgin Marry and Jesus as Chinese, and clad on Chinese costumes.

In 19th-century Chinese religious prophet and revolutionary, called Hong Xiuquan, who claimed himself the younger brother of Jesus or the second son of God, coming down from heaven into this world, for the purpose of destroying fiends and impostors in the shape of Manchu-Tatars. In 1850, he began the great movement of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (Tae Ping Theen Kuo), his declared himself Heavenly King (Tae Ping Wang), others Heavenly Brothers and Sisters.

Tai Ping Wang promises the punishment of hell or the joys of heaven to his adherents. coming down from heaven into this world, for the purpose of destroying fiends and impostors in the shape of Manchu-Tatars

One of the publications of Tae Ping Wang was an imitation of the popular school-book San Tsze King, or 'Triliteral Classic,' a primer in lines of three letters. In this book, he starts with the creation of the heaven and earth:

1 Sovereign Shang-Te (Supreme Ruler)

2 made mountains, seas, and all things, complete.

3 Within six days he made and finished the whole ; and man who rules-over creation, obtained light and glory ;

5 but the seventh day was set apart for worship, in-acknowledgment-of heaven's favour.

Then he gives a history of the people of God (Israelite) and of the redemption of the world through Christ, and draws a parallel between that and the history of China:

75 As to the middle-kingdom (China) at the beginning, Te looked-with-favour upon it,

76 together-with foreign nations, all walking the same-way.

77 From-the-time-of Pwan-koo to-the Three generations,

78 they reverenced Shang-Te according to clear accounts in books.

And then he claims that he comes down from heaven into this world as God's second son:

109 In the Ting- yew year (1837) he was received up-into heaven,

110 where the things and business of heaven were clearly set before him.

111 Sovereign Shang-Te himself taught and directed him ;

115 He commanded him together-with his eldest-brother, who is Yay-soo (Jesus);

116 to expel impish devils, assisted-by spiritual messengers (angels).

117 One looked-on with red eyes namely, Yen-Lo (Satan) ;

The serpent-devil became Yen-Lo who was the ruler of the underworld, Tae Ping Wang together with Jesus fought with the devil, and cut the imp into pieces. Then he went up to the heaven again.

Shang Te has Heavenly Queen, she is most gracious and loving, and in Heaven, Elder brother Jesus also has a wife who is virtuous and exceedingly considerate


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