American Jesuits and the China Mission: The Woodstock Letters, 1900–1969

  • Mark DeStephano


The Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the “Jesuits,” is widely recognized for its long and accomplished history in the Celestial Empire. Boasting the largest number of missionaries in the Roman Catholic Church, practically since the order’s founding in 1540, it was also the first Catholic order to establish itself permanently in China (Macau, 1562). Although interrupted by the Suppression of the Society throughout the world in 1773,1 it was reconstituted as the “New Society” in 1814 and quickly returned to its former ministries scattered throughout the world. By 1841, French Jesuits had returned to China, followed by the Irish in 1926, and, for the first time, in 1928, by Americans from the California Province.2 Collaboration between the Jesuits and the Chinese people was extensive and productive from the beginnings of the mission until the early years of the 1950s, when the Jesuits were temporarily compelled to move their operations out of mainland China to Hong Kong and the Philippines. The fruits of this cooperation have received much scholarly attention.


Chinese People Catholic Priest Missionary Effort Ordination Class Civil Upset 
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  1. 1.
    With the rising power of the “Enlightened Despots” of the emerging nation-states of Eu rope — especia l ly Por t ug a l, France, and Spa i n—Jesu its, who were in f luentia l, powerful, and wealthy, were seen as competitors by nation-building ministers, especially those of the Bourbon courts. Under the threat of their nations leaving the Church, Pope Clement XIV was forced to issue the bull Dominus ac Redemptor in 1773, suppressing the Society of Jesus throughout the world. As a result, all Jesuit foundations were confiscated, as were the Order’s considerable assets and properties. For further reading, see Giulio Cesare Cordara, SJ, On the Suppression of the Society of Jesus: A Contemporary Account (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    Arnold H. Rowbotham observes that the Jesuits used the Western sciences to befriend the Chinese and did not rush to try to convert them: “In spite of opposition, however, the Jesuits continued to work, using their talents for tact and diplomacy with the Chinese officials who came to visit them, even though at times they were sorely tried by the latter’s embarrassing curiosity. To such an extent did they adopt this practice of discretion that they refrained at first from mentioning the subject of religion. As a result of these tactics, their house became increasingly popular … They displayed the treasures of their small European library — tomes on astronomy, cosmography, and other learned subjects, beautifully printed and exquisitely bound — to men who all their lives had lived under the influence of books. From the first the Jesuits realized the value and influence of the printed page; the picture, the engraving, the map, and the textbook were throughout the history of the mission a powerful aid to propaganda.” Arnold H. Rowbotham, Missionary and Mandarin: The Jesuits at the Court of China (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966), p. 56.Google Scholar
  3. See also the fine study by Nicolas Standaert, SJ, “Jesuit Corporate Culture as Shaped by the Chinese,” in The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540–1773, ed. John W. O’Malley, SJ, et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), p. 353. American Protestant missionaries also made use of their scientific knowledge to gain the attention and respect of potential Chinese converts.Google Scholar
  4. See Luo Weihong, Christianity in China, trans. Zhu Chengming (Beijing: China Intercontinental, 2004), pp. 21–23.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    The Emperor Qianlong’s famous response to Lord McCartney’s envoy from King George III of England in 1793 is emblematic of the Chinese reaction to foreign overtures through the centuries. Christopher Hibbert provides a fine summary of the polite but complete rebuff by the Emperor (including words from the Emperor’s edict): “Sending the envoys to ‘kowtow and to present congratulations and also to present the local products’ was recognized as a demonstration of sincerity, humility and of loyalty to one who ruled all the countries ‘within the four seas’ (that is to say who ruled the world); but how could the King of England expect the regulations of the Celestial Empire to be altered ‘because of the request of one man?’ It was right and proper that men of the Western Ocean should ‘look up with admiration to the Empire and desire to study its culture’; but the request for a subject of England—a man whose speech would not be understood and whose dress would be different in style—to reside there to look after trade did not ‘conform to the Empire’s ceremonial system and definitely [could] not be done … Hence we have issued these detailed instructions’, the reproval concluded, ‘and have commanded your tribute envoys to return safely home. You, O King, should simply act in conformity with our wishes by strengthening your loyalty and swearing perpetual obedience so as to ensure that your country may share the blessings of peace’.” Christopher Hibbert, The Dragon Wakes: China and the West, 1793–1911 (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1988), pp. 52–53.Google Scholar
  6. See also the section of the journal of Lord Macartney, which recounts the “Embassy to China, 1792–1794.” Helen Henrietta Macartney Robbins (1908), Our First Ambassador to China: An Account of the Life of George, Earl of Macartney (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 244–412.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Ricci worked tirelessly to prove that the ancient Chinese practices of honoring the dead were not inimical to Roman Catholic doctrine, and that the Chinese conception of “the Lord of Heaven” was equivalent to the Western understanding of God. The Chinese Rites Controversy was a dispute between the Jesuits, who accepted the consonance between Chinese and Roman Catholic beliefs, and the Franciscans and Dominicans, who argued that the Chinese practices were idolatrous. The Holy See intervened in the sixteenth century, rejecting the Jesuit position. Never fully concluded, the controversy continued into the late twentieth century, and spurred the work of the American Jesuit theologian Edward Malatesta, SJ, who sought to settle the theological dispute definitively. For further reading, see Malatesta’s edition of Ricci’s The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (T’ien-chu Shih-i), trans. Douglas Lancashire and Peter Hu Kuo-chen, SJ (Saint Louis, MO: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1985). A thorough study of the Chinese Rites Controversy in its historical context may be found in George Minamiki, SJ, The Chinese Rites Controversy from Its Beginning to Modern Times (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    Andrew C. Ross, “Alessandro Valignano: The Jesuits and Culture in the East,” in The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540–1773, ed. John W. O’Malley et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), pp. 336–351.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    Ibid., p. 343. Even the Jesuits’ arch-enemy, René Fülöp-Miller, recognized that “Valignani,” as he calls him, had set the Jesuit missionaries on a path to immediate success: “Barreto and Goes had only an imperfect command of the Chinese language, but the Jesuits who arrived later had already learnt to speak Chinese fluently, and were able to discuss the most learned matters with the officials, for Father Valignani, who was responsible for the general organization of the East Asiatic mission, had organized a regular ‘siege’ of China, and taken comprehensive steps to ensure that the missionaries should, on their arrival in China, possess all the necessary knowledge. In the college at Macau, they now learned all the niceties of speech among the better-class Chinese as well as the dialect of the simple people; they studied the difficult hieroglyphic writings, and acquired from a variety of books an extensive knowledge of the history, the customs, the laws and the literature of China.” René Fülöp-Miller, The Power and Secret of the Jesuits, trans. F. S. Flint and D. F. Tait (New York: Viking Press, 1930), p. 236.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    Jean-Paul Wiest, Maryknoll in China (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), pp. 9–10.Google Scholar
  11. 39.
    Wiest, Maryknoll in China, p. 15. Cardinal Gibbons had become the face of American Catholicism, so much so that Pope Leo XIII considered him something of a modern-day savior of the Church: “Our daily experience obliges Us to confess that We have found your people, through your influence, endowed with a perfect docility of mind and alacrity of disposition. Therefore, while the changes and the tendencies of nearly all nations which were Catholic for many centuries give cause for sorrow, the state of your churches, in this flourishing youthfulness, cheers Our heart and fills it with delight,” as quoted in Charles R. Morris, American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 112.Google Scholar
  12. 41.
    Recent studies have shown the extent to which Chinese wars and internal conflicts in the first half of the twentieth century fostered the dissolution of the social fabric of society. See Diana Lary, The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937–1945 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010) andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. James Flath and Norman Smith, eds., Beyond Suffering: Recounting War in Modern China (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011).Google Scholar

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© Cindy Yik-yi Chu 2014

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  • Mark DeStephano

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