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Four Historical Stages of the Indigenization of Chinese Christian Art
He Qi
March 28, 2000

China's Christian Art have experienced four stages in the process of its contextualization and indigenization:

1. The Stage of Nestorian (The Period of The Tang and Yuan Dynasties);
2. The Stage of Catholic Jesuits (The Period of The Ming and Qing Dynasties);
3. The Stage of Semi-Colonialism (The Period of the late 19th century and early 20th century); and
4. The Stage from the 1980s to the Present.

part 1 | part 3 | part 4
Part Two: The Stage of Catholic Jesuits (The Period of The Ming and Qing Dynasties):

During the first 200 years after the Mings came to power (1368 - 1644), they drove out the Mongolian Yuan from Central China. Nestorians and Catholics, both of which were once courteously treated by the Yuan Mongolian minorities, were also dismissed. During the period of the Ming Emperor Wan Li, a Catholic Jesuits missionary, Matteo Racci came to China. He came three years after Michael Ruggieri came in 1552. Catholicism thus returned to China and so did Western Christian Art. At that time, the Jesuits took a mission strategy of zealously following the Chinese customs and culture, and trying hard not to offend the Chinese people. Though their China strategy was criticized by other mission societies, the Jesuits unfolded a Chinese scroll painting of Christian Art in the last part of the Ming Dynasty. At the initiation of Jesuits missionaries, four representative paradigms of Chinese Christian Art works were created by using the brushwork on Chinese paintings.

1. "Chinese Madonna" Scroll Painting by Yi Ming ,1582 - 1600?
2. The four-piece"Treasured Imagine" of "Cheng's Elect Specimens of lnk" by Matteo Racci , Published in 1600, the period of the Ming Emperor Wan Li.
3. "The Method of the Rosary" by Jean de Rocha, Published in 1619.
4. "The lllustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ" by Julio Aleni Published in 1637.

In the late 19th century, a missionary named Berthold Lafer found a scroll painting in Xian titled, "The Chinese Madonna". This painting was recognized by missionaries to be on the same level as the "Nestorian Tablet" which was also found in Xian. The style of the painting is, to some extent, similar to those murals which still exist in the Church in Rome. In this painting: Madonna wore a cape which covered her hair, shoulders and back. She had fine, delicate features. However, a Chinese baby was in her arms. According to the research done by Dr. Mu Xiao Ye, Matteo Racci often displayed this kind of painting of Madonna when he was in Zhaoqing (Guandong Province) and Nanjing. He said, "Many people enjoy this painting because of its great elegance, its hues, its lines and its vivid posture, etc" (Note 1). The painting was found about the same time as the Nestorian Tablet which was also found in Xian. Because of that, some missionaries thought it was a sacred painting which wae influenced by Nestorianism. However the painting, obviously, followed those of the Italian Renaissance style and was recognized as the painting done by Jesuit missionaries in the late Ming Dynasty, which was created near the end of the 16th century.

When Matteo Racci came to China, he brought with him several copies of the West European copper plate engravings. These engravings were not one single copy. In 1598, Matteo Racci left Nanchang for Nanjing to go with the foreign minister Wang Zhong Ming to Beijing to meet the Chinese Emperor. He returned to Nanjing in 1599 after having failed to get a meeting with the Emperor. While in Nanjing, he got to know a well known businessman named Chen Da Yue (aliased as You Bo and Jun Fang). Chen was an ink stick maker and worked with Zhu Shi Ling, an official from the Foreign Ministry Burean.
Racci sent Chen four copies of the West European Christian copper plate engravings as a present. Why did Matteo Racci send art works to Chen? The answer could be he had a "mission motive." In the 23rd year of the Ming Emperor Wan Li (1595), Chen You Bo published "Cheng's Mo Yuan"?Cheng's Elect Specimens of lnk? which was an album of woodcut paintings for the ink stick commercial business. The book was complied of 6 volumes and 12 chapters, and was divided into 6 sections: The Sky, The Earth, Human Figures, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. With Mateo Racci's four copies of the copper plate engravings included, the book could be recognized as a "complete" one. A famous Belgiun copper plate carver, did the copper plate engravings in 1532 - 1603.

It was recorded, Chen You Bo invited a famed painter, Ding Yun Peng, to re-draw Racci's copper plate engravings, and then invited a famed carver by the name of Huang Ling from Hui Zhou to engrave them again before he published them in "Chen Yuan Mo Bao" Volume 6, Book 2.

The first three pieces were originally engraved by a renowned Belgium copper plate carver. The last one "Madonna with the Baby on Her Breast", according to Boucher's research, Jean Nicolao, a Jesuit painted it in 1597 at the Nagasaki Jesuits Painting Institute in Japan. Matteo Racci added Latin phonetics to the verses on the painting. Though these four works published in "Chen's Mo Yuan" are only copies, they have indeed become part of the Chinese folk craftman's vocabulary. This is especially true with the painting "Strolling in the Sea witn Faith, Sinking when Doubting"? (Picture 3).

Though the painting is the Renaissance style of focal perspective composition, the remote mountains, the disciple's dress as well as their face features are evidently the Chinese folk woodcut style. In contrast to this painting, the "The Method of the Rosary" which was edited and published by Jean de Rocha in 1619, has actually walked out of the imitation cage to become more creative in its expressions to Christian themes by using Chinese traditional art. This is the earliest and most typical series of Chinese Christian art works that exist so far.

Dr. Gianni Criveler once had a relevant comment on the book: " Marks of a successful fellowship among the first group of Chinese Christians." The book uses Jesus Christ as the main character, and depicts him as a role model in filial duties. The disciples often used the holy name of Christ, his image as well as his crucifixion and his resurrection as a guide in their prayers. The book helps Chinese Christians to know God better through prayers and pictures. This was also what Jesuits passionately wanted Chinese Christians to know" (Note 2).

"The Method of the Rosany" was edited and published by Jean de Rocha. "Evangelical Picture Stories" was drawn by a renowned European Jesuit wood print carver. Jerome Nadal had the original copies in Nanjing, Rocha invited the late famous Ming artist Dong Qi Cang (1555 - 1636) or maybe one of his students, to re-draw the originals and then to make woodcarving prints. "… … we have been amazed by those elegant carvings which are so unique in their method of deductions. There is no doubt that these new refined carvings will bring the echoing sound from Chinese readers. The unique Chinese style painting composition makes more vivid pictures in which features of different figures (including Jesus, Mary and the disciples), their dress, the buildings as well as other depictions such as: gardens and lakes, are all Chinese features" (Note 3.) Chinese wood carving prints in the Ming Dynasty became more popular as the printing technology and the civil culture became more developed. Nanjing was then recognized as the wood carving prints center. In the period of Wan Li, folk wood carving print business was very popular in the cities of Huizhou, Hangzhou, Wuxing, Suzhou and so on. The wood carving prints of Huizhou were particularly well known. Businessmen and carvers from Huizhou were everywhere in China. "Stories of Pi Pa", and "Stories of North Xi Xiang" by Wang Guanghua were the best representative works of the Hui School wood carving prints and were used for book illustrations. The Jinling wood carving prints which had a strong Hui School influence were known for its picture illustrations for opera and novel books. Jean de Rocha's "The Method of the Rosary" specially represented the use of the folk wood carving prints for book illustrations in China. For example: the Chinese style gardens and the method of space division unfolded in the painting of "Annunciation" (Picture 4) and the painting of "Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth" (Picture 5). They are exact copies to those illustrations in the book. People can easily associate the skills and the composition of the hills and woods in the painting "Praying at Gethsemane" (Picture 6) to the illustrations in the book "Pilgrimage to the West" (Picture 7). One thing that is worthy to mention is that in Rocha's "The Metnod of the Rosary", there is a painting of "The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ" shown for the first time in China. Before that, even in "Chen's Elect Specimens of lnk", among the four works of "Treasured Imagines", there is no theme as "The Crucifixion of Jesus". As a matter of fact, this is sometimes related to evangelism work of the Jesuits in China. In the 27th year of the Ming Emperor Wan Li (about 1600), Matteo Racci was in Beijing waiting to meet the Emperor. He clearly saw the strong resentment from Ma Tang, an imperial eunuch and a Chinese traditional apologist when he presented "The Crucifixion" to him. Ma Tang resented the "nude" Jesus on the cross. Hence, in order not to hurt the Chinese's feelings, the Jesuits often jumped over the part of the cruel "crucifixion of Jesus" in their teachings in China. They never taught "Jesus died on the Cross" to non-Christians. Even to seekers, they would not teach this part until the person as to be baptized." So, at this point, it is imaginable that among the four paintings which Matteo Racci presented to the ink stick maker, Chen You Bo, there was not a single painting of "The Crucifixion of Jesus".

Dr. Gianni Criveler once had a wonderful comment on the book "The Method of the Rosary", published by Jean de Rocha. He said,"Among other things, explanations would be given from the Chinese perspective even to the same element, such as: to assort more than one picture together to make one piece. These pictures are absolutely able to display Dong Qi Cang's style, which is to display the corner of a person's heart. In his painting, he kept a central idea and left much empty space. This is not only for the sake of highlighting the central idea, but also to make a mark which symbolizing the sacred meaning. We could use the "Crucifixion of Jesus" as an example. The Chinese painter, Dong Qi Cang put two of Jerome Nadal's works together to produce an amazing effect. In the painting, on the top of a barren hill (inside Jerusalem's city walls) there one cross was erected, and the two other crosses on which there were two thieves crucified disappeared. Only the cross, the cross on which Jesus was crucified, stands strikingly up to the sky and down to the earth, so alone that it seems He is the only one left in this world, and only His Heavenly Father is His witness. Those who surrounded the cross represents the humiliation, the cruelty and the apathy of the soldiers who killed Jesus; the indifference of the people in power who insulted Jesus, as well as the compassion and lamentations of the women who were with Jesus to the end. The general appearance of the picture is an expression of strong perception, and is also a Chinese understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus. It also state how Chinese understood the miracles of Jesus in the early period of evangelization in China, especially the sufferings of Jesus. In Jean de Rocha's painting album, Jesus has Chinese features and lives in the Chinese context" (Note 4).

To omit the two crucified thieves from Jerome Nadal's original painting "The Crucifixion of Jesus" and to state the main theme so directly is a way that expresses the Chinese style of appreciation of art. This painting has actually omitted an extra explanation as to why Jesus was crucified with two thieves.

In 1637, 18 years after the publishing of "The Method of the Rosary" by Jean de Rocha? there was a "lllustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ" which was edited and published by Julio Aleni, It was published in Fuzhou.

The Jesuits from the beginning (1491-1556) had used the methods of visual art as a means to evangelize and to rely on these images to meditate more deeply on the Holy God. Julio Aleni published "The True Record of the words and Deede of the Lord of Heaven Become lncarnate" in 8 volumes in 1635, and two years after, he published "The lllustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ". The book was recognized as a successive copy to the former one, in which a series of picture stories systematically depicted the life and deeds of Jesus in a form of wood carving prints.

The book illustrations were popular among the Chinese. There were altogether 57 pictures. "The Method of the Rosary" was also edited and included Jean de Rocha's pictures of the wood engraving prints. He also used Jerome Nadal's "Picture of Gospel Stories" as the original copy in his book. But Aleni chose something closer to the original copy, something more like a simply Chinese folk wood engraving than to copy the western ones.

Though Aleni's "The Illustrated Life of our Lord Jesus Christ" would be printed over and over again, it still can not compare with "The Method of the Rosary" edited and published by Jean de Rocha in artistic achievements and in the uniqueness of its artistic expressions which the Chinese wood engraving print possesses. So, without the involvement of Chinese masters of art like Dong Qi Chang, the Chinese style artistic originality of "The Illustrated Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ" has been greatly reduced. They are at most simply the copies to Jerome Nadal's works.

Though they are just like the copies, they do not really carry on the achievements of the West European Renaissance in Art: the manner of realism-emphasizing the figure anatomy, the focal perspective as well as the western costumes and western architectures. "The Illustrated Life of our Lord Jesus Christ" opened a window as far as the development of Chinese traditional art is concerned, and offered as a display that there were exchanges between China and the West in the field of wood engraving prints. The one exception is that in the last work "The Coronation of St. Mary"? (Picture 8)? Aleni intentionally highlighted the Chinese features in the upper part of the painting, at each side of the Holy Mother, the Holy Father and the Holy Son, he added more than ten Chinese angels; in the lower part, fifteen Chinese figures stood at the left side, opposite to a group of western figures at the right side. Among those western figures, the Pope and one European monarch were included; among the Chinese figures, there were different people who wore different hoods and represented people from different walks of life. There was even a military man and a child with forehead hair. In the distant, there was a ray of European and Asian architectures (buildings, palaces and temples) between the people and the clouds. At the lower part of the painting, a footnote was written: [Emperors, kings, soldiers and people from different countries hope that the Holy Mother will be the Mother of Grace for the whole world; churches and cathedrals were built on earth to worship the Holy Mother and wish to be protected by her.]

The information which Julio Aleni wanted to pass on was: "Chinese are part of the church today, they should have equal status with others, and their exclusion from redemption would not happen again. China would finally become a part of the church universal and become members in redemption history. Through this painting, Jalio Aleni cleared up the suspicions of Chinese being excluded from God's salvation plan" (Picture 5).

From the late Ming to the early Qing Dynasties, there wasn't a discontinuation in the Jesuits' mission of evangelizing China. The German Jesuit missionary Johann Adam Schall von Bell who came to China in the late Ming Dynasty continued to be held in high esteem. Emperor Shun Di of the Qing Dynasty once appropriated special funds to purchase him a piece of land in Xuan, Wu Men Gate in Beijing, and in the spring of 1650, a Chinese style cathedral was built at the site of the first Catholic Church in Beijing, named "Nan Tang" (later changed to western style architecture). During the period of Emperors Kang Xi and Qian Long, there were Jesuit missionary painters who served, off and on, in the Imperial Court. Among them, the Italian painter, Giuseppe Castiglione was the best known one who advocated the "Chinese painting techniques being used in western paintings". Within half a century of his stay in China (1715 - 1766), he used his western painting skills to paint traditional Chinese paintings. Apart from drawing the political, historical, bird and flower and animal paintings for the Imperial Court, he left some valuable Chinese style paintings with Christian themes. The representative ones are: "The Leading Angel"? (Picture 9), and "Michele Defeating the Demon" (Picture 10). In his painting, Giuseppe Castiglione not only gave special attention to the dissection of structure proportions, focal perspectives, light and shadow effects as well as effects of trio-dimensions, but also absorbed the skills of traditional Chinese realistic painting with a detailed fine brushwork. In his paintings, the appearance of human figures are soft in color, and the landscapes which served as backgrounds in the paintings have obviously been influenced by the Chinese traditional landscape paintings. One thing noteworthy is that in the painting, "Michele Defeating the Demon"? Giuseppe Castiglione intentionally avoided the direct visual image of the dragon when he painted . Angels led in defeating a vicious monster --a big red dragon, which is a biblical story found in "Revelation", and a very popular Christian theme among western Christian churches. Giuseppe Castiglione,who knew traditional Chinese culture well, was certainly unwilling to draw the dragon as a vicious symbol which was also a symbol of the Chinese Emperor who was the "real son of the heavenly dragon" and a totem of the Chinese nation who claimed to be the "offspring of the dragon". In order not to be offensive to the traditional Chinese culture, Giuseppe Castiglione used the implicit method to draw only an obscure dragon tail behind the monster, so that the Chinese work would not lead the ordinary Chinese to connect the vicious monster with the dragon.

Besides Giuseppe Castiglione, there were other Jesuit missionary painters who served in the Imperial Court in the period of Emperor Qian Long, such as A Qimeng (1708-1780) and Wang Zhicheng and Pan Tingzhang. They served respectively at the South Cathedral, the North Cathedral and the East Cathedral. The one thing different is that they were not as influential as Giuseppe Castiglione. Because the "rituals dispute" became more intensified during the reign of Emperor Kang Xi, the Qing government thus implemented a prohibition policy towards Christianity. Jesuits, however, still had space to survive because of their respect for traditional Chinese customs and rituals. The Roman Catholic Pope repelled the Jesuits mission strategy and gave orders on July 21, 1773, to ban the Jesuits. The Jesuits left when the orders arrived in China in 1775. To this end, after two hundred years of painstaking efforts, the Jesuits who came to China in the late Ming Dynasty pulled off of this historical stage, and left behind them their successful fruit of evangelization with respect to the indigenous Chinese culture.

part 1 | part 3 | part 4


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