HISTORY remembers it as the 'Rites Controversy'. It consumed Europeans for close to a century and it finally led a Chinese emperor to issue an ultimatum to the Roman Catholic Church.
Despite its centrality, however, general histories of China do not give it much play. John King Fairbank and J.A.G. Roberts mention it only in passing in their histories, and Jonathan Spence not at all. Donald Lach discusses it in detail in his Asia In The Making Of Europe, but disperses his account over several volumes of his monumental work. There are many specialist accounts and an official Church history of the Controversy, but these are not easily accessible to the general reading public.
The following account draws heavily on some of these studies, especially Lach's. The 'Rites Controversy' is interesting not only for its own sake but also for the light it sheds on some contemporary issues - in particular, how different cultures might relate to one another, and the role of religion in secular societies.
Extensive contacts between the West and China began only in the 16th century, when the sea passage to India was extended to China. Christian missionaries, using the difficult land route, had arrived in China earlier - the Nestorians as early as in the 7th century - but the sea route made the journey easier. As a result, a remarkable group of Jesuits arrived in China in the 16th century.
The Jesuits - chiefly Iberian, but later Italian and French as well - were among the first Europeans to study systematically Chinese culture. Their studies convinced them that the Chinese sages, though heathens, were, like Plato and Aristotle, worthy precursors of the revealed truth.
Policy of accommodation
JUST as God had infused some intimation of His nature in classical cultures so as to enable them to perceive, however fitfully, the as yet unrevealed truth, the Jesuits believed the Chinese sages, though not possessed of the revealed truth, were nevertheless able to glimpse it, for God had infused an intimation of His nature in Chinese culture. For these and other reasons, the Jesuits had adopted by the early 17th century a policy of 'accommodation' of Chinese culture in conducting their apostolate.
They failed, however, to persuade everyone to adopt this policy. Other orders, such as the Dominican and the Franciscan, rejected 'accommodation' in any form.
The Controversy originated in the question of whether the Chinese had an adequate conception of God. It then devolved into the practical question of language: How precisely to translate Christian terms into Chinese?
The Jesuits had solved similar problems in Japan by simply 'Nipponising' Latin terms. And in the Philippines, key Christian concepts were retained in their Spanish forms. In these two countries, the 'term question', as this linguistic argument became known, never provoked the controversy it did in China.
There, the Jesuits believed it would be better to translate Christian terms into their Chinese equivalents, for otherwise they would not have the desired resonance. It was Matteo Ricci, the Italian Jesuit who founded the mission in Beijing, who decided this. A conference in Macau in 1600 approved his terms for 'God' - either T'ien-chu, 'Lord of Heaven', or Shang-ti, 'highest Lord'. For 'spirit', he suggested T'ien-cheng, and for 'soul', Ling-hien. Ricci, it has been said, believed in preaching 'a Catholicism with Chinese characteristics'.
By the mid-17th century, these efforts by the Jesuits to 'accommodate' the Chinese language ran into opposition from the other orders. They objected that the language was too materialistic to serve as a medium of truth.
The Controversy reached its final stage, and acquired its name, when it was discovered the Jesuits allowed their Chinese converts to continue with their ancestral rites. Again, it was Ricci who had been the prime mover, issuing his directive on rites in 1603. The late Professor Lach explains:
'The founder of the mission declared that two customary rituals were to be permitted: traditional honours to Confucius and essential ancestral ceremonies. Ricci held that these rites were morally admissible to Christians because they were outside of religious philosophy...He argued that Confucianism had originated...as social observances. In its primitive form Confucianism was a simple monotheism...He believed that the retention of the universally practised rites honouring Confucius and the ancestors was indispensable to the success of the apostolate. Such rites, he declared, were 'certainly not idolatrous, and perhaps not even superstitious'.'
Pamphlets, bitterly ventilating both sides of the issue, exploded in Europe. The great mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was one of the participants in the debate. He took the side of the accommodationists, arguing that the Chinese God resembled the 'Supreme Monad' of his philosophy. It was not an accident perhaps that Leibniz was to later coin the term philosophia perennis or 'perennial philosophy', the notion that there is a common universal factor linking all the world's major cultures and philosophies.
By 1665, the issue had been discussed at no fewer than 75 mission conferences, according to the official church history of the Controversy. In 1645, Pope Innocent X took a dim view of the Jesuit position; but in 1656, Pope Alexander VII took a neutral position. In China, the Jesuits gained the support of Emperor Kangxi. In 1692, he not only issued an Edict Of Toleration, allowing the practice of Christianity, but also a statement vouching for the fact that the Confucian rites were not religious:
'These things written herein (on the rites' civic character) are excellent and in harmony with the Great Way,' he wrote in a postscript to a Jesuit memorial to the Pope. 'To revere Heaven, to serve ruler and parents, to reverence teachers and elders, is the custom common to the whole world. There is nothing here to be amended,' he declared.
This did not impress Rome. The Manchu emperor was not deemed competent to advise on the state of Chinese souls, even as a native informant.
The Ricci way or the highway
WHEN the Controversy threatened to split the Church, the Holy See sent a Special Legatee to China in 1706. Unfortunately, this worthy personage took it into his head to condemn all Chinese, including the Emperor, as atheists, and was imprisoned for his pains. Emperor Kangxi ordered all Christian missionaries to either adopt the 'Ricci way' or leave China.
The Papacy finally put an end to the Controversy in 1715 when it issued a bull proscribing the Jesuit position. And in 1742, it issued another requiring Jesuits to take an oath to abide by the papal decision on 'accommodation'. The Church did not annul its condemnation of Chinese rites till 1939. 'And it was not until 1992 that the first scholarly conference took place on the Rites Controversy,' reports the Handbook Of Christianity In China.
The Church never recovered its position in China. Its abandonment of Ricci's policy of 'accommodation' helped to confirm China's isolationist tendencies. Ricci's recognition that one civilisation can influence another only on the basis of mutual respect was first abandoned, and then forgotten.
Things are better now, of course. But this Controversy continues to echo in our times in many ways. We hear it whenever China's 'capitalism with Chinese characteristics' is condemned as 'authoritarian capitalism', a somehow deformed version of true capitalism. We hear it whenever people speak of the absolute incommensurability of civilisations - the inevitability, as Professor Samuel Huntington put it, of a 'clash of civilisations' engendered in particular by 'Western universalism, Muslim militancy and Chinese assertion'. And we hear it whenever the religious of any variety - Catholic or Protestant, Hindu or Muslim - push for a smudging of the line separating religion from the state.
Ricci's policy of 'accommodation' was in essence a recognition that religion must respect the civic practices (which was what he took Confucianism to be) of the state. And Emperor Kangxi, by coupling his Edict Of Toleration with the suggestion that those civic practices be respected, was driving at the same principle from his own point of view and time.
Singapore has its own policy of 'accommodation'. 'It is neither possible nor desirable to compartmentalise completely the minds of voters into secular and religious halves,' the 1989 White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony acknowledged. But 'precisely because more than one faith' insist on encompassing all aspects of life, the White Paper went on to warn, 'they must collide if they all attempt to carry out to the full their respective visions of an ideal society'. Thus the insistence on secularism as the basis of our politics and public policy.
The great Matteo Ricci would have understood Singapore perfectly.