Christian Missionaries in China

Christianity came to China not once but on several occasions.

The first was during the Tang dynasty in AD 635, when missionaries from the Church of the East (the Persian branch, cut off from the main church due to political tension between the Roman and Persian empires) came to China via the overland route. This church is normally referred to as 'Nestorian' as it follows the doctrines of Bishop Nestorius, declared heretical in AD 431. Nestorianism flourished for a while in China but did not outlast the Tang dynasty owing to the adoption of anti-religious measures in AD 845. Meanwhile, the religion had been transmitted to peripheral areas such as Mongolia.

The second time Christianity came to China was during the Yuan or Mongol dynasty (1271-1368), when the Franciscans were commissioned by the Pope in 1294 to carry out missionary activities in China. At the same time, the Nestorian church also returned to China with the Mongol invaders. Rather confusingly, the Chinese used the same name for both versions of the faith, making it difficult to gain a completely clear picture of the situation at the time. At any rate, this second infusion of Christianity failed to survive the end of the Yuan dynasty.

The third wave came at the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when Jesuit missionaries found their way to Beijing (Peking) via Guangzhou (Canton). The most famous of these was Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), an Italian mathematician who came to China in 1588 and settled in Beijing in 1600. Ricci was welcomed at the imperial court and introduced Western learning into China. The Jesuits followed a remarkable and successful policy of accommodation to the traditional Chinese practice of ancestor worship, but this approach was eventually condemned by the Pope at the prompting of the Jesuits' enemies. Later Catholic missions failed to enjoy the same success.

Further waves of missionaries came to China in the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty (1644-1911) as a result of contact with foreign powers. Russian Orthodoxy was introduced in 1715 and Protestant churches began entering China in 1807. The pace of missionary activity stepped up considerably after the First Opium War in 1842. Christian missionaries and their schools, under the protection of the Western powers, went on to play a major role in the Westernisation of China in the 19th and 20th centuries.


For more information on 'Nestorianism', see The Nestorian Pages, which contains links to a large number of sites on Nestorianism, including sites with detailed references to Nestorianism in China. A history of the church in China can be found at the Catholic Encyclopedia and at this site.

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