Ma Xiangbo was born on April 17, 1840, into a wealthy Catholic family in Dantu County, Jiangsu Province. He was baptized when he was one month old and grew up in a strict tradition of the Catholic faith. He was also educated in the Chinese classics in traditional private schools.
At the age of 12, Ma visited his married sister in Shanghai and was amazed at the level of development of the city. He asked to stay in Shanghai to enroll at the French Jesuit Institute, the Collège Saint Ignace (Xuhui Gongxue, Xuhui College), recently founded in the Xujiahui district. His years at Saint Ignace (1851-70) laid the foundations of his openness to certain Western educational principles, in particular those involved with integral human formation and education in the liberal arts.