The Christian Conundrum of Yongzheng

Recent negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing on the future of the Catholic church in China have, among other things, focussed international attention on Mindong 閩東, a region in northeast Fujian province. Eugenio Menegon, a specialist in the history of the Catholic church in China known for his award-winning work on the church and local religion in Mindong during the Qing dynasty, has also commented on the faith community in Mindong today (see Ian Johnson, 10 Million Catholics in China Face Storm They Can’t ControlThe New York Times, 14 February 2018).

In the following edited extract from ‘Yongzheng’s Conundrum. The Emperor on Christianity, Religions, and Heterodoxy’, Eugenio Menegon discusses an earlier, crucial moment in the history of the Catholic church in China. A second extract will offer details of the audiences that the Qing emperor Yongzheng granted missionaries serving the court.

(One would note that the speeches, rescripts and books produced by the country’s present leaders, like those discussed below, are similarly aimed at ‘the transformation of customs through education’ 教化 and ‘the instruction and cultivation of the people’ 教養.)

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
13 April 2018


Wairarapa Academy Note:

The focal figure in this article, Aisin Gioro Injen 愛新覺羅 · 胤禛, who reigned as the Qing-dynasty emperor Yongzheng 雍正 or hūwaliyasun tob, is notorious. Among other things, he is excoriated for reducing the Cao family, three generations of which had prospered under his father Kangxi, to poverty. Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 was among the members of the clan who grew up in reduced circumstances and the fate of the family is believed to underpin Cao’s celebrated novel, The Story of the Stone 石頭記 (aka The Dream of the Red Mansion 紅樓夢), a work of crucial interest to the Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology.

When he was still Prince Yong 和碩雍親王, his father, Xuanye 玄燁 (the Kangxi Emperor, elhe taifin), granted Injen the gift of a garden residence which became known as Yuanming Yuan 圓明圓 (the Garden of Perfect Brightness). The prince transformed the grounds, which lie to the north of present-day Peking University, into a syncretic Qing cultural and political wonderland. He also used it as his base of operations and, upon ascending the throne in 1722, relocated key court functions there. Yuanming Yuan, its history, as well as its ‘afterlife’ (it was sacked in 1860) are also a focus of China Heritage.

— Ed.

Yongzheng’s Conundrum

An Emperor Confronts
Christianity and the Heterodox

Eugenio Menegon


Why did the Yongzheng Emperor (雍正, r.1722-1735) decide to forbid the proselytization of Christianity in the provinces of the Qing Empire in 1724, while he allowed missionaries and Christians to continue their activities in Beijing, practically under his nose? Was this a contradictory set of policies? In fact, the contradiction was only apparent. The simultaneous formal prohibition of Christianity and retention of the foreign priests at court was a result both of practical politics and the emperor’s ideologically inspired desire to maintain the unity of the Three Teachings of dynastic China, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism 儒釋道三教.

Yongzheng and Religion

Catholicism developed in fits and starts in the Chinese empire during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. By 1700, the Catholic Church in China counted a following of around 250,000 faithful (0.17% of the population at the time), concentrated in the economic macro-regions of the Qing empire. A setback soon followed this initial efflorescence. In 1724, the Yongzheng Emperor issued a formal prohibition against the propagation of the Christian faith in the provinces. Yet, he officially retained missionaries in Beijing to serve the court as scientific and artistic experts; he also allowed them to operate churches in the capital. In part because his policy ambiguously forbade and yet allowed Christian activities in the same breath, foreign and Chinese underground priests in the provinces secretly pursued their technically illegal undertakings.

Yongzheng himself must have been aware of the ambiguity of his position — allowing court missionaries to stay in the capital, but prohibiting any Christian activity elsewhere — and he permitted this situation to continue, albeit begrudgingly. The imperial attitude towards Christianity appears less paradoxical when we take into consideration three broader issues:

  1. the requirements of Qing state-building;
  2. the necessity to reaffirm the emperor Yongzheng’s legitimacy and filiality by appearing not to contradict his father’s policies, which had generally been favorable towards the missionaries; and
  3. the emperor’s understanding of the role of religions in society.

To take these issues individually:

Qing State-building

The requirements of Qing state-building as the rationale to retain the missionaries in the capital are most clearly and succinctly expressed in Yongzheng’s ‘Amplifications of the Sacred Edict’ 聖諭廣訓 of 1724 (discussed below). A cryptic and ambiguous sentence in the ‘Amplifications’ reveals the profound contradiction that would continue to undermine imperial prohibitions against Christianity: ‘because these men [that is, missionaries] understand mathematics, therefore the government employs them: of this you ought to be aware’ 因其人通曉歷數故國家用之爾等不可不知也.[1] The need to engage the services of missionary technicians — astronomers, translators, mapmakers, mechanics, musicians, physicians, and artists — for the purpose of state-building and for imperial prestige required their presence in Beijing, it also created ongoing opportunities for priests and the faithful to flout the interdictions against heterodoxy and to exploit their imperially approved professional identity to keep churches open in the capital, thereby allowing them to support underground Catholic communities empire-wide.

Legitimacy and Filiality

Yongzheng’s condemnation of Christianity represented a break with the past, and in the Confucian context of governance any departure from precedent required careful justification, especially in the fraught climate of Yongzheng’s first few years on the throne, when his legitimacy was being questioned as a result of widespread rumors that he had  seized power. Deeply disappointed with the quarrels resulting from the Rites Controversy [Ed.: the Controversy, which lasted from 1635 to 1742, was concerned with the question: Were Chinese family ancestral rituals and ceremonies to Confucius civic and could Chinese converts engage in them without compromising their Christian beliefs? Jesuit missionaries believed they could, and in 1700 they found in the Kangxi Emperor an advocate for their position. Other missionaries and, ultimately, the papacy itself, disagreed and the rites were outlawed as idolatry], the Kangxi Emperor (康熙, r.1661-1722), had declared Catholicism unsuitable for China in his later years and had forbidden further missionary activities in the empire. However, he did not enforce his own decrees; in practice he delayed and limited their circulation resulting, in what was a characteristic laissez faire manner, the continued protection of the missionaries and their churches.

Yongzheng’s formal indictment of Christianity was something that not only seemed to contradict his dead father — the deceased emperor — who upheld the Confucian attitude of ‘cherishing men from afar’ 懷柔遠人 and his respect of religious pluralism for the sake of peace, but also revealed deep policy disagreements between the new ruler and his father. Yongzheng had to navigate carefully a position that straddled outward filial respect and political realism.

Faiths in the Balance

A formal portrait of Aisin Gioro Injen 愛新覺羅 · 胤禛, the Yongzheng Emperor, in court attire

The attitude towards Christianity should, finally, be understood within the broader context of Yongzheng’s overall policies towards religion. The early Qing emperors in Beijing — from Shunzhi to Yongzheng, that is from 1644 to 1735 — evolved a complex relationship with institutional religious traditions. Kangxi and Yongzheng, in particular, cultivated the image of the Confucian monarch, while also practicing and extending patronage to Tibetan Lamaism, Chan Buddhism, Daoism and native Manchu shamanism. Recent scholarship has probed the symbolic valiance of Qing religious patronage and showed how such patronage provided powerful ideological support for the governance over a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire exalting as it did the pivotal role of the emperor as a religiously enlightened political leader.[2]

While politically and ideologically connected to state matters, however, religious patronage was also dependent on the personal religious behaviour of the emperors themselves. Shunzhi, for example, showed a fleeting interest in Christianity, but in the end directed much of his energy towards Chan Buddhism, as testified in the writings of the monk Muchen Daomin 木陳道忞. He gave his patronage to Chan lineages.[3] Kangxi was curious about different religious traditions and was familiar with Christian concepts through his association with court missionaries. He also extended patronage to Buddhism in his southern tours in the 1680s, and visited and endowed Chan Buddhist temples, summoning  eminent monks to court to give sermons. Overall, Kangxi had both a lenient and a pragmatic attitude to religion, as seen in particular in his so-called ‘Edict of Toleration of Christianity’ in 1692, recently studied by several scholars,[4] as well as in his 1698 edict on Islam:

Even if you pacify the Hui people and then impede their religious practice, would it be possible to convert them to Buddhism, and have them bow and pray before the lamas? Now that the empire is at peace, make things run the way they are. Forcing them to assimilate is definitely not practical.[5]

Unlike his father and in line with his autocratic tendencies, in the realm of religion Yongzheng was one of the most interventionist among early Qing emperors, chastising his officials when they unduly interfered with religious activities he deemed legitimate, but also promoting or attacking religious leaders he liked or disliked. He engaged in personal religious cultivation with a circle of close officials and Chan masters, and by the end of his reign, he embarked on an attempt to unify Chinese religions. He systematically promoted the idea of the unity of the Three Teachings 三教 (Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism), especially through the publication of the Imperially Selected Sayings 御選語錄 in 1733, a collection of texts of the Three Teachings composed with the help of fifteen of the most trusted imperial princes and advisors. He also started a census of Buddhist and Daoist monks in 1735 in an attempt to control their numbers and impose uniform discipline.

His attitude to non-institutional religions and heterodox religious groups, however, was utterly negative, and he openly decried them as dangerous to social stability and political control. This condemnation fit within an agenda of general reform that extended to government procedures, economic policies, popular customs and morals. Scholars have dubbed this reform agenda the imperial “civilizing mission” of the High Qing period, an effort that encompassed the reigns of both Yongzheng and his son Qianlong. Based on the long-standing Confucian idea of ‘transformation of customs through education’ 教化 or ‘the instruction and cultivation of the people’ 教養, the Qing civilizing mission entailed the chastisement, regulation, and transformation of the values and practices of the people, to make them loyal imperial subjects.

Kangxi’s Sacred Edict

Yongzheng’s Amplifications of
Kangxi’s Sacred Edict

Shengyu guangxun 聖諭廣訓, an extension and amplification of the ‘Sacred Edict’ of Kangxi 聖諭 (1670), was promulgated in early 1724, a mere fourteen months into Yongzheng’s reign. It contains one of the most consequential anti-Christian pronouncements of the Qing era and demonstrates just how seriously the new ruler took his civilizing mission, as well as indicating that repression of Christianity was germane to it. The rejection of heterodox ideas and religious groups was a prominent feature of the edict, one addressed predominantly to soldiers 兵 and commoners 民. The pithy seventh maxim of Kangxi’s original Sacred Edict which dealt with the suppression of heterodox teachings — ‘Extirpate heresy to exalt orthodoxy’ 黜異端以崇正學 — was expanded and Yongzheng expounded at length on the nature of acceptable Buddhist and Daoist ideas and practices, while excoriating the activities of deviant members in those traditions. [Ed.: For the full text of this exposition, see the Appendix below.] It then goes on to point the finger at some specific heterodox groups, corrupt offshoots of Buddhism and Daoism, and declares them to be particularly dangerous:

Yongzheng’s ‘Amplifications of the Sacred Edict’ of Kangxi, bound in imperial yellow silk

Afterwards, however, there arose a class of wanderers, who, void of any source of dependence, stole the names of these teachings [佛、道], but corrupted their principles. […] They are seized according to law — their innocent neighbors injured, their own families involved — and the chief of their cabal punished with extreme rigor. What they vainly thought would prove the source of their felicity becomes the spring of their misery. So it was with the White Lotus and Smelling Incense Teachings, which may serve as a lesson to all.[9] 釋道之本指矣自游食無藉之輩陰竊其名以壊其術 … 一旦發覺徵捕株連身陷囹圄累及妻子教主已為罪魁福縁且為禍本如白蓮聞香等教皆前車之鑒也如白蓮、聞香等教皆前車之​​鑑也。

At the time the identification of certain condemned traditions may not have been accidental, as these sects were possibly a preoccupation of the emperor and his inner circle, men who would form the Grand Council, as well as officials in the Board of Rites. Apart from mentioning the all-catching category of ‘White Lotus Teachings’ 白蓮教, the text also referred to ‘Smelling Incense Teachings’ 聞香教, that is, the Great Vehicle Teachings 大乘教 first established by Wang Sen (王森, 1542-1619) in the Ming, and one still popular in Zhili 直隸 (the province in which the capital was located) as well as nearby border regions.

In the context of naming and damning heterodox religious belief, the Teachings of the Western Oceans 西洋教, which meant Catholicism, was expressly mentioned for the first time. This was a departure for such an authoritative public document. The new Edict goes on to say:

So also it was with the Teachings of the Western Ocean which honor the Lord of Heaven 天主, which equally rank among those that are non-canonical 不經; but because these men [that is, missionaries] understand mathematics, therefore our government employs them: of this you ought to be aware. 又如西洋教宗天主亦屬不經因其人通曉歷數故國家用之爾等不可不知也。

Yongzheng’s ‘Amplifications of the Sacred Edict’ of Kangxi, Manchu version

By including Catholicism in this list of exemplary forbidden groups in the newly issued and widely circulated ‘Amplification of the Sacred Edict’, Yongzheng was in effect broadcasting the name of a minuscule foreign religion to every villager in the empire, even those who had never heard of it, or for that matter met any Catholic missionary or convert. There is no doubt that Yongzheng’s personal experience with Christianity had played a role. Unlike the case of the White Lotus or the Incense Sniffers, Yongzheng had first-hand knowledge of the basic tenets of Catholicism and had, for specific political reasons, found them objectionable, something that is attested to by his personal involvement in the empire-wide anti-Christian campaign of 1724. The emperor also believed in the fundamental unity of religions, and their equivalency in terms of their moral teaching. This might account for the use of a relatively neutral adjective that characterizes Christianity here, something that is reminiscent of the indifferent attitude of Kangxi: Yongzheng simply defines Christianity as ‘non-canonical’ 不經, rather than as ‘evil/heterodox’ 邪. The latter term would have indicated that Christians posed a greater threat to both the society and the state.

Yongzheng’s ‘Christian policy’ continued to evolve. However, in spite of adjustments, a red thread of condemnation would connect and sustain  imperial policy towards that religion from 1723 to 1735, the year of Yongzheng’s death.


Guided by the agenda of the Qing Confucian civilizing mission, the attempt at unification of the Three Teachings, and concerns about court factionalism, native heterodox activities, and European military and commercial threats, Yongzheng labeled Christians as both religious heretics and political traitors. Nonetheless, he also maintained an attitude of ambiguity, one that characterized the Qing relationship to Christianity well into the future.

This approach was not simply based on state-building interests, personal fancy for Western exotica or diplomatic and political expediency, but also on the ‘relativistic’ ideological positions that Yongzheng adopted towards good and evil, orthodox and heterodox, as well as in regard to the meaning of religion itself. In particular, the imperial endeavor to unify the Three Teachings — one that ultimately equated Christianity with other religions — aimed at imposing a unity that would press-gang all religions into the service of the Qing ‘civilizing mission’. I would argue that this ideological plan played a crucial role in shaping Yongzheng’s attitude towards Christianity, something that has not been a particular feature of the literature on Sino-Western relations.

In the end, and in spite of periodic state attacks from 1724 onward, Christianity survived as a minoritarian component of China’s late-imperial religious life, and in to the modern era. While the main reason for the survival of Christianity was possible because the faith flourished in far-flung parts of the empire, and due to the role of local Chinese converts, as I have shown in my work on Christianity in Fujian province, other concomitant factors need to be explored at the imperial core, in Beijing. The same Qing state that prohibited Christianity in the provinces, also maintained an ambivalent relationship with the missionary presence in the capital. It was an approach inaugurated by Yongzheng, continued by his son, Hongli 弘曆, who reigned as the Qianlong Emperor  (乾隆, abkai wehiyeher.1735-1796), and only abandoned by his grandson Yongyan 顒琰, the Jiaqing Emperor (嘉慶, saicungga fengšenr.1796-1820).


This revised excerpt is taken from Eugenio Menegon, ‘Yongzheng’s Conundrum. The Emperor on Christianity, Religions, and Heterodoxy / Der Rätselhafte Yongzheng. Der Kaiser über Christentum, Religionen und Heterodoxie’, in Barbara Hoster, Dirk Kuhlmann, and Zbigniew Wesolowski, eds., Rooted in Hope / In Der Hoffnung Verwurzelt. Festschrift in Honor of Roman Malek S.V.D. on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. Festschrift für Roman Malek S.V.D. zu Seinem 65. Geburtstag, Routledge – Monumenta Serica Institute, 2017, vol. I, pp.311-335 + 430 (image).


[1] An authoritative imperial version is Shengyu guangxun, in Qingding Siku quanshu huiyao 钦定四庫全書薈要, Qianlong reign, reprint Changchun: Jilin chubanshe, 2005; for this passage, see p.19a. Here I have modified the translation of William Milne, The Sacred Edict: Containing Sixteen Maxims of the Emperor Kang-Hi, Amplified by His Son, the Emperor Yoong-Ching: Together with a Paraphrase on the Whole, by a Mandarin, Shanghai : American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1870, p.72.

[2] See, for example, Patricia Ann Berger, Empire of Emptiness — Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003.

[3] Chen Yuan 陳垣, ‘Tang Ruowang yu Mu Chenwen [sic] 湯若望與木陳忞’, in Chen Yuan xueshu lunwen ji 陳垣學術論文集, vol.1, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980, pp.482-516, partly translated in Tschen Yüan [Chen Yuan; D.W. Yang transl.], ‘Johann Adam Schall von Bell S.J. und der Bonze Mu Tschen-wen’, Monumenta Serica, 5 (1940): 316-328; Xie Zhengguang 谢正光, ‘The Chief Eunuch, Buddhist Monks, and the Emperors during the Ming-Qing Transition: Readings of the Journey to the North by Muchen Daomin’ 新君旧主与遗臣––读木陈道忞《北游集》, Zhongguo shehui kexue 中国社会科学, 2009/3: 186-203, 208.

[4] See Zhang Xianqing 张先清, ‘A Preliminary Discussion of the Edict of Toleration in the Thirty-first Year of the Kangxi Reign in the Qing Dynasty’ 康熙三十一年容教诏令初探, Lishi yanjiu 历史研究, 2006/5: 72-87; Thierry Meynard (Mei Qianli 梅谦立), ‘Manchus, Hans and Westerners in Early Qing. The Edict of Toleration of 1692 and Cultural Pluralism’ 清初的满人、汉人和西方人––1692年容教诏令和文化多元化, Chinese Cross Currents 神州交流6 (2009) 2: 104-113; Nicolas Standaert, ‘The “Edict of Tolerance”: A Textual History and Reading’, in Artur K. Wardega and António Vasconcelos de Saldanha, eds, In the Light and Shadow of an Emperor: Tomás Pereira, SJ (1645–1708), the Kangxi Emperor and the Jesuit Mission in China, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, pp.308-358.

[5] See Shengzu Ren huangdi shengxun 聖祖仁皇帝聖訓, juan 60 (1731) as quoted in Tristan G. Brown, ‘Towards an Understanding of Qianlong’s Conception of Islam. A Study of the Dedication Inscriptions of the Fragrant Concubine’s Mosque in the Imperial Capital’, Journal of Chinese Studies 中國文化研究所學報, 53 (2011): 139.

[6] See the succinct summary of Yongzheng’s attitude to the ‘Three Teachings’ and Christianity in Pei Huang, Autocracy at Work. A Study of the Yung-Cheng Period, 1723-1735, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974, pp.43-50; on his attitude towards the missionaries and foreign powers, and the relevant political context, see Zhuang Jifa 莊吉發, ‘An Examination of the Anti-Religious Campaign of the Yongzheng Emperor’ 清世宗禁教考, Dongfang zazhi 東方雜誌 62 (1981): 26-36, and Feng Erkang 馮爾康, Biography of Yongzheng 雍正傳, Taipei: Taiwan Shangwu yinshuguan, 2014; original edition Beijing, 1985,  pp.415-418; on Yongzheng’s Chan practice and his policies towards Chan Buddhism, see Jiang Wu, Enlightenment in Dispute: The Reinvention of Chan Buddhism in Seventeenth-Century China, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, ch.7, ‘The Yongzheng Emperor and Imperial Intervention’; on the personal Buddhist network of Yongzheng as a prince and emperor, see Barend J. ter Haar, ‘Yongzheng and His Buddhist Abbots’, in The People and the Dao: New Studies in Chinese Religions in Honour of Daniel L. Overmyer, ed. Philip Clart and Paul Crowe, Institut Monumenta Serica, Sankt Augustin; Nettetal: Steyler Verlag, 2009, pp.435-480; on the census of monks initiated under Yongzheng and completed under Qianlong, see Vincent Goossaert, ‘Counting the Monks: The 1736-1739 Census of the Chinese Clergy’, Late Imperial China, 21 (2000) 2: 40-85.

[7] On the Qing ‘civilizing mission’, see Janet M. Theiss, Disgraceful Matters. The Politics of Chastity in Eighteenth-Century China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, pp.35-37.

[8]  See Victor Mair, ‘Language and Ideology in the Sacred Edict’, in Andrew J. Nathan, David G. Johnson, Evelyn Sakakida Rawski, eds, Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, pp.325-359; and, Lei Weiping 雷伟平, ‘Shengyu guangxun chuanbo yanjiu’《圣谕广训》传播研究, M.A. thesis in Studies of Chinese Traditional Materials, Huadong Normal University, Shanghai, 2007.

[9] The text continues:

To walk in these by-roads 左道 [heterodoxy] and deceive the people is what the law will not excuse. The evil arts of wizards/mediums 師巫邪術 have also a determined punishment. The intention of government in enacting these laws was none other than to prohibit the people from doing evil, and encourage them to do good 禁民為非,導民為善; to induce them to degrade the corrupt 邪, and honor the correct 正; to retire from danger, and be in peace. 夫左道惑眾律所不宥,師巫邪術,邦有常刑。朝廷立法之意,無非禁民為非,導民為善,黜邪崇正,去危就安。

Shengyu guangxun, p.19a,modified translation based on Milne, The Sacred Edict, p.72.

[10] This listing of groups echoed a 1660 anti-heterodoxy document naming Wuwei 無為, Bailian and Wenxiang and a 1673 edict by Kangxi adding the Dachengjiao as well. The Shengyu guangxun may have simply lifted the old names from these precedents, but I would not exclude the possibility that the reference to Wenxiang had also contemporary significance. This group was active among soldiers and commoners in Beijing and Shandong in the 1720-1730s, and it is likely that officials and officers informed Yongzheng of the group’s influence among the populace and the army surrounding the palace. In 1732, for example, after the Shengyu guangxun was published, investigations were conducted at Shifokou 石佛口 in Shandong, the center of Wang Seng’s tradition and where one of his descendants was still active. See Ma Xisha 马西沙 and Han Bingfang 韩秉方, A History of Chinese Folk Religions 中国民间宗教史, Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1992, pp.592-594; Hubert Seiwert in collaboration with Ma Xisha, Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History, Leiden: Brill, 2003, pp.399, 458; cf. also Barend J. ter Haar, ‘The Non-Action Teachings and Christianity: Confusion and Similarities’, in Philip Clart, ed., Chinese and European Perspectives on the Study of Chinese Popular Religions, Taipei: Boyang Publishing, 2012, pp.295-328.

[11] 如白蓮、聞香等教皆前車之​​鑑也。又如西洋教宗天主, 亦屬不經。因其人通曉歷數, 故國家用之。爾等不可不知也。 Shengyu guangxun, p.19a, and Milne, The Sacred Edict, p.72.

[12]   On the attitude of literati and the Chinese state to Christianity as heterodoxy, including Kangxi’s opinion of the ‘indifferent’ role of Christianity in China, see Ad Dudink’s essay on opponents to Christianity in HCC, 1: 503-533; cf. also ter Haar, ‘The Non-Action Teachings and Christianity’.

[13] A still valuable narrative on the vicissitudes of the Beijing mission in the Yongzheng period, based on the letters of Antoine Gaubil SJ, is Josef Brucker, ‘La Mission de Chine de 1722 à 1735. Quelques pages de l’histoire des missionnaires français à Péking au XVIIIe siècle d’après des documents inédits’, Revue des questions historiques, 29 (1881): 491-532.


Yongzheng’s amplification of the Seventh Maxim in Kangxi’s Sacred Edict: