Christianity has had a presence in China since the Tang Dynasty, including a significant influential Jesuit network, as well as Protestant missionaries, many of whom were Scottish. Yet, despite the long history, surviving Chinese Christian religious artefacts are extremely rare.
During Passion Week and Eastertide, we explore this complex and at times violent history as well as the legacy that survived in the shape of decorative objects as well as Chinese liturgical music.
“Novissima Sinica,” a work written by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz in 1697, is so aptly named, translating as “Latest New From China”—a title that could easily apply to the revelations this article presents.
— Adrien von Ferscht
Matteo Ricci, who came to Macau in 1578 and moved to China when he’d mastered the language, compiled the first Western Chinese dictionary and drew the first western-style map of China. The Jesuits were quick to appreciate how Western and Chinese music might connect. The clavichord, for example, sounds a lot like the Chinese guqing, the pipa like a lute.
While religious items of Chinese Export Silver are relatively rare, they certainly do exist for the Muslim and Jewish faiths, both of which were minority religions that had relevancy to China, with items with Hindu decorative imagery obviously existing in larger numbers. Christian religious objects, though, are even more of a rarity and one can only marvel at how strange this actually is, given Christianity had a presence in China since the Tang Dynasty and much of the Chinese Export Silver that was manufactured was made specifically for Christian countries.
The first wave of Christianity came to China in 635 A.D., when Nestorian Christians—a Christian sect from Sassania—were fleeing not just their homeland but the Sassanian Empire as a whole because of the increasing tension between the Roman and the Sassanian Empires; a tension that would finally lead to the downfall of the Sassanian Empire shortly afterwards in 651 A.D. Other “waves” were to follow during the Yuan Dynasty, but the largest and most influential occurred during the Ming Dynasty, when Jesuit missionaries who arrived in Peking and settled. The Jesuits applied an unusually accommodating approach to their missionary work; one that incorporated recognition of the Chinese practice of ancestor worship and one that would eventually come to be strongly disapproved of by Rome.
Matteo Ricci, who came to Macau in 1578 and moved to China when he’d mastered the language, compiled the first Western Chinese dictionary and drew the first western-style map of China. Besides literature, Ricci studied music and astronomy. The Jesuits were quick to appreciate how Western and Chinese music might connect. The clavichord, for example, sounds a lot like the Chinese guqing, the pipa like a lute. At least three Jesuit priests composed music in the Chinese style, adapting the Catholic mass to Chinese aesthetics. Jesuits who were in China at this period tended to embrace Chinese life completely, dressing in the Chinese style and speaking the language. Ricci, as with many Jesuits who came, had a connection with the early Portuguese China Trade and retained that link, possibly because it was of benefit to both the Jesuits and the Portuguese East India Company.
Ricci was the first to translate the Chinese classic texts into a Western language (Latin), and the first to translate the name of the most prominent Chinese philosopher, Kong Fuzi, as Confucius. And, along with another Jesuit father, he was the first European to enter the Forbidden City of Beijing during the reign of the Wanli Emperor. Ricci and his baptized Chinese colleague—the mathematician, astronomer, and agronomist Xu Guangqi (1562–1633)—were the first to translate the ancient Greek mathematical treatise of Euclid’s Elements into Chinese in 1607.
Matteo Ricci and his baptized Chinese colleague, the mathematician, astronomer, and agronomist Xu Guangqi, are depicted in this engraving. Together, they were the first to translate the ancient Greek mathematical treatise of Euclid’s Elements into Chinese in 1607.
It is because of this continued presence of Jesuits in China were small, with very few, if any, located in the interior and Beijing itself, these Westerners were permitted to enter. Much of what we know of China in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was originally communicated to the outside world through these men.
Knowledge of Chinese porcelain, for example, filtered out to the West courtesy of the Jesuits. A description of the manufacture of porcelain in 1713 by a French Jesuit priest, Father D’Entrecolles, a Jesuit missionary resident in Peking, relates the firing of blue and white porcelain: “A beautiful blue color appears on the porcelain after having been lost for some time. When the color is first painted on, it is pale black; when it is dry and the glaze has been put on it, it disappears entirely and the porcelain seems quite white, the color being buried under the glaze. But the fire makes it appear in all its beauty, almost in the same way as the natural heat of the sun makes the most beautiful butterflies, with all their tints, come out of their eggs.”
One would naturally assume this painting of the Emperor K’aing-hsi was by a Chinese artist, but nothing could be further from the truth; this is a painting by the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione, who came to China in 1715, where he was then to live at the court of three successive Emperors in Beijing.
During the reign of Emperor K’aing-hsi (1661-1722), the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione was given the honor of being made the First Painter which was repeated with the following Emperor Chien-lung. Castiglione, who came to China in 1715, was allowed to live at the court of three successive Emperors in Beijing.
The Jesuit communication with the “outside world” created some interesting Sino-esque philosophical writing by Europeans. A treatise by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, written in 1697, titled “Novissima Sinica” (“Latest News From China”), a neo-Confucian theory of pre-established harmony. It was created almost entirely from dialogue with Jesuits in China.
This treatise by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz written in 1697, titled “Novissima Sinica” (“Latest News From China”), is a neo-Confucian theory of pre-established harmony, created almost entirely from dialogue with Jesuits in China.
With a firmly rooted presence in China—both physically and trying not to be at odds with “the three teachings” of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, the harmonious aggregate—it is puzzling why evidence of Chinese Christian imagery and objects is so rare.
This 19th-century Chinese Export Silver chalice is not only rare as being a definitively Christian object, but it is rare inasmuch as it is in the true high Victorian gothic style. In this respect it is probably unique. Created for Khecheong—one of the most notable 19th century retail silversmiths in Canton—it could easily be mistaken for a pure Pugin design and certainly worthy of being in an English cathedral.
This is not only rare as being a definitively Christian object, but it is rare inasmuch as it is in the true high Victorian gothic style. In this respect it is probably unique. Created for Khecheong—one of the most notable 19th century retail silversmiths in Canton—it could easily be mistaken for a pure Pugin design and certainly worthy of being in an English cathedral.
Luckily, we know the provenance a Chinese Export Silver chalice, created for Khecheong, one of the most notable 19th century retail silversmiths in Canton, as it carries the engraved inscription: “To Basil Scott from his Grandfather JS, 1867.” The bowl of the chalice takes the form of an octagonal font shape, each panel decorated with entwined and architectural Gothic arch motifs with trailing foliage against a matted ground. A pendant apron of frosted acanthus leaves surmounts a simulated basket weave bulbous border decorated with leaves. The tapered stem and base is chased and applied with leaves edged with a further border of high relief trailing vine tendrils.
Basil Scott eventually grew up to become the Chief Justice of Bombay in 1908.
Writing this at Eastertide, I would dearly liked to have discovered a Chinese Christian object, notably in Chinese Export Silver, that was connected to Easter, but none of my extensive research has ever unearthed such an object. The best I can do under such duress is this exotic and rather sumptuous ostrich egg that has been mounted in an elaborate silver bamboo cage.
Created for Hoaching—another notable retail silversmith in Canton in the 19th century—this ostrich egg mounted in an elaborate silver bamboo cage is probably as unusual and unique as the previous Khecheong chalice and bordering on being as excessive as a Fabergé egg might be, albeit minus the gemstones.
Created for Hoaching, another notable retail silversmith in Canton in the 19th century, this object is probably as unusual and unique as the Khecheong chalice and bordering on being as excessive as a Fabergé egg might be, albeit minus the gemstones. The open cage supporting the egg has obviously taken its inspiration from Chinese Export Silver goblets and there are several elements that are signature Hoaching detailing.
Was this egg seat made specifically for Easter? Sadly, we can never know. But the existence of an ostrich egg in China, although not unique, is probably linked in some way to one of the many Chinese immigrants who went to Africa and Australia in the 19th century, some of whom did return to China towards the end of the 19th century, having made their fortune and were ready to create businesses in China. Similarly, there have certainly been precedents of coconuts used in Chinese Export Silver items.
The delicate bamboo stems and fronds of the Hoaching “pagoda” tazza (left) and the use of the traditional Chinese decorative motif of exposed bamboo roots upon a mound seen in the Hoaching goblet (right) have been clearly incorporated into the ostrich egg piece.
This Cutshing coconut and silver goblet, circa 1830, is a superb example of employing exotic material in Chinese Export Silver. The Gothic chalice displays no recognizable Chinese design and, in fact it, could easily be an example of Elizabethan English exotica.
Given the protracted history of a relatively entrenched Christian presence in China, it is really remarkable how few Christian ritual objects of each era of that history remain. Certainly, as each era came to a close, violence often accompanied the final closing of the doors. It is certainly true of the Boxer Rebellion at the end of the 19th century, which had a pointedly anti-Christian and anti-foreign, imperialism-driven cause. This rebellion was particularly violent and is it highly likely a large amount of valuable Chinese Christian art and artefacts were destroyed, along with lives lost, given that the final sieges were centered upon Beijing, as well as a number of treaty ports where there were significant Western communities.
During the Boxer Rebellion as a whole, a total of 136 Protestant missionaries and 53 children were killed, along with 47 Catholic priests and nuns. Thirty thousand Chinese Catholics, 2,000 Chinese Protestants and 200 to 400 of the 700 Russian Orthodox Christians in Beijing were estimated to have been killed. Collectively, the Protestant dead were called the China Martyrs of 1900. The Boxers went on to murder Christians across 26 prefectures.
This icon was only commissioned in 1990 but it depicts the Holy Chinese Martyrs of the Chinese Orthodox Church, who were canonized before 1917.
During the mid-19th century, a 14-year rebellion took place in China that was tantamount to widespread civil war. The Taiping Rebellion was waged against the ruling Manchu Qing Dynasty because of widespread malcontent fuelled by corruption, famine and poor economy. It was a highly unusual conflict; it also resulted in 20 million dead.
It was a millenarian movement led by Hong Xiuquan, who announced that he had received visions in which he learned that he was the younger brother of Jesus. Hong established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, with its capital at Nanjing. The Kingdom’s army controlled large parts of southern China, at its height ruling about 30 million people. The rebel agenda included social reforms, such as shared “property in common,” equality for women and the replacement of Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion with their form of Christianity. Because of their refusal to wear the queue, Taiping combatants were nicknamed “Longhairs.”
The seal of the Taiping Revolution during Ching Empire.
The Qing government eventually crushed the rebellion with the aid of French and British forces but not before the wanton destruction of a huge amount of historic ritual artifacts had taken place, not to mention more loss of life.
Protestantism and Catholicism both existed in China, albeit somewhat at odds with each other. Even so, the dearth of Christian ritual objects that survive is hard to believe.
This mid-19th century Chinese Export Silver thurible is incredibly rare, given that they must have existed in the hundreds, if not thousands, across China.
One of the most beautiful and particularly poignant in the context of Easter is a 19th-century Chinese Jesuit crucifix inlaid with mother of pearl on rosewood. The intricate inlay displays a plethora of Chinese decorative motifs that include intertwining grape clusters, peonies, prunus branches and lotus flowers above an image of the Passion of Christ. Extraordinary as this piece is, we know of at least two such crucifixes recorded; it is not recorded, however, where they were made in China.
One of the most beautiful and particularly poignant in the context of Easter is a 19th-century Chinese Jesuit crucifix inlaid with mother of pearl on rosewood. The intricate inlay displays a plethora of Chinese decorative motifs that include intertwining grape clusters, peonies, prunus branches and lotus flowers above an image of the Passion of Christ.
The Arma Christi (the Instruments of the Passion), adorned with peonies and floral scrolling and a Chinese vase at the very bottom.
The center of the cross has the Eucharistic Chalice, with the host radiating light, and a dove, contained in a crown of thorns above, and the Immaculate Heart of Holy Mary pierced by swords.
It was not uncommon for Jesuits to have run orphan schools for boys in China that tended to have a focus on teaching arts and crafts. Probably the most famous was the Jesuit-run T’ou Se We school in Shanghai, which is widely regarded as the spiritual home of the arts and crafts movement in China.
T’ou Se We came about as a result of Taiping troops attacking Shanghai, causing a large number of civilians to become destitute and homeless. Many orphans were displaced as a result of the war. To help mitigate the disaster ravaging the city, the Catholic Diocese of Shanghai bought Tushanwan (T’ou Se We in the Shanghainese dialect), bulldozed the mountain and began a massive construction project originally named the “Southern Orphanage.”
Their aim, in 1852, was to build a large-scale orphanage capable of accommodating the 400 displaced orphans from the Qingpu Hangtang orphanage and the Dongjiadu orphanage in Shanghai. The facility was named the Tushanwan Orphanage (T’ou Se We).
Acting on a foundation of Christian charity, Jesuit missionaries provided the orphans with clothing, food and education. They did all this to equip the orphans with the skills necessary to support themselves and flourish in society. The orphanage also became the place where Western culture, art and technology were introduced into China. Essentially, it was the confluence where Chinese and Western cultures could mix and integrate with each other. The Tushanwan Orphanage trained China’s first Western-style painters, sculptors, photo-mechanic professionals, printers, industrial artists and a large number of other skilled craftsmen. The orphanage was thus instrumental in the creation of modern Chinese culture and was a pioneer in the introduction of the arts and crafts movement that stayed a part of the ethos of the orphanage. Apart from stained glass, silver-making, copper beating, bronze statuary, printing and fine art, extraordinary examples of creative woodcarving and woodwork that included some significant pieces of furniture emanated from T’ou Se We. The school had its own foundry that made bells for churches in China, as well as around the world.
Given T’ou Se We was a Jesuit institution, particularly known for its elaborate woodwork. It is highly likely the inlaid crucifix may have been created there.
South Cathedral, known as the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, is the oldest Catholic Church in China. The current building, above, was constructed in 1904.
South Cathedral, known as the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, is the oldest Catholic Church in China. It was first built by Italian missionary Matteo Ricci during the reign of Emperor Wanli in the Ming Dynasty. It was rebuilt under the direction of Adam Schall. Schall, a Jesuit missionary and tutor to the Emperor Kang Xi, one of a series of missionaries who served in the Imperial Court. After being destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the time of Emperor Qianlong, the church was closed in 1827 by Emperor Dao Guang but saved from confiscation by the Portuguese Bishop of Beijing. The current building was constructed in 1904.
The Jesuits’ 16th-century strategy of serving the state as “foreign experts” bringing in new ideas and technology helped sustain political tolerance and was well-received by the social elite. It was a role played earlier by the Nestorians and later by the pioneer Protestants. Robert Morrison, a Scot, later became the first modern “China expert,” serving as interpreter and translator for both officials and traders alike. Every generation of missionaries and Chinese Christians also have wrestled with balancing evangelism with ministries of service. The Church was often affected by trends in international trade.
The key moments in Chinese history—the collapse of the Ming dynasty and later the Qing dynasty—were periods of openness to Christianity, as the elite sought to find a new social philosophy and ethics to suit new circumstances. This is happening again today, as the incumbent political system is gradually evolving. The legacy and history of Christianity in China is a long and rich one and, as everything that happens in China, so uniquely Chinese. It is sad that the tangible evidence of that legacy is thin on the ground as a result of the tumultuous nature of that history.
To listen to Amiot’s “Mass of the Jesuits in Peking,” click here.
• “Nestorius and His Teaching,” Cambridge University Press, 1908;
• “History of Eastern Christianity,” A. S. Atiya. Notre Dame University of North Dakota Press, 1968;
• “By Foot to China,” John M.L. Young, Japan Presbyterian Mission;
• “Christian Missionaries in China,” J. Breen;
• “Giuseppe Castiglione – A Painter at the Court of 3 Chinese Emperors,” Carolyn McDowell;
• “A Dance with the Dragon: The Vanished World of Peking’s Foreign Colony,” Julia Boyd, 2012;
• “The Origins of the Boxer Uprising,” Joseph W Esherick, University of California Press, 1987;
• “The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study,” Xiang, Lanxin, 2003;
• “The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1800–1914,” Robert A. Bickers;
• “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War,” Stephen R. Platt. 2012;
• “God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan,” Jonathan Spence, 1996;
• “The Legacy of Chinese Christianity and China’s Identity Crisis,” Dr. Carol Lee Hamrin, 2006.
Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions U.K.; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, U.S.A.; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Massachusetts; Global China Center, Virginia, U.S.A.; Bonhams, London
Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the Chinese Export Silver archive.
Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research, a Fellow for Arts & Culture at the Asia Scotland Institute and works with museums and universities around the world. He is a consultant for Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions and his ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. His new 250-page Third Edition of the “Collector’s Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940,” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions at email@example.com“> firstname.lastname@example.org.
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