Hidden History

The Rite Stuff8 min read

How a Christian missionary fell foul of the Chinese Emperor – Jeremiah Jenne


Every expat living in China has bad China days, but surely none of them could compare to that of French missionary Charles Maigrot, when arguably the most powerful emperor in Chinese history openly mocked his bad Chinese in front of the entire court.

Charles Maigrot (1655-1730) was a 20-year veteran of missionary work in China on behalf of the Missions Etrangères de Paris. In the summer of 1706, Maigrot traveled to Chengde, the vacation home of the Kangxi Emperor, at the invitation of the Vatican’s new representative in China, Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon, also a Frenchman. It was Maigrot’s unfortunate assignment to assist Tournon in relaying a Papal decree, which set the emperor straight over just who had the final say when it came to China’s growing number of Christian converts. This meeting would set up the ultimate cosmological steel-cage match: the Son of Heaven vs. the Supreme Pontiff.

Tournon had just arrived in China, and needed somebody to help him navigate the language and court protocol. So he turned to Maigrot. Maigrot was not the most gifted linguist, or even the best informed Catholic missionary stationed in China, but he was theologically sympathetic to the Vatican’s position that Catholic converts who continued to perform rituals honoring Confucius or their ancestors compromised their Christianity.

Ever since the days of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), most European Jesuits in China maintained that such ritual ceremonies of ancestor worship were secular. But other Catholic missionaries, especially Dominicans and Franciscans, who arrived in China in greater numbers in the 17th century, considered these rites to be idolatry. Maigrot had emerged as an especially vocal partisan against the rites. In his position as Vicar Apostolic for Fujian Province, in 1693 he forbade Catholics from participating in rituals at ancestral halls or Confucian temples, or from taking part in local festivals, which often celebrated local deities or shrines. Maigrot even ordered churches in his province to remove steles with the phrase “Respect Heaven” (Jing tian 敬天) engraved in the Emperor’s calligraphy.

The Kangxi Emperor with a Jesuit astronomer, Adam Schall (Wikimedia Commons)

Maigrot’s attitude puzzled the court. Just a year before his crusade began in Fujian, the Kangxi Emperor had issued an edict of toleration for Christianity. Many missionaries – again, mostly Jesuits – worked at court as astronomers, cartographers, engineers and artists. A few even enjoyed the ear of the Emperor on important matters. (Not everyone at court was happy about this: an underemployed Chinese court astronomer named Yang Guangxian raised an almighty stink, which led to the Jesuits at court being thrown in prison and threatened with execution. The then 13-year-old Kangxi Emperor solved the dispute by making two teams, led by Yang and his Jesuit competitors, solve a set of astronomy problems, with the losing team to be beheaded. The Jesuits won, but prevailed on the young emperor to show their opponents mercy.)

“It was the ultimate cosmological steel-cage match: the Son of Heaven vs. the Supreme Pontiff”

The Kangxi Emperor’s proclamation, and general tolerance of Christianity, caused many Catholic missionaries at the time to gush that their dream of a Christian China was soon to be realized. It was clear that the Emperor wasn’t fundamentally opposed to their religion, so long as Chinese converts were allowed to participate in ancestor worship and public rituals to Confucius. This was the Emperor’s red line, which missionaries also derived from the earlier writings of Matteo Ricci, and it was still supported by Ricci’s spiritual successors at court. The idea of religious exclusivity also might have turned off many of the early converts, who had adapted their Christianity into a web of belief which continued to draw from many traditions.

In a letter submitted to the Kangxi Emperor in 1700, translated by historian Daniel Bays in his book A New History of Christianity in China, three prominent Jesuits serving in Beijing wrote:

We believe that paying worship to Confucius as a model is not for the purpose of asking for bliss or gain. To set stele for ancestors is for the purpose of commemorating them by offspring.

They felt, as Ricci did, that these were civic rituals and not sacred ones. It’s not entirely clear that the Emperor saw it in quite the same way:

What they said in the letter was good in accordance with major principles. Paying worship to Heaven, ancestors, and Confucius is the true principle which cannot be changed.

Missionaries like Maigrot, and an increasing number of clergy back in Europe, including Pope Clement XI, thought this bit of spiritual sleight of hand on the part of Ricci and the Jesuits was nothing short of sacrilege. Something had to give.

Charles Maigrot’s order that Confucian rites were forbidden for Chinese Christians (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1704, the Pope convened a commission of cardinals, which recommended against the Jesuit interpretation of the rites. The Pope issued a Papal Decree against the rites and sent his envoy, Tournon, to China to make sure that everybody – converts, missionaries, Jesuits and the Emperor – understood that Catholics in China were forbidden from participating in rituals venerating Confucius and their ancestors.

Not wanting to rely on the theologically compromised Jesuits at court, Tournon employed Maigrot as his Man in China. It would not be the last time negotiations with a Chinese leader were based on ideology rather than experience, nor the last time a China-based consultant overpromised and underdelivered on his connections and communication skills. Tournon should have known the situation could go sideways when Maigrot had to ask one of the Jesuits at court to translate for him when he met with the Emperor. (To be fair, Maigrot had spent over two decades in Fujian and was reasonably conversant in Fujianese, but had little experience with the language used in the north at court.) The audience got off to a terrible start when he began by lecturing the Kangxi Emperor on the nature of Confucianism and Confucian ritual.

The Emperor, at first amused but increasingly less so, asked Maigrot to cite which Chinese classics supported Maigrot’s interpretation of the rituals. It soon became clear that Maigrot had not done his reading and knew little about the Chinese classics. Under intense questioning, he also admitted that he hadn’t even read Matteo Ricci’s original writings on the same subject. At this point, the Kangxi Emperor asked Maigrot to read various inscriptions around the throne room. When Maigrot was unable to recognize more than a couple of characters, the Emperor threw the lot of them out on their ecclesiastical asses. Ultimately, he expelled Maigrot from China and issued a decree of his own: any missionaries who wanted to stay in China must be certified by the court, and had to correctly answer a set of questions confirming they agreed with the imperial position on rituals.

Charles Maigrot (bdcconline.net)

Tournon, who was even more of a zealot on the issue than Maigrot but whose lack of language skills allowed him to avoid embarrassing himself at court, managed to stay in China. He soon ran afoul of the Kangxi Emperor’s wrath, however, when he ordered – on pain of excommunication – all Catholic missionaries to respond to the questions required for certification according to a set of answers drafted by him. The Emperor bounced Tournon down to Macau, where Tournon died under house arrest.

When the news from China trickled back to Europe, it only served to harden the Vatican line. Subsequent Papal decrees proved exceptionally unhelpful in getting the Emperor to change his mind. Finally, in 1721, towards the very end of his reign, the Kangxi Emperor issued a response to the papal decrees with an edict of his own: “I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.”

“It was not the last time a China-based consultant underdelivered on his communication skills”

Kangxi’s proscription of Christian missionaries was strictly enforced by his son and successor, the Yongzheng Emperor. Yongzheng, a paranoid doom freak convinced the world was a cesspool of sedition and subversion, declared Christianity a heterodox religion (xiejiao 邪教) in 1724. The remaining missionaries in the provinces were forced out of China or into hiding. A handful of Jesuits were retained in the capital to continue their service to the court. Christianity would remain an illegal religion – although enforcement varied in different times and regions – for over a century, until gunboats forced the court to reconsider in the 19th century during the Opium Wars, in which legalizing Christianity was one of the penalties exacted on China after its defeat.

Following his expulsion from China, Charles Maigrot threw away his flashcards and returned to Europe, where he worked as a special assistant at the Vatican until his death two decades later. May his story be a lesson to any of us tempted to overstate our Chinese ability. ∎


Header image: Confucius, Philosopher of the Chinese, or, Chinese Knowledge Explained in Latin, compiled by Jesuit priests in China and printed in 1687 (Wikimedia Commons).