In A.D. 635, the church in Western Europe was just settling into the feudal Middle Ages, and in Eastern Europe, Christianity was flourishing in the midst of the great Byzantine era. Further east, the Nestorian Church, based in Syria and Persia, was looking to China. That year it sent missionaries to walk via the silk trade route to China's northwest to spread the faith. The first missionaries to China, then, were considered heretical.

Since the 400s, Nestorians had been theological castoffs because they believed Jesus' nature consisted of two persons (rather than one person with two natures). After being condemned at the Council of Chalcedon (451), Nestorians moved east. They retained their missionary zeal and sent representatives to evangelize Arabia and India.

In China, the Nestorian bishop, Alopen, was welcomed to Chang-An (now Xi'an) by the reigning emperor, T'ang T'ai Tsung. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Chinese capital, the emperor granted the newcomers space in the imperial library to translate. He himself studied the faith and gave orders for its propagation. Within a few decades, the Nestorian faith gained thousands of converts in several major cities, though its greatest growth may have been among foreigners trading in China.

Two centuries later, though, Emperor Wu Tsung began a severe persecution, and soon the Nestorian church lost its foothold in China proper (though not on the northern frontier).

Khubilai Khan's curiosity

In the late 1200s, Khubilai Khan, Mongol ruler of China, met representatives of Roman Catholicism: Marco Polo and his uncles. Khubilai Khan was so intrigued, he sent the uncles back to Rome with an invitation for the pope to send 100 "teachers of science and religion" who would try to prove "that the faith professed by Christians is superior to and founded on more evident truth than any other." Twenty years passed before John of Monte Corvino, a Franciscan, was sent. He was warmly received by Khubilai Khan's successor, and within a short time, he baptized 6,000 Chinese, established churches in several cities, and translated the New Testament and Psalms into the language of the court.

Unfortunately, high-ranking Nestorians, who had meanwhile re-established their church in China, hindered the work of John by accusing him of false beliefs and several crimes. Only by dint of perseverance was he able to carry on. By the time the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty was replaced by the Ming dynasty in 1368, there may have been as many as 100,000 Roman Catholic Christians.

But with the coming of the Ming dynasty, all Christians in China were subject to a fresh wave of political repression that lasted over a century. Again the church was decimated, so that by the late 1500s, there were, as far as we know, no Christian churches left.

Scholarly evangelism

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits), with Matteo Ricci as its chief representative, entered China in 1583 from its base in the Portuguese colony of Macao. The strategy of Ricci and his colleagues was to identify with the Chinese elite, who would in turn, they felt, influence the rest of China.

The Jesuits dressed like Confucian scholars—the top of the social hierarchy. They avoided any criticism of Confucius, the patron saint of the scholars, and observed all appropriate amenities when visiting the literati.

They prepared maps, practiced astronomy, constructed and repaired clocks they gave to the emperor, and they wrote treatises that explained Christianity in terms of a Confucian world view. The missionaries needed to be deliberately ostentatious about their learning to convince the Chinese of their expertise in European learning, so they would emboss their European books with gold covers.

The Jesuits viewed much of their work as pre-evangelistic, and they were not forthright, at least in their initial contacts, in presenting the full truth of the gospel. Nonetheless, by the beginning of the 18th century, the Christian church in China numbered 200,000 members, including scholars, urban dwellers, and rural peasants.

Soon after the Jesuits entered China, though, members of the Franciscan and Dominican orders followed, and they had some sharp criticisms of the Jesuit approach.

Most Jesuits, for example, viewed the homage Chinese paid to their ancestors as civil deference, not religious worship. Jesuits were willing to describe Confucius in semi-sacred terms, such as "holy," and they used ancient terms for God that could be vague. For example one word for God was also the word for heaven.

Franciscans and Dominicans, and even some Jesuits, thought all this amounted to a compromise of the faith. The conservatives insisted on less ambiguous, more exalted names for God ("Lord of Heaven")—even though they would sound unusual to the Chinese. Most controversial of all, they rejected Chinese ancestor rites as idolatry.

The differences among the missionaries, between them and the Vatican, and between the emperors and the Vatican over these issues resulted in the "rites controversy." This lasted from the early 1600s until 1724, when the emperor, alarmed at the invective and activity of the anti-Jesuit factions, proscribed the Christian faith in China.

The pope sided with the conservatives and demanded obedience from the Jesuits. Their repeated attempts to sidestep his ruling became one reason the Jesuit order worldwide was disbanded in 1773.

For the rest of the 1700s and early 1800s, Catholics in China went through alternating periods of persecution and toleration. Catholic missionaries courageously flaunted the law forbidding evangelism, and many were imprisoned, expelled, or martyred.

Ralph Covell is professor of world missions at Denver Seminary in Colorado. He is author of Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ: A History of the Gospel in Chinese (Orbis, 1986).