03/19/2023, 12.44
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Christianity and women in Matteo Ricci's China

In the Jesuit magazine, "La Civiltà Cattolica," Fr. Federico Lombardi retraces a little-known aspect of the early Jesuits' mission in China: the baptisms and hidden apostolate of women in a society where social control over them was tight. And of one of them - Candida, granddaughter of Xu Guangqi - he recounts her apostolate and reputation for holiness.

Rome (AsiaNews) - The rediscovery of the missionary style of Matteo Ricci and other European Jesuits in the Ming court between the 16th and 17th centuries is a theme that has long returned to prominence in discussions on Christianity in China. Even Pope Francis has often pointed to it as a model for the meeting of dialogue and evangelization.

There is one aspect, however, that remains little known about this chapter of Church history in Asia: the way in which - in the shadow of the literati, in a society in which they generally enjoyed very little space - even some Chinese women were able to receive baptism and become missionaries themselves through their witness.

Their stories are the focus of an article by Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, former director of the Vatican Press Office, published in the new issue of the magazine "La Civiltà Cattolica" and written on the basis of the writings Jesuit missionaries in China left behind about their work.

It was by no means a foregone conclusion that Christianity would also reach women. In fact, as Fr. Lombardi recalls, "in Chinese society women had to lead an extremely withdrawn life and under very strict control of their parents, husbands and family members. Therefore the direct relationship of missionaries with them was practically impossible, indeed to be avoided, so as not to arouse rejection and suspicion. Especially since the Jesuits soon abandoned the clothes and lifestyle of the bonzes to assume that of the literati, and while the women of the people frequented the bonzes, the social control over women in the educated classes was most rigid."

As early as 1589, when in their first residence in China in Zhaoqing Fr. Ruggieri and Fr. Ricci had accomplished no more than 70-80 baptisms, there is mention of the presence in that very small community of "some honored matrons, who give great credit and sustain Christianity in the houses."

But it was probably around 1601, Fr. Lombardi notes, "that a real turning point took place, welcoming the desire of the neophytes that their wives also be baptized. It was in particular Fr. Nicolò Longobardo, active in Shaozhou, who pleaded the cause, obtaining Matteo Ricci's assent."

This did not erase the practical difficulties, but the Jesuits found that grace worked going beyond all obstacles. The funds of the time recount what happened with a Mandarin who had decided to be baptized: "His mother and grandmother overtook him, preceding him in baptism, while he at the same time acted as her catechumen and catechist. After they had heard the Doctrine, he went and reported everything to them; and so slowly they catechized very well. They were baptized on St. Anne's Day, in the presence of two of their sons. Father gave them the necessary instruction and questions and found them very well catechized. Their mother was named Mary and their grandmother Anna."

Fr. Lombardi adds that sources report how these baptized Christian women "loved to gather also with other women of lower social status, even peasants, who had also become Christians, treating them 'as sisters,' and this was an occasion of 'great wonder.'"  

At one point in time, women would also take on an important role in the spread of Christianity in the Beijing court: it happened when during the reign of the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen, the German Jesuit Adam Schall von Bell managed to enter into a relationship with the eunuch Wang, a man of rare wisdom and virtue, who converted to Christianity and was baptized with the name Joseph. Through him the Christian faith spread among the ladies of the court, whom he catechized and eventually baptized, following Fr. Schall's instructions.

By 1640 these Christian ladies of the court had grown to as many as 50 and were being guided spiritually by the Jesuit in writing through Joseph himself, the only one who could have contact with them. In 1644, however, would come the end of the Ming dynasty, which was defeated by the Qing; at that point, this community, too, dispersed as the women returned to their families.

It was not only a hidden contribution, however, that of women to the spread of Christianity in China. And among them, Fr. Lombardi notes, there were some who, "thanks to favorable family and social conditions, became true pillars of a dynamic Church."

The best-known name is that of Candida, one of the daughters of James, himself the only son of Xu Guangqi, the best-known and most influential disciple and friend of Fr. Matteo Ricci, who became a Christian in 1603. Her story was told in Europe as early as 1688 by Fr. Philippe Couplet, her spiritual father, in a book entitled "History of a Chinese Christian Lady."

Growing up in Sungkiang (Songjang, today a district of the Shanghai metropolis), Candida was given in marriage to a wealthy and influential man who was pagan but respectful of her Christian faith. However, she was widowed at the age of 30 after bearing him eight children. It was precisely this condition-along with her choice not to remarry because she "desired only to be God's" - that enabled her over the next 40 years to live a very active life serving the Christian community.

While not neglecting the obligations of her family, Candida was a master at making embroidery on silk fabrics, which she made with her sisters, daughters and maids, and thanks to which she collected no small sums, which, wrote Fr. Couplet, "she secretly employed, according to the counsel of the Gospel, to help missionaries, the poor, to build churches and chapels and everything necessary for pious exercises of the new Christians."

Thus she did not draw on family property, which was to be the inheritance for her children, but on the fruits of personal labor, which she kept in free and proud conscience to devote to charity.

Between 1647 and 1665 Fr. Francesco Brancati, a Palermo Jesuit and a great apostle of the Christian community in Shanghai, built as many as 90 churches and 45 oratories. A work to which Candida collaborated with offerings, sacred furnishings and other initiatives. But his apostolate was truly all-around, with special attention to women.

Fr. Lombardi writes, "She helped missionaries understand that to convert women, who cannot go to church, they must write piety books in Chinese. Which the Jesuits actually do, while Candida goes out of her way to distribute and give them to all the women she can reach. She also insists that there be a church specifically dedicated to women, where at designated times they can go together to attend the celebration of the Eucharist, without the presence of any man other than the priest and an altar boy, and where the priest can preach, although facing the altar and not the women faithful present."

"If her great grandfather, Xu Guangqi, had demonstrated in deeds that the Christian faith could inspire the commitment of a whole life dedicated to science, wisdom and the service of his country, up to the highest degrees of responsibility," Fr. Lombardi further observes, "his granddaughter Candida demonstrated that the Christian faith could animate the commitment and responsibility of a Chinese woman to the point of serving as a model and inspiration for all her countrymen."

Candida died in 1680. According to the custom of the time, she had a silver cross coined with her profession of faith: "I believe, hope, love the Lord of Heaven, a God in three persons, leaning on the sacred merits of Jesus. I firmly believe and fervently hope for the forgiveness of my sins, the resurrection of my body and eternal life." Fr. Lombardi writes that Fr. Couplet, in concluding Candida's biography, noted, "All the people of the city of Sungkiang regarded this woman as a saint." He adds, "So do we."

Pictured: Candida as portrayed in the biography deedicated to her by Fr. Couplet in 1688


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