What’s Theology Got to Do with It? An Eighteenth-Century Chinese Emperor Debating Religions and Christianity
Eugenio Menegon, Associate Professor of Chinese History, Boston University; Collaborative Scholar, Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies, Boston College
In his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares, Voltaire republished “a note by the good Kangxi Emperor to the Peking Jesuits” as follows: “The emperor is surprised to see you so stubborn in your ideas. Why would you worry so much about a world where you have not been yet? Enjoy the present. Your God must be pained by your preoccupations. Isn’t He powerful enough to exercise justice without your meddling?” To Voltaire this was a proof of the superiority of Chinese wisdom over Christianity. This was, however, also a first intimation of the crumbling of imperial patronage towards the missionaries and their religious ideas.
By 1724, the Yongzheng Emperor, Kangxi’s son, further hardened the imperial stance. He issued a formal prohibition against Christian propagation in the provinces, eliciting, once again, Voltaire’s admiration. Nevertheless, Yongzheng officially retained the missionaries to serve in Beijing as scientific and artistic experts, and allowed them to keep the capital’s churches open. In part because his policy was ambiguously forbidding and allowing Christian activities in the same breath, foreign and Chinese underground priests secretly continued in their technically illegal undertakings in the provinces.
The simultaneous formal prohibition of Christianity and retention of the foreign priests at court stemmed from both pragmatic governance considerations and the pursuit of Yongzheng’s religious ideology of unification of the Three Teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism), ultimately a move towards the unification of all religions. Archival materials recording the proceedings of several audiences with the missionaries offer us glimpses of imperial personal views on religions and Christian theology in intimate settings, and uncover little known aspects of the emperor’s understanding of religion, and ultimately, of Chinese and European views of the divine.
Eugenio Menegon is Associate Professor of Chinese History at Boston University, and Collaborative Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies at Boston College. He has published extensively on the history of Chinese-Western relations, and is the author of Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China (Harvard Asia Center and Harvard University Press, 2009), which was the recipient of the 2011 Levenson Prize in Chinese Studies (Association for Asian Studies). His current book project is an examination of the daily life and political networking of European residents at the Qing court in Beijing during the 17th-18th centuries.
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