Qing China and Relations With Europe

China's interactions with Europeans and other Westerners in the centuries prior to the Qing dynasty were sporadic. In the last decades of the Ming dynasty, Jesuit missionaries had made considerable inroads with the ruling elite. After the Qing dynasty wrested power from the Ming, the Jesuits continued to play a prominent role in the newly established imperial court. Their influence can be measured to some extent by Kangxi's edict officially permitting the practice of Christianity in China (1.6). Soon, merchants and envoys began to arrive from European countries seeking to formalize ties with China. One of the most famous of these diplomatic efforts was the Macartney Embassy of 1793. Although the embassy did not obtain many of the goals desired by Lord George Macartney, it did mark the beginning of increased contact between China and the West (1.7,1.8,1.9).

Kangxi’s Edict of Toleration (March 20, 1692)

The notion that China remained hostile to outside influences prior to the nineteenth century is a common one. However, the Qing court often welcomed foreign visitors and actively pursued non-Chinese knowledge. Jesuit missionaries arrived in China several decades prior to the founding of the Qing and remained well into the mid-Qing era, serving at the highest levels of the Qing court. The Jesuits' introduction of Western technology and manufacturing would later temper the court's "astonishment" over gifts presented by European embassies. The Jesuit presence and deft explanation of Christianity helped it be tolerated by Kangxi.


  • 1. What value does Kangxi see in allowing Christianity to be practiced?
  • 2. Does Kangxi's characterization seem to view Christianity as different than Chinese religions?

Following the emperor's instructions, a group of ministers met to discuss and report [on the status of Christianity in China]: Admiring our civilization, the Europeans (xiyang ren) sailed several tens of thousands li to come [to China]. Currently they oversee the calibration of the calendar. In times of war, they have manufactured weapons and cannons. When we sent a mission to Russia they joined the delegation, proving their allegiance [to China] and their support produced considerable achievements. The Europeans living in the provinces have perpetrated no evil behaviors, nor fomented any unrest. They have not deceptively enticed the common people with heretical ideas. Since we allow people to pray and burn incense in Tibetan, Buddhist and Daoist temples, and since the Europeans have violated no laws, it seems unreasonable to prohibit their religion.

We should order that Catholic churches throughout the empire be preserved as before. All believers should be permitted to carry out their religious practices as usual. With your Majesty's approval and order, this pronouncement is to be sent to Zhili and every province.

[Dated] 3rd day of the 2nd month of 31st year of the Kangxi reign [March 20,1692]

Open Letter From Kangxi to Pope Clement XI (October 31, 1716)

In the decades after Kangxi's edict of toleration, there continued to be a controversy within the Catholic Church over the worship of ancestors by Chinese Christians. Pope Clement XI ended the debate in 1704 when he forbade all worship of Chinese gods or ancestors and would excommunicate any Christian (or priest) who failed to obey. When a papal delegation presented the pope's decision to Kangxi in 1706, the emperor remained unmoved, demanding that all Chinese, of any religion, be allowed to practice Chinese rituals. Over the next decade, the emperor had dispatched several Jesuit priests back to Rome to explicate and clarify the emperor's position. Finally, in 1715, the emperor received Clement XI's papal bull, unambiguously declaring "No Chinese Catholics are allowed to worship ancestors in their familial temples." Angered and hinting that he would only recognize documents sent via China's appointed envoys (often Jesuit priests), he had the following letter printed in red ink, written in three languages (Chinese, Latin, and Manchu), and signed by 16 Jesuit priests working in the Chinese imperial court.


QIANLONG (1711-1799)—The fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty. He officially abdicated in the 60th year of his reign in order to not surpass the 61-year reign of his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor, though he retained de facto power until his death in 1799. Under his reign, Qing armies enlarged the empire to its greatest territorial scope, Qing scholars compiled the 36,000-volume Four Treasuries, and the emperor's artisans greatly expanded the Yuanming Yuan.

  • 1. What attitudes toward Christianity, Rome, and the West does the emperor's open letter signal?
  • 2. How do you think such a letter might have been received by the pope and other Europeans?

In accordance with his imperial emperor's desires, we the imperially appointed staff of the Imperial Wuyingdian Printing Press and Bindery, Yi Duli, Wang Daohua and Zhao Chang et al., respectfully order those people who have come from the West to follow the emperor's orders:

In the 45th year of the Kangxi reign [1706], the Westerners (xiyang ren) Long Anguo [Antonio de Barros], Bo Xianshi [Antoine de Beauvol- lier], were appointed as imperial envoys. In the 47th year of the Kangxi reign [1708], the Westerners Ai Ruose [Giuseppe Provana] and Lu Ruose [Jose Raimundo de Arxo] were also appointed as imperial envoys. All received imperial directives to travel to the West [Rome].

Despite the many passing years, there has been no written communication from them; although other letters, not easily identified as authentic or counterfeit, were received. Consequently, another letter was sent by Russians which hopefully arrived [in Rome].

As we cannot be certain of any news until the envoys that we sent return, and if they fail to return, we have no clear evidence nor can have any confidence in the true meaning of the other missives we receive.

Thus, concerned that our letters were not received, we have written this open letter that includes a translation written in “western letters" [Latin]. Copies of the open letter were printed and delivered to the Governor of Guangdong so that it can be shared with those Westerners travelling back and be widely distributed.

[Dated] 17th day of the 9th month of the 55th year of Kangxi reign [October 31,1716]

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