Print Version    Email to Friend
The three great pillars of Chinese Catholicism

Chinese intellectuals were eager to hear from the priest-missionaries who came their way.
“A spiritual nature is God’s gift to man and it is the greatest gift of all… benevolence, righteousness, social etiquette and wisdom are all indeed of this nature. These things that God has given us are what we’ve had all along. The bible calls it morality and Confucius calls it conscience,” Yáng Tíngyún wrote in The Light Emitted by Heaven.
Christianity arrived in China through Nestorians in the sixth century from the Assyrian Church of the East.
A Nestorian monk from China, Rabban Barawma, met with the first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, in 1288.
The Franciscans are the first recorded Catholic missionaries to China, with Archbishop John of Montecorvino establishing a mission in Khanbaliq (Beijing) in 1294, during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.
He translated the New Testament and the psalms, and received several thousand people into the Church.
Jesuits began to arrive in the subsequent Ming Dynasty, bringing western science and mathematics. They made a thorough study of Chinese culture and were at pains to respect social mores, assuming local hairstyles, clothing and etiquette.
Chinese intellectuals appreciated this and were eager to learn from the missionaries. Chief among them were Xú Guangqi, from Shanghai, Li Zhizao and Yáng Tíngyún, from Hangzhou.
These men became known as the Three Great Pillars of Chinese Catholicism, literally “the Holy Religion’s Three Pillar-Stones”, a title derived from Galatians 2:9, where St. Paul referred to Ss. James, Peter and John as pillars.
Li Zhizao (1565 to 1630) was a government official. In 1610, he fell gravely ill in Beijing. With no family or friends to care for him, he almost died. However, Father Matteo Ricci met him and nursed him back to health at the Jesuit mission, which was established in 1601.
During Li’s convalescence, Father Ricci taught him western science, mathematics and Catholicism. Li was later baptised Leon and swore, “As long as I live, all that God has given me, I shall put to good use for him.”
Li gave Father Ricci 100 taels of gold to build a church in Beijing and brought the missionaries Father Lazzaro Cattaneo and Father Nicolas Trigault back with him to Hangzhou for his father’s funeral.
In 1625, Li published the Chinese text of the Nestorian Stele, a Tang Dynasty stele which details 150 years of Chinese Christian history. He also translated many works on science and mathematics.
Yáng Tíngyún (1557 to 1627) was the scion of a devout Buddhist family. Appointed to the post of inspector at the age of 35 after passing the Imperial Examinations, in 1600, he met Father Ricci and began working with the Jesuits on China’s first global atlas.
Yáng accompanied Li to his father’s funeral and saw that Li had discarded the Buddhist statues and images from his family home. Li had the missionaries celebrate the funeral, with the Chinese monk, Zhong Míngrén, explaining the rite to assembled relatives and friends.
Yáng was impressed by Li’s faith and left his concubine a month later, receiving the name of Michael in baptism. Yáng’s willingness to sacrifice status symbols, like his concubine, made a great impact on his family and friends; Yáng brought over 100 people to Christ.
He invited the Jesuits to use his estate as their base in Hangzhou and purchased land for the first church in his city, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Refugees from a 1616 persecution of Christians in Nanjing were moved there, after being housed in Yáng’s and Li’s homes.
Xú Guangqi (1562 to 1633) was also a devout Buddhist and public official, who met Father Ricci in 1600, after four years of studying Catholicism. Xú concluded that Christianity was not contrary to Confucianism, but contained what was lacking in it.
In 1603, Xú was baptised with the name of Paul and catechised his family. He invited Father Lazzaro Cattaneo to evangelise Shanghai.
Xú and Father Ricci translated classical western texts into Chinese—including part of Euclid’s Elements—and Chinese Confucian texts into Latin. Like Cicero, Xú was extremely interested in agriculture, experimenting with western-style irrigation systems and introducing the sweet potato to Songjiang and Shanghai.
During the May 1616 persecution in Nanjing, Xú wrote to the emperor, Wanli, following a petition from a civil servant, Shen Que, to expel missionaries.
Xú’s Petition on the Discernment of Real Knowledge was an eloquent defence, guaranteeing the missions with his own life. He referred to the collaboration between Chinese scholars and missionaries, stating, “This task is the result of putting into practice the divine commandment of love, but it is also a means of promoting prosperity and peace in the country.”
The emperor accepted Xú’s petition, but he spent the next nine years fighting Shen Que’s continued persecution of Catholics.
Xú went on to become the minister of rites, managing matters of culture, education and foreign affairs, and he was later appointed deputy senior grand secretary, equivalent to the current office of chief minister of China.
Another Jesuit missionary, Father Johann Adam Schall von Bell, accompanied Xú during his final illness and death. The tomb of Xú Guangqi is the centrepiece of Shanghai’s Guangqi Park, near St. Ignatius Cathedral.
The beatification causes of Paul Xú Guangqi and Father Matteo Ricci are underway, their holy friendship remaining an enduring testimony to their lives of profound faith.
Jean Elizabeth Seah

More from this section