A casual glance at the catalogues of libraries housing major collections of Christian missionary materials would purvey the impression that Sichuan was a Chinese province where Christianity only played a marginal role.
With the notable exception of the Catholic sororities (“Christian virgins”) and a handful of Italian and French missionaries, few Catholic phenomena have been analysed in this province.
There are two main reasons for this: primo, that most work on the Catholic missions has tended to focus on the capitals of the Chinese empires (Chang’an, Dadu/ Karakorum, Nanjing, Beijing) where centres of power attracted wandering priests and merchants alike; secundo, many the Christian communities up to the Republican period knew how to protect themselves from public attention – and therefore from the watchful eye of the Chinese state.
This project aims at lifting the veil over the Christian communities, who for centuries existed, and often thrived, usually in localities removed by distance and imperial policy from any Western cleric. The emphasis will be placed on how these communities interacted with each other, communicating by means of family networks and solitary itinerant converts. Christianity in Sichuan can be traced back to the centrally organised missionary endeavours by seventeenth-century Catholic missionaries, mostly from Italian states, who established the first formal mission.
When the Yongzheng edict of 1724 declared foreign missionaries personae non gratae within the Qing empire, except for Beijing and Macau, Catholic converts and their families learned how to make do without ordained priests, passing on a basic knowledge of their faith through long, entwined, chains of personal and collective memories. When the Qing became ever more possessed by the idea that Catholics belonged to a cluster of “heretical” organisations which were pulling their noose around the neck of the imperial state, district magistrates found that it often worked in their favour to manipulate communities against each other, leading to discrimination and social or political pressure against Christian families.
As a consequence, significant numbers of Sichuanese Christians withdrew into the mountains of western Sichuan and into remote rural hinterlands, thus disappearing out of the official view. This situation remained until the lifting of missionary controls in 1858, which allowed foreign clerics to move and settle anywhere within the Qing empire. From such missionary evidence we learn that the first Europeans to encounter Sichuan’s “hidden Christians” mistook them for Buddhists, or members of heterodox groups. During the late nineteenth century and the Republican decades, Catholicism thrived once again, this time with official approval and in competition with newly-arrived Protestant preachers.
The resulting type of Catholic Christianity, however, often refused to follow European conventions, leading to tensions with the Western missionaries, and not least with the Chinese authorities. One final network of Catholics to be monitored will be the Manchu banner families, who were often descendants of the very first converts in Sichuan but who had to deny any links to Christianity under strict, if unenforceable, imperial legislation.