Underground Christians in Late Imperial China: Qing State Control, Foreign Presence, and Native Agency, 1724–1840

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 9:10 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon C (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Eugenio Menegon , Boston University, Boston, MA
Catholic Christianity developed in fits and starts in the Chinese empire during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. By 1700, the Chinese Catholic church counted a following of around 250,000 faithful (1.5% of the population at the time), concentrated in China's main economic macro-regions. A setback soon followed: out of political and strategic reasons, Qing dynasty's Yongzheng Emperor issued in 1724 a formal prohibition against Christian propagation in the provinces. In spite of this new policy, missionaries continued to serve the imperial court in Beijing as scientific and artistic experts, and underground priests, both foreign and Chinese, maintained the faith alive with the support of provincial communities into the nineteenth century, when the Opium Wars ushered in a new age of imperialist encroachment and foreign missionary impetus. This paper focuses on the specific Qing political circumstances and legal framework that framed the prohibition of Christianity in the eighteenth century. Guided by concerns about native heterodox activities and European military and commercial threats, the Qing state and elites labeled Christians as both religious heretics and political traitors. In spite of this frontal attack, however, a countercultural reaction emerged in the provincial underground Christian communities, where family loyalties and local sensibilities surprisingly helped transform Christianity into an accepted, albeit minoritarian, component of late imperial religious life.
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