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Barrow: The Rites Controversy


Human suspicion of outisders is probably part of our primate heritage, and one might argue that it is one of our most useful tools of species survival. That said, few large nations have traditionally been as "closed" to outsiders as late Imperial China, and few as determined to penetrate the whole earth as Europeans in the age of discovery. European expansionism involved military conquest, trade and its monopoly, and the curious desire to convert the whole world to Christianity. (The third of these is perhaps the most difficult for most Americans to sympathize with today, when youths inclined to self-sacrifice and/or adventure head overseas to teach broken English rather than to save souls.)

A famous chapter in the history of relations between China and Europe therefore involves the arrival of foreign missionaries in China. Indian missionaries had brought Buddhism centuries earlier. But European missionaries, unlike Buddhist and Muslim ones, came backed by large-scale trading companies and aggressive navies.

Among the earliest modern missionaries to China, Jesuits were more politely received than they anticipated, and worked hard to make themselves welcome. In the end, the envious mechanations of other Catholic orders resulted in their expulsion. This fascinating and instructive story has been told hundreds of times, by various lights and with various sympathies. The following account, written slightly over two centuries ago, is remarkable for its brevity and clarity.

John Barrow (1764-1848) was one of the Earl of Macartney’s suite on his famous and unsuccessful journey (1792-1794) representing the British king to the Chinese emperor. The chronicle of the project was famously and officially told by Sir George Staunton, the secretary to the mission. But Barrow felt inclined to produce his own, less formal account, although a careful and insightful one, which he published in London in 1804. The following extract is from the American edition, published the following year in Phaladelphia.

In this extract, he very concisely presents to English readers the history of external missionary efforts in China, seeking to balance his conflicted feelings about the complex motivations of the missionaries with his feelings about reactions of the Chinese government to them.

For this presentation I have divided the text into shorter paragraphs and have added numbered subtitles and a few explanatory notes. I have also modified the punctuation where the original text seemed slightly misleading two centuries later. One footnote occurring within the extract has been moved into the text.


(1804) 1805 Travels in China. Philadelphia: W.F. McLaughlin. Pp. 296-303.

The Rites Controversy

By John Barrow

Page Outline

  1. Earliest Christians in China
  2. Muslims
  3. Catholics
  4. Missions and Money
  5. Competing Catholics & the “Rites Controversy”
  6. The Moral of the Story

1. Earliest Christians in China

In some part of the seventh century, a few Christians, of the Nestorian sect, passed from India into China, where, for a time, they were tolerated by the government. But, having most probably presumed upon its indulgence and endeavoured to seduce the people from the established religions of the country, they were exposed to dreadful persecutions, and were at length entirely extirpated, after numberless instances of their suffering martyrdom for the opinions they had undertaken to propagate to the “utmost corners of the earth.”

When Gengis-Khan invaded China in the beginning of the thirteenth century, a number of Christians, of the Greek church, followed his army into this country: and they met with such great encouragement from the Tartars [= Mongols, the rulers during the Yuán dynasty], that when Kublai Khan succeeded to the government, and built the city of Pekin [Běijīng 北京], he gave them a grant of ground, within the walls of the city, for the purpose of building a church, in order to retain in the empire men of so much learning and of abilities so much superior to those of the Chinese; who, however, on their part, have affected, in their history, to consider the Monguls as the greatest barbarians for turning their horses into the apartments of the palaces, while they themselves were contented to pitch their tents in the courts or quadrangular spaces surrounded by the buildings.

Father Le Compte, in his memoirs of China, says (but I know not on what authority) that, at the taking of the city of Nankin [Nánjīng 南京], the Tartars put all the Chinese women in sacks without regard to age or rank, and sold them to the highest bidder; and that such [a bidder] as, in thus “buying the pig in the poke,” happened to purchase an old, ugly, or deformed bargain, made no ceremony in throwing it into the river. If Father Le Compte was not the inventor of this, among many other of his pleasant stories, it certainly tells as little in favour of the Chinese, who must have been the purchasers, as of the Tartars; but we will charitably suppose the thing never happened.

It seems, however, that the overthrow of the [fragmented] Chinese empire, by the Mongul Tartars [and the founding of the Yuán dynasty], was an event not to be regretted by the nation at large. By means of the learned and scientific men, who accompanied the expedition from Balk [Balkh, in modern Afghanistan] and Samarcand [Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan], astronomy was improved, their calendar was corrected, instruments for making celestial observations were introduced, and the direct communication between the two extremities of the empire was opened [through a large system of canals made] by converting the streams of rivers into an artificial bed, forming an inland navigation [system] not to be paralleled in any other part of the world.

It was about this period when the celebrated Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, visited the Tartar Khan, then sitting on the throne of China; and who, on his return, gave the first accounts of this extraordinary empire; which appeared, indeed, so wonderful, that they were generally considered as his own inventions. His relations of the magnificent and splendid palaces of the emperor, of his immense wealth, of the extent of his empire, and the vast multitudes of people, were held to be so many fabrications; and as in speaking of these subjects he seldom made use of a lower term than millions, his countrymen bestowed upon him the epithet of Signor Millione — Mr. Million.

They had no hesitation, however, in giving credit to the only incredible part of his narrative, where he relates a few miracles that were performed, in the course of his journey through Persia, by some Nestorian Christians.

Young Marco is said to have accompanied three missionaries of the Dominican order, sent from Venice to the capital of China, at the express desire of Kublai Khan. Whether they met with little encouragement in the object of their mission on account of being preceded by the Christians of the Greek church, or [whether] their zeal at that time was less ardent than in later days, is not stated, but it seems they did not remain long in the East, returning very soon to their native country, much enriched by their travels.

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2. Muslims

During the continuance of the Tartar [=Yuán] government, which was not quite a century, great numbers of Mahomedans likewise found their way from Arabia to China. These people had long, indeed, been in the habit of carrying on a commercial intercourse with the Chinese, which, however, as at the present day, extended no further than the seaports on the southern coast. They now found no difficulty in getting access to the capital, where they rendered themselves particularly useful in adjusting the chronology of the nation, and making the necessary calculations for the yearly calendar.

Having acquired the language, and adopted the dress and manners of the people, by degrees they turned their thoughts to the extending of their religious principles, and bringing the whole country to embrace the doctrine of their great prophet. For this end, they bought and educated, at their own expense, such children of poor people as were likely to be [deliberately killed by being] exposed in times of famine; and they employed persons to pick up, in the streets of the capital, any infants that should be thrown out in the course of the night, and who were not too much weakened or otherwise injured to be recovered.

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3. Catholics

About the middle of the sixteenth century, several Roman Catholic missionaries, of the order of Jesus [= Jesuits], penetrated into the East; and the indefatigable zeal of one of these, Francis Xavier [1506-1552], carried him as far as San-Shian [Shàngchuān Dǎo 上川岛], a small island on the coast of [Guǎngdōng 广东 Province in] China, where he died in the year 1552 in consequence of the uncommon fatigues he had undergone. His brother missionaries have calculated that he travelled, on foot, not less than one hundred thousand English miles; a great part of which was over mountains, deserts, forests and burning sands.

Since a more easy communication with India and China has been effected [around southern Africa] by the way of the Cape of Good Hope, numbers of missionaries of the Catholic religion have volunteered their services into those countries; and although the sole object of their mission is the propagation of the Christian faith, they find it necessary, in order to forward that object, to make themselves useful to the government. In China, they are occasionally employed as astronomers, mathematicians, mechanics, and interpreters.

Observes Sir George Staunton:

It must have appeared a singular spectacle to every class of beholders, to see men actuated by motives different from those of most human actions, quitting forever their country and their connexions, to devote themselves for life to the purposes of changing the tenets of a people they had never seen; and in pursuing that object to run every risk, suffer every persecution, and sacrifice every comfort; insinuating themselves —by address, by talent, by perseverance, by humility, by application to studies foreign from their original education, or by the cutivation of arts to which they had not been bred —into notice and protection; overcoming the prejudices of being strangers in a country where most strangers were prohibited, and where it was a crime to have abandoned the tombs of their ancestors; and gaining, at length, establishments necessary for the propagation of their faith, without turning their influence to any personal advantage.

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4. Missions and Money

Most of those, however, who were established in Pekin, to the spiritual consolation of having laboured in the vineyard of the gospel not altogether in vain (for they do sometimes gain a proselyte) add the substantial satisfaction of not having neglected their wordily concerns. Besides the emoluments arising from their several communities, they have shops and houses in the capital, which they rent to Chinese. They have also their country villas and estates, where they cultivate the vine and other fruits, and make their own wine. The revenues of the two Portuguese seminaries are stated to amount to twelve thousand ounces of silver, or four thousand pounds a year. The mission, De Propaganda Fide, is poor. The French Jesuits were once rich; but their property was dissipated on the dissolution of their society [after the French Revolution]. The French missions étrangères drew on their superiors at Paris before the revolution; but since that event, are reduced to a most deplorable situation. And it seemed to me, from what I could perceive at [Běijīng’s “Old Summer Palace” at] Yuen-min-yuen [Yuánmíng Yuán 圆明园], that they were not much disposed to assist one another.

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5. Competing Catholics & the “Rites Controversy”

Each nation had its separate interest; and they were not willing to lose any opportunity of calumniating their fellow-labourers. The French and Italians were the most moderate and liberal; the Portuguese the most inveterate. The missionaries of this nation appeared to be inspired with a jealousy and hatred, more than theological against the rest. It is said, indeed, that their rich possessions, and the high situations they unworthily hold in the board of mathematics, render them jealous of all other Europeans; and they use every means of excluding them from the country.

From the frequent dissensions, indeed, among the different orders, and their perpetual broils, originated the persecutions which they and their proselytes suffered in China. The most violent of these disputes was carried on between the Jesuits and the Dominicans.

  1. The Jesuits endeavoured to assimilate their doctrines and their opinions to those of the Chinese, at least as far as they conscientiously could venture to do, in conformity to the nature of their mission; by which means, together with their apparently disinterested conduct, they soon collected a numerous set of followers, half Christians and half Pagans.
  2. Unluckily for the cause of Christianity, a different sect of the same religion, but with principles more austere and of course less tolerant of others that deviated from their own, speedily followed the Jesuits into the East. The Dominicans, meeting with some of the half-Christianized converts, soon gave them to understand that nothing less than eternal damnation would be the lot of all such as did not forsake their ancient superstitions and idolatrous practices: and especially that of sacrificing to their deceased relations in the hall of ancestors.
  3. The Franciscans having joined the Dominicans, they represented to the pope [Clement XI, 1700-1721] the abominable practices of the Jesuits, who had persuaded the Chinese they were come among them for the sole purpose of restoring their ancient religion to its original purity, as delivered by their great philosopher Confucius.
  4. The pope, upon this, sent over a bull [= a papal order], interdicting all the missionaries in China from admitting any extraneous ceremonies or idolatrous worship, to be blended with those of the holy Catholic church.
  5. The Jesuits, however, by their superior talents having made themselves useful at court, and [having] obtained the notice and [limited] protection of Caung-Shee [Kāngxī 康熙 1662-1722], the ruling monarch, and the greatest, perhaps, that ever filled the throne of China, treated this bull with contempt, and continued to make converts in their own way. They even obtained from the emperor a sum of money, and a grant of land, towards building a church in Pekin. And they further managed their affairs so well as to procure, from the succeeding pope [Innocent XIII, 1721-1724] a dispensation in favour of their mode of proceeding to convert the Chinese to Christianity.
  6. The Dominicans and Franciscans, piqued beyond measure at the success of the Jesuits, represented them to the pope, in the strongest terms, as the greatest enemies to the Christian faith.
  7. The Jesuits, in their turn, transmitted to Rome a manifesto, signed by the emperor himself, attesting that the ceremonies of homage to the dead, retained by the Chinese Christians, were not of a religious but a civil nature, agreeably to the long-established laws of the empire, which could not, on any consideration, be dispensed with.

In short, their disputes and quarrels ran so high, and proceeded to such lengths, and bulls and ambassadors were sent from Rome with such imperious and threatening commands for the Chinese Christians to desist from all ceremonies that were not warranted by the catholic church, that the emperor began to think it was high time to interpose his authority, and to interdict the Christian religion from being preached at all in his dominions. And his son and successor Yung-chin [Yōngzhèng 雍正, 1723-1735] commenced his reign with violent persecutions against the missionaries. He ordered many of them immediately out of the empire; others were thrown into prison, where they lingered. out a miserable life; and some were put to death by the bow-string. Those few, who were found necessary to assist in the astronomical part of the calendar, he allowed to remain in the capital.

In the year 1785, Kien Long [Qiánlóng 乾隆, 1736-1795] liberated, by a public edict, twelve missionaries out of prison, who, being detected in privately seducing the Chinese from the religion and customs of the country, had been condemned to perpetual imprisonment. This edict, of which I procured a copy in Pekin, does great honour to the humane and benevolent mind of the emperor. After stating their crime, apprehension, and trial, he observes,

Had they made known their arrival to the officers of government, they might have proceeded to the capital and found protection. But as transgressors of the law, which forbids the entrance of strangers, they have stolen into the country, and secretly endeavoured to multiply converts to their way of thinking, it became my duty to oppose a conduct so deceitful, and to put a stop to the progress of seduction, Justly as they were found to deserve the punishment to which they have been condemned, touched, nevertheless, with compassion for their imprudence, it was not without injury to my feelings that I ratified the sentence. Bur recollection afterwards that they were strangers — strangers perhaps ignorant of the laws of my empire, my compassion increased for them, and humanity suffers on account of their long confinement. I will and command, therefore, that these twelve strangers be set at liberty.

Notwithstanding the persecutions that, in every reign, have been violently carried against them by officers of government in the several provinces, numbers of new missionaries have continued, from time to time, to steal into the country.

6. The Moral of the Story

The Jesuits had but one obstacle to overcome, the law that directed offerings to be made to deceased relations, and by giving way to this, which they were inclined to do, had they not been thwarted by the more rigorous Dominicans, they might have converted the whole nation, and Christianity would have become, in all probability, the prevailing religion instead of that introduced from India [Buddhism]. …

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