Sunday Levity: Two papal emissaries to China

They didn’t do too well

No, not quite laughing matter, but amusing nevertheless. Here are some excerpts from Harry Gelber’s readable account of China’s relations with the (western) World, from 1100 BC to the present:

One Christian embassy was entrusted to the Franciscan, John de Plano Carpini, a provincial of his order at Cologne. He set out in mid-April 1245, a mere eighteen years after Ghengis (sic) Khan’s death, carrying a letter from Pope Innocent IV. Carpini must have been a very brave man. He set out in his sixties, unfit, without knowledge of Asian languages and with no idea what his reception might be. Perhaps he would just have his head cut off by the first Mongol patrol he met? In the event he was hustled through Asia for weeks on horseback, to his total exhaustion, and arrived at the Mongol centre of Karakorum in time to witness the coronation of the new Great Khan, Guyuk, another of Ghengis’s grandsons. He delivered his letter and returned in 1247 with the Mongol response. Guyuk simply said:

‘… Thou, who art the great Pope, together with all the princes, come in person to serve us. At that time I shall make known all (our) commands…Now you should say with a sincere heart: “I will submit and serve you.” …If you do not observe God’s command, and if you ignore my command, I shall know you as my enemy. Likewise I shall make you understand…”


The empire continued to see itself as the centre of the civilised world, to which properly brought-up foreigners should pay tribute. The reception ceremonies which lay at the core of Chinese diplomacy, with everyone kow-towing in the presence of the emperor, remained more or less unchanged until the nineteenth century.

In 1687, five French fathers arrived and one of them managed to cure the (Manchu emperor) Kangxi of malarial fever by using quinine. In 1692 came an edict of toleration that allowed the Jesuits to build churches. When the Jesuits ran into trouble it was not with the Chinese but with other Christian missionaries. For instance, they claimed that it was entirely justifiable for missionaries in China to adopt any prudent adaptation to Chinese customs in order to advance the faith. That aroused strong opposition from Dominicans and Franciscans as well as groups in France itself.

That created serious trouble, for the emperor insisted, as he was bound to do, on respect for the traditional Chinese homage to Confucius and the rites of ancestor worship. He demanded that the missionaries regard these as civil and not religious ceremonies, and that Christian converts should continue to practise them. The Jesuits were willing to accept that, but the Dominicans and Franciscans were not. The disputation was sent to Rome. Pope Clement XI sent out Bishop Maillard de Tournon, to investigate. He arrived in 1705 and was granted several meetings with Kangxi which ended in total disagreement. The issue, as the Church saw it, had ultimately to do with papal supremacy in matters of religion. From that point of view, the Jesuit willingness to accept Kangxi’s opinions amounted to a critical weakening of the fundamental claims of Catholic Christianity. In 1715 came a papal bull banning the strategy of accommodation and Maillard forbade Catholic missionaries, on pain of excommunication, to obey the emperor in this matter. But there was no possibility that the emperor could tolerate that.

Kangxi’s response was to therefore expel anyone who did not sign a paper accepting his view. The emperor had Maillard imprisoned in Macao, where he died in 1707 (sic).[Harry G Gelber/The Dragon and the Foreign Devils, pp74-75 and 120-122]

Related Links: Kerry Brown’s review at the Asian Review of Books