Many have heard about the Jesuit missionaries in China in the 16th-18th centuries. The most famous was Matteo Ricci, who has gone down in history as the initiator of the encounter between Chinese and Western culture and – as far as the Church is concerned – as a model of inculturation, of the proclamation of the Gospel to China and, more generally, to peoples of cultures very different from that of Europe. Ricci was only the first in a long series of outstanding figures, remembered mostly for their scientific or technical abilities (astronomy, mathematics, hydraulics, cannon casting…), cultural (translation of Confucian classics…), artistic (painting, architecture…), so much so that there are those who question whether the Jesuits’ main commitment was to cultural encounter rather than evangelization.
It is good, therefore, to remind ourselves that the deeper intention that moved the missionaries was to offer knowledge of the Gospel and the newness of Christian life inspired by it. In these pages we will touch on a not very well known aspect of their evangelizing activities and the response they encountered among the Chinese women who became Christians.
First baptisms, first confessions, participation in community life
In Chinese upper-class society, women had to lead an extremely withdrawn life under the very tight control of their parents, husbands and family members. Therefore, the missionaries’ direct dealing with them was practically impossible, indeed to be avoided, so as not to arouse suspicion and rejection. The Jesuits soon abandoned the clothes and lifestyle of the bonzes to take on that of the literati. While the women of the lower classes frequented the bonzes, social control over women of the educated classes was very strict.
The first residence established by the Jesuits in China, after many attempts, was that of Fathers Ruggieri and Ricci in Zhaoqing, in the South, where they would remain for six years. In all this time there were no more than 70-80 baptisms (not counting those of dying children), but in the final year, 1589, “the last baptism ceremony that took place was of 18 people, amongst whom were several honorable matrons, who have given great credit and support to Christianity in their houses” (FR I, 261). These were the first Chinese women to join the Church! They were certainly wives or mothers of cultured men, already baptized or very close to the two missionaries, who could in no way catechize the women directly, but only through third persons (ibid., No. 2). Even later and in other places this remained the normal way to reach women and arrange their baptism.