In 1577, the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci left Italy on a mission to bring the Christian faith to Ming dynasty China. He was neither the first Christian, nor the first Catholic, to arrive in the Middle Kingdom. But his arrival marked the beginnings of a Jesuit presence that would survive erratically in China for nearly four centuries.
Flashbacks: "The Cross and the Star"
Articles from The Atlantic's archives illuminate the history of China's complex relationship with Christianity.
Everything changed in 1949 when the Communists came to power. Western religion—along with all else foreign—was unwelcome welcome in the PRC. Although Pope Pius XII had established an official independent hierarchy for China’s Church back in 1946 (making the China Jesuit Mission null and void), European bishops still retained control over more than 80 percent of the country’s dioceses. In 1951, the Communist Party expelled all missionaries and severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Chinese priests tried to convince the Communist government that the country’s Catholic Church could operate independently, but by 1955, Chinese Catholics had become targets as well, and over the course of two weeks that fall, more than 1,200 Catholic priests, nuns, and laypeople were arrested and detained.
Among those rounded up was Jin Luxian, a Shanghai-born Jesuit who had left his studies in Rome to return to China after the Communists took power. Jin spent the following 27 years under various forms of incarceration, during which time China (and the Catholic Church) underwent myriad changes. When Jin finally emerged a free man in 1982, he found himself in a society that bore little resemblance to the one from which he’d been snatched nearly three decades prior. Catholicism in China was now regulated by a Communist government agency known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Under the CPA, worship was permitted, but only within strict, carefully monitored guidelines. Shanghai’s St. Ignatius Cathedral, where Jin had been ordained in 1945, now looked like a shadow of its former self; during the Cultural Revolution, in which all religion had been completely banned, the Cathedral had been stripped of its stained glass, steeples, altar, and converted into a grain warehouse. It was now functioning as a Catholic church again, but as Adam Minter describes in his July/August Atlantic profile of Bishop Jin, things nonetheless felt amiss:
Open prayers for the pope were strictly prohibited, and scant mention of the holy father could be found in any of the crudely printed books used in the cathedral. Mass was still in Latin, unintelligible to most Chinese. The current bishop had been ordained without approval from Rome, by a Communist government determined to erase the memory of Shanghai’s still-incarcerated bishop, Ignatius Kung (Gong) Pin-mei. Everything was under the direct control of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Meanwhile, an “underground” movement had been established, composed of Chinese Catholics who swore loyalty to the Vatican, refused to worship in government-registered churches, and remained loyal only to Chinese bishops who had been ordained by Rome. Worshipping in unregistered churches was strictly illegal, and those caught often faced severe punishment.