Matteo Ricci arrived in Macau in 1582 and Beijing in 1601, seeking to explain Christianity in terms that he thought would be acceptable to the Chinese. Ricci realized that for the Gospel to enter deeply into the life of China, it had to find points of contact with the local Confucian culture.
Confucianism is not a religion. It is the collection of the teachings of Confucius and his disciples. Confucianism is a cluster of ethical ideals, intellectual views, and a civilizing process that undertook to humanize social mores and practices by transforming morality. One of the most important components of Confucianism is deference to ancestors, which is expressed in filial piety. By practicing it, people are able to discover the social and personal function of their spiritual needs. This is a central element of the Chinese culture of the time.
Ricci and his companions’ profound appreciation of Chinese cultural and moral values enabled them to understand that the “Chinese rites,” venerating ancestors, were social, not religious ceremonies, and that converts should be allowed to continue to participate in these rites. However, their journey of inculturation encountered enormous challenges. The Catholic Church at that time disapproved of such rites, and substantially this was the reason that led the Qing dynasty’s Emperor, Kang Xi in 1720 to forbid missionary work, a prohibition that was to last for about 100 years. This state of affairs, known as the “Chinese Rites Controversy,” lasted until the instruction for China regarding the Chinese rites, Plane compertum est, was issued by Pope Pius XII in 1939, allowing Catholics to participate in these rites.