Catholics on the Shu Roads and in the Han Basin


Matteo Ricci in China

Matteo Ricci in China



"In China lay opportunity, and expertise was still the key. 'It was a star that long ago led the Three Kings to adore the True God,' Verbiest had written in 1674. 'In the same way the science of the stars will lead the rulers of the Orient, little by little, to know and adore their Lord.'"
From Jonathan D. Spence "To Change China" Penguin Books, 1980.


Introduction to the Catholic Church in China


The term “Catholic Church” used in the documents here refers to the Church of Rome, or Roman Catholic Church. Although some other Christian churches not affiliated with the Bishop of Rome will also refer to themselves as “Catholic” it is never ambiguous in the documents prepared to date. The Catholic Church is the largest branch of the Christian religion in the world today and the one which completely dominated Western Europe until the protestant reformation in the 16th Century. Christianity was like another great Religion that came and was accepted in China in the common era - Buddhism. Buddhism and Christianity both started with a charismatic founder, recorded history, words and wisdom of the founder and a group of disciples who went out to spread the words of the founder to the world. Also similarly with Buddhism, Christian Churches are run by an "ecclesiast" with Monks and Nuns and many ranks of Bishops and Priests and others. The religions both held services of prayer and ritual in Temples or Churches where the monks or priests also lived. The two religions also both had early conflicts and schisms leading to there being different (often warring) denominations with varying ideas and beliefs. The first main schism of the Christian Church mirrored the splitting of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western branches in the 5th Century. In the west, the Bishop of Rome led the Church and consolidated what is today the Roman Catholic Church. The Bishops of the Catholic Church have considered themselves to be the direct successors of Jesus’ Apostles and accepted that the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) was the direct successor to St. Peter’s original authority and mission.


Within the Church, there have often been differences of approach and opinion arising among various groups, as there have been in Buddhism and most/all of the world’s many religions. In the Catholic Church, differences have been accommodated if they are judged acceptable to the general rules and rites as decided by the Roman Curia, the ruling council of the Church. Many branches, called Orders, have arisen from special people who became saints or gained great spiritual fame and inspired people to follow specific aspects and ideas that could (sometimes after initial conflict) still be accommodated within the Church. These included, for example, the Jesuit (Society of Jesus, SJ) Brothers who followed the teachings of St. Ignatius, the Franciscan Brothers (OFM) who followed teachings of St. Francis, the Augustinians (OSA) who followed the teachings of St. Augustus and the Dominicans (OP) who followed the teachings of St. Dominic. Some of the accepted orders had missionary activity (the Propaganda Fide) as a particular emphasis and were among the orders that regularly moved to live in countries away from Europe and spread Roman Christianity.


In China, the first order to arrive was Franciscan which sent a number of missionaries to China during the 14th Century. Portuguese Jesuits were dominant in the Indian Ocean and China following the division of the world into Spanish and Portuguese interests by the Pope in the 16th Century but no trace of the 14th Century missions was found. The Jesuit Priests who came to China at that time were of high intellectual ability as illustrated in the work and writings of Matteo Ricci (Li Madou, 利玛窦, 1552-1610, SJ), and many interchanges of mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, cartography and civil and military technology occured in this time. As well the Jesuits showed significant appreciation and accomodation to Chinese intellectual traditions. In the 17th Century, Franciscan and other orders (including Augustinians and Lazarists) also came to China as missionaries and in the 18th Century the other orders fought bitterly with Jesuits over the Chinese Rites issue. All of the orders up to this time were controlled by Rome where all decisions were eventually made. Later, French missionaries in French sections of existing orders or local French orders such as Vincentians or some simply part of the general French mission called the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) came to China – especially to the south and south-west. The MEP was also part of the French government’s colonial ambitions at the time. However, all of the missions that came to China worked within the basic rules and rites of the Roman Church and spread what was (in their opinion) the one true form of the Christian faith. The Chinese Rites controversy of the late 17th and early 18th centuries was, however, a significant setback to Chinese acceptance of Christianity. Despite the early church accomodating (sometimes appropriating) previous traditions, rites and practices of Europeans there was no preparedness to be as flexible with Chinese, even in the way Buddhism and other Religions had been. Given that at this time in Europe Protestants in the hands of the Inquisition were offered the choice of coming back to Rome and being hanged or refusing and be burned, accomodation for Chinese was hardly likely.


The arrival of many and various kinds of Protestants in the 19th Century further changed the scene. It occurred at the same time as China was coming under attack from western countries attempting to improve terms of Trade in the Opium Wars. After that time, Missionaries entered China behind and under protection of the gunboats, marines and opium traders. Protestants and Catholic fought bitterly, with some Protestants regarding Rome as the idolator Antichrist whose fall would be a step towards the return of Christ in the Second Coming. Protestants were not, however, any more accomodating of Chinese traditions than had been the Church of Rome. Later, the pseudo-Christian Taiping was to give Christianity an even worse reputation. All in all, many in China then saw the Christian religion as part of the general attack on China’s traditions, government and culture having the aim of splitting China into western colonies and areas of interest. This time in China’s Christian history must certainly be treated differently from the time before the Opium Wars and possibly also before the Rites Controversy when the Catholic Church was the primary and generally welcome player in the development of Chinese Christianity. Even if Chinese were not confused by the various orders of the Catholic Church (Buddhism had just as many variants) they became so dramatically when the Protestants arrived preaching different forms of the “One True Religion” and could well still be more than a little bemused by it all.


Even if the many Churches of the one true Christian faith continued to hold on during the Republican times, with the founding of New China in 1949 all religions became unwelcome in China. The Marxist view of Religions was that they were the “opiate of the people” which maintained and justified the privileges of the aristocratic and capitalist classes over the impoverished masses and workers through fear and superstition. But by then the Catholic Church, with 400 years of history, was already well established in China and continues to be so. How things develop in the future, as China continues to emerge from the Dictatorship of the Proleteriat, may depend on how well the present day western Church Authorities can come to terms with each other and also how they can accomodate Chinese traditions and ways of thinking. Time will tell.


Documents outlining Catholic history on the Shu Roads


The history of the Shu Roads contains that of the Catholic travellers who used them to travel in western China. Using the records and notes sent back by Catholic Brothers as well as various histories of institutions and events it is possible to make these interactions more clear. Material relating to these interactions occurs through a number of documents on this web site but most are summarised into one main record called "Catholics on the Shu Roads". Certainly, Temple wall paintings also record the appearances of bearded Priests in unmistakeable dress and the Vatican's records contain letters from even the earliest travelling Missionaries. The current documents involved in expounding these facts are listed below:






Catholic Missionaries on China’s Qinling Shu Roads

For 400 years, Catholic Missionaries have been visiting the west of China and recording their travels and experiences. Jesuit reports concerning the road from Xi'an to Hanzhong were the first time the people in Europe had heard of Plank Roads - excepting perhaps some brief reference to the roads being "hard" by Marco Polo. This document describes some of the reports they have left and their experiences, and especially those related to the Hanzhong region. The Catholic settlement at Guluba, which was visited by Sir Eric Teichman in 1917, is described and its history related. The history of Guluba between the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 and the foundation of Modern China in 1949 also provides rare insights into these turbulent times as experienced in the Hanzhong region.

Travelling from Hanzhong to Shiquan via Xixiang

Alexander Wylie traveled between Hanzhong and Shiquan via Xixiang in 1868. Sir Eric Teichman travelled the other direction in 1917. These reports and some other interesting aspects of the area – such as the former Missionary settlement at Guluba and the Mosque at Shahe Kan, led to a visit to the route in 2012. The settlement at Guluba was described by Sir Eric who stayed over and enjoyed the hospitality of the Franciscan Brothers. The report visit in 2012 contains material not included in other reports concerning the state of the site and its buildings as well as its present use as a Church. The first Church built in the Hanzhong region was at Xiao Zhai when Fr. Etienne Faber came to here in 1635. A church at Guluba was also built in the early period. Nearly 400 years of tradition makes Guluba very interesting in the context of Catholic presence on the Shu Roads.

Jesuit Priests and the Kangxi Secret Maps

The Kangxi Emperor commissioned a team of French Jesuit missionaries to develop a set of Maps of China using the latest European techniques and methods. Between 1708 and 1718 they carried out field work throughout China resulting in an extensive Atlas in 1718. A revised edition of their Atlas was presented to the Emperor in 1721 after which the maps quickly travelled to Europe where they were to become incorporated into the latest maps, so that European knowledge of China was the main beneficiary. This document focus' on the area where the Qinling Plank Roads to Shu are found and where Yan Ruyi did extensive traditional mapping between 1804-1822. It also gives insight into the acceptance (even importance) that the Catholic Church had in Qing China in the early Kangxi Period. This acceptance was, however, to be swept away soon after by the Chinese Rites controversy.

An introduction to the “Hard Roads to Shu”, their environment, history, and adventures since ancient times

An Introduction to China’s Shu Roads. Basic introduction developed to provide English language readers with essential information and background to the location, geography and history of the ancient roads from Qin (Wei River valley in Shaanxi) to Shu (Sichuan). It lists references to other English language material and makes good use of information from papers given at the 2007 Hanzhong 3S Conference as well as other materials in Chinese - some of which have been translated and are available on this web site. This basic introduction also contains summaries and discussions of the Catholic interactions with Shu Roads in the last 400 years. Important information on the state of the Shu Roads during the Ming and Qing Periods can be found from their stories.

The Chinese name for Australia

The name for Australia in Chinese was provided by a scholar missionary in 1835 and accepted by Chinese as the name for Australia by Chinese in the mid-1840s. This document outlines the rather complex history of how Australia came to have its present name in Chinese and identifies the missionary who "discovered" it. The time this occurred was during the lead in to the Opium Wars and the time of the Unequal Treaties. The interest in the western nations who were attacking China included Australia and it also needed a name in Chinese. The document is wide ranging and much of the action involved missionaries and no less the Catholics than the Protestants. The document is not about the Shu Roads but it fills in histories of Missions during these turbulent times.



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