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The Dialogue between Christianity and Chinese Folk Beliefs In the Ming-Qing Period

By Dr. Zhang Xianqing

A summary of the presentation made by Woodstock International Visiting Fellow Dr. Zhang Xianqing on April 15, 2004

In general, Chinese Folk Beliefs refer to those religious customs which are not officially recognized as formal religion in traditional China but have been the most popular in grassroots society. They are different from the so- called “three religions”¯, Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, but were however deeply influenced by these “three religions”¯. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, folk beliefs in China have flourished, and at the same period, Western missionaries such as Matteo Ricci S.J. (1552-1610) and Giulio Aleni S.J.(1582-1649) brought Catholicism into China and made it obtain a significant development. By an analysis of the Jesuits’ attitude toward folk beliefs, this essay aims to examine the interaction between Christianity and Chinese folk beliefs.

The flourishing of folk beliefs in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties

It is well- known that folk beliefs were a significant part of religious culture during the Ming and Qing dynasties. On the one hand, due to the increasing popularization of the orthodox religions of Buddhism and Daoism, traditional social rituals and customs were taking on a much more strongly pronounced religious character, which acted as a catalyst for the creation and deification of many folk characters. On the other hand, the setting up of family lineage culture among southern Chinese in the Ming and Qing also greatly nurtured and promulgated all kinds of lineage deities. In short, the progressive integration of orthodox religion and popular culture caused the folk belief systems to become more and more complex, while the special characteristics possessed by the Chinese folk beliefs of utility, polytheism, as well as their ability to commingle, became more pronounced.

Western missionaries who came to China in the late Ming had a profound knowledge of the thriving state of Chinese folk beliefs. For example, when the Jesuit father Matteo Ricci entered China at the end of the sixteenth century, he immediately was deeply impressed by the prosperity of folk beliefs: “The number of idols in evidence throughout the kingdom of China is simply incredible. Not only are they on exhibition in the temples, where a single temple might contain thousands of them, but in nearly every private dwelling. Idols are assigned a definite place in a private home, according to the custom of the locality. In public squares, in villages, on boats, and through the public buildings, this common abomination is the first thing to strike the attention of a spectator.”¯

Undoubtedly, what Ricci saw was one aspect of the sudden vigorous rise of Chinese folk culture in the late Ming dynasty; other missionaries who came to China before him also observed this phenomenon. For instance, in 1576, a Spanish Augustinian priest, Fr..MartĆ­n De Rada (1533-1578), who was sent as a missionary to Fujian, a province in southeastern China, was surprised to find the flourishing of folk beliefs among local society despite his brief stay: “So great was the number of idols which we saw everywhere we went that they were beyond count, for each house had its own idols besides the multitude which they have in temples and in special houses for them. In one temple at Hocchiu (Foochow) there were over a hundred idols of different kinds, some with six, eight, or more arms, others with three heads (which they say is prince of the devils), and others were black, red, and white, both men and women. There is not a house but had its little idols, and even in the hills and along the highways and byways, there is hardly a large rock which does not have idols carved thereon."

It can be said that the time when Matteo Ricci and other Jesuits came to China coincided with an important stage in the rapid development of Chinese folk beliefs. And this situation--- the vigorous growth of the folk beliefs in Chinese society---was a challenge to Catholic missionaries who came to China with the aim to preach Catholicism. Therefore how the Jesuits responded to Chinese folk beliefs became an interesting topic that deserves to be well explored.

Orthodox or Heterodox?

Many Jesuits offered their criticisms of Chinese folk beliefs when they worked in China during the late Ming and early Qing period, Giulio Aleni S.J. (1582-1649) and Joseph Marie Anne de Moyriac de Mailla, S.J. (1669-1748) can be seen as representative of Jesuit attitudes. Jesuits’ criticisms of Chinese folk religions are quite far-ranging, covering ancestral worship and the systems of common customs and deities such as the worship of Chenghuan (the God of Moats and Walls), the worship of Guanyu (the God of War), the worship of Wenchang (the God of Literature), and magical calculations, such as Fengshui (Geomancy), and the calculation of auspicious days. Their treatment of Chinese folk beliefs can be summarized in the following two aspects.

Firstly, the attitude of compromise and tolerance. For some Chinese folk beliefs, Jesuits emphasized their compatibility with Christian doctrine, and were much more ready to compromise and tolerate. A typical case is ancestral sacrifices. Sacrificing to one's ancestors is an important form of Chinese ancestral worship. The essence of ancestral sacrifices is an expression of the later generation’s feelings of love and respect for their ancestors, and gratitude to their ancestors for giving them life. Descendents should repay their feelings of gratitude to former generations through sacrifices, using this to educate their own living descendents, in order that in the real world, sons and grandsons should treat the older generations with filial piety and respect and obey the head of the household, thus safeguarding the harmony of the family, and even of the entire lineage. In short, they signified the Confucian principle of Xiao: the repayment of a great debt of gratitude, a striving for moral cultivation and filial piety, serving the dead as one would serve the living. However, it cannot be denied that these sacrificial activities generally also had a very strong element of folk religion, since later generations often regarded their ancestors as a kind of God, and people believed by making pious offering to their ancestors, they could gain protection from their ancestors’ spirits, bring down good luck and avoid disaster, and keep the family prosperous and flourishing. From this we can see that the folk belief of ancestral worship contains diverse elements since ancestral sacrifice is the core of Chinese traditional culture. Athough a handful of Jesuits like Niccolo Longobardi,S.J. (1565-1655) still considered that it contained elements of heresy, and that it should thus be prohibited, most of the Jesuits in China, like Matteo Ricci and Giulio Aleni, employed the tactics of compromise, and allowed Chinese converts to sacrifice to their ancestors in the belief that this was not religious in nature, but a reflection of the Confucian principle of filial piety, and also something compatible with the Ten Commandments which urged people to honor their father and mother. Although Matteo Ricci and Giulio Aleni did not label ancestral sacrifice as heretical, they categorically opposed some ancestral rites which were tinged with superstition, such as burning paper money. For example, in “On Sacrifice to Ancestors”¯, Giulio Aleni strongly criticized the custom of burning paper money, pointing out it deceived one's ancestors and did not represent a genuine filial piety, but rather a betrayal of the Confucian’ view of the way of filial piety:" treat the dead as though they were alive, treat the departed as though they were still present”¯. A similar viewpoint can also be found in Joseph Marie de Mailla’s book where he says: “heaven is the final arrangement of people, people should (convert to the Lord of Heaven) and choose the right way to Heaven,. . . .it is ridiculous to burn paper money.”¯

Secondly, the attitude of strong opposition. The "tolerant parts" of folk beliefs mentioned above only constituted a small portion folk beliefs as a whole, where the Jesuits in China described most of Chinese folk beliefs as heterodox religion and strongly opposed them. For example, with regard to the worship of some deities, such as Chenghuang (the God of Walls and Moats), Guanyu (the God of War), Wenchang (the God of Literature) and to some practices which fell into the category of magical predictions, such as Fengshui (geomancy) and the calculation of auspicious days, Jesuits took the pure Christian doctrine as their starting point and maintained that they should be classified as heretical and prohibited. Giulio Aleni once wrote papers, criticizing the folk beliefs of the worship of Chenghuang, Guanyu, Wenchang and other deities; Joseph Marie Anne de Moyriac de Mailla, with the help of Chinese Christians, also published a book named Shengshi chuyao, in this book, where he listed a number of folk beliefs as “heterodoxy”¯, these beliefs were very widespread in popular society, and embraced “secular deities”¯, “divination by casting lots”¯, ”¯selection of lucky and unlucky day”¯, ”¯physiognomy”¯ ,”¯fortune-telling”¯, ”¯geomancy”¯ and ”¯Buddhist abstinence”¯.

The main reason why Jesuits fought energetically against these folk beliefs is the fundamental conflict that existed between these folk beliefs and the tenets of the Christianity they preached. In Jesuit eyes, the common people enshrined and worshipped Chenghuang, Guanyu, Wenchang and other deities, or practiced Fengshui (geomancy), because they believed that in doing so, they could bring good fortune and avert illness, thus these folk beliefs had a very negative effect on the authority of God. For example, Giulio Aleni had criticized fengshui (geomancy), because he considered those who believed in geomancy, “wished to steal the power over good and bad fortunes in the world of mankind from the Creator, and. . . .Achieving success and winning recognition, is thus attributed to Fengshui, and not to the gifts of the Creator”¯, which was a grave error. As missionaries, they had to establish this attitude among the common people, “The difficulties and disasters that afflict the common people are all caused by the Creator, either in order to warn those who are not virtuous, to make them change their ways; or in order to temper the virtue of the good, to make them without flaw, forever to enjoy the good fortune of heaven. Their peace, ease, wealth and honor are also all used by the Creator in order to move men’s hearts, rewarding their virtue and encouraging them in the present, so that they may look up to God’s great goodness and steadfastly believe in it, not just in order to be rewarded after they are dead.”¯ In a word, it was God, and not the deities, the mountains or rivers, who had firm control over the fortune of the people of the world. Only in this way could the fairness of rewards and punishments be assured.

Western missionary or Western Confucian?

One interesting fact we find by studying the Jesuits’ criticism of Chinese folk beliefs is that when Jesuits criticized folk beliefs as heresy, they did not proceed from pure Catholic doctrine alone, using it simplistically to weigh/or judge whether something was orthodox or heterodox, but on the contrary, they also tried to seek support for their arguments from the Confucian Classics. Jesuits like Giulio Aleni and Joseph Marie de Mailla wanted to explain that their judgments of heresy on some folk beliefs, were due not only to the latter's fundamental conflict with Catholic doctrines, but also to the fact that they had diverged widely from the teaching of orthodox Confucianism. For example, when Jesuits opposed burning paper money and employing Buddhism/Daoism rituals for ancestral sacrifice, one of the main arguments was that some famous Confucians like Zhu Xi and Chen Que also prohibited people to do so. And as we know, from the 16th to 17th century, a group of orthodox Confucian scholars in China were promoting cultural reform with the aim of rebuilding a new social order based on pure Confucian rituals and doctrines. They strongly persuaded people to stop performing those folk beliefs which did not conform to Confucian rituals, such folk beliefs having arisen due to the commercialization and urbanization which began from the 13th century onwards, when popular culture and religion rose up in Chinese society and challenged the dominant position of Confucianism. Since Confucianism is the dominant teaching in China, people usually employed the standard of Confucianism to judge social activities: those which conformed to Confucianism may be seen as “orthodox“, those which did not would be labeled as “heterodox“. The Jesuits definitely knew this point very well and took every opportunity to seek proofs for their criticisms of folk beliefs from the ancient Chinese classics. They wanted to show that there were many similarities between Christianity and orthodox Confucianism, that orthodox Confucians opposed some folk religions and regarded them as heterodox sects or beliefs, in the same way, that Catholic priests also regarded them as heterodox, Thus people would logically conclude that Catholicism was an “orthodox”¯ religion, since it was compatible with some standards of Confucianism. In other words, Jesuits tried to "ally" Catholicism with Confucianism, and make it widely accepted by Ming-Qing Chinese society.

Actually, this was a very good demonstration of the strategy of so called “cultural accommodation”¯ by the Jesuits in late Ming and early Qing China, In that some times, they preferred to be seen as Confucian scholars from the West, rather than as Western missionaries, and tried to present Catholicism as morally persuasive as Confucianism, or Confucianized Christianity, because they knew very well this was the only way to root Catholicism in this “central kingdom”¯, such was the famous “Matteo Ricci’s rules”¯.


In short, during the late Ming and early Qing, quite a number of Jesuits had criticized Chinese folk beliefs after they entered China. Where their basic attitudes toward Chinese folk beliefs fell into two categories: tolerance or opposition, However, evidently the aspects which could be tolerated were far fewer than those which were to be prohibited, the main reason being that there existed essential divergences between folk beliefs and Catholicism. The pantheistic character of Chinese folk beliefs was contrary to the monotheistic principles of Catholicism and it was difficulty to find a compromise. It should be noted that this paper only offers a brief discussion of the relationship between Chinese folk beliefs and Catholicism in late Ming and early Qing dynasties. If we were to systematically collect and examine the writings of Jesuits pertaining to the criticism of Chinese folk beliefs, we would gain a better understanding of a series of questions, such as those arising from the cultural exchange between China and the West from the 16th to 18th century, as well as the localization of Catholicism in China.