The Dialogue on moral Issues Between the Jesuits
and the Chinese Intellectuals in Late Ming China

By Pan, Feng-Chuan




 Aside from theological issues, moral issues were among the most discussed between Chinese scholars and missionaries in the seventeenth century. Both sides expressed some interest in the moral system of the other. In Late Ming China the intuitionist tendency of the Wang Yangming School stressed a subjective and autonomous morality according to which the individual decides the question of what is good or bad. Several Chinese scholars (associated with the Donglin school) reacted against this tendency and were in search for a more objective and heteronymous morality. The Christian teachings of the works of charity and the divinely proclaimed Ten Commandments became as such a possible answer for the social disorder. Missionaries from their side appreciated certain Chinese social teachings and institutions, because they could serve as the basis on which to build the transcendental Christian teaching.

 With the arrival of Christianity, however, Chinese also faced new dilemmas: missionaries opposed for instance concubinage or divination. But before treating these practical issues, one first has to look into the ontological differences. Morality, indeed, is based upon particular concepts like human nature and the world.

 Yet, the analysis of modern scholars treating the Christian and Confucian concepts of morality leads to different conclusions. Analysis based on anti-Christian or Confucian documents tend to focus on the differences. Writings of the Chinese converts, on the contrary, underscore similarities.


Ontological differences

 As to moral issues, Jesuits and Chinese scholars did not agree with each other due to their distinctive features in ontological concepts. The following discussion is based on the arguments of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) Nicolas Longobardo (1565-1655) and Giulio Aleni (1582-1649), who have contributed most in this field, although their approaches were not entirely the same, in comparison to Chinese thoughts.


1. Three Souls versus One Nature

 Matteo Ricci and his followers in their exposition of human nature based themselves on scholastic theory, which originated in Aristotle's De anima (On the Soul) and Parva naturalia (A Short Natural Treatises), especially his Hylomorphism. Every natural thing in the world is seen as a combination of form and matter. Soul is a living form, which enable thing to change from one status to another. Aristotle discerned three different souls in hierarchical levels: the vegetative soul of plants, the sensitive soul of animals, and the rational soul of human beings, which Ricci translated as shenghun 生魂, juehun 覺魂 and linghun 靈魂. Rational soul of human beings was seen as the highest one, which not only possessed the ability of growing and moving but also is also capable of memorizing, reasoning and willing. Rational soul was seen as an immortal substance, which transcended and controlled the physical body, would be rewarded or punished after death, according to his behavior in life. Through the rational soul, human beings were distinguished from animals and the myriad things of the world and were able to bear moral responsibility.

 Ricci rendered anima rationalis as linghun, a term found in some Chinese classical texts (like the Chuci 楚辭) but scarcely used. As such, he tried to give a new meaning to a classical term and to get rid of the mistaken, in his opinion, traditional explanation of the term. Aleni, however, rendered rational soul also with terms taken from the Cheng-Zhu school or Neo-Confucianism, such as lingxing 靈性 (intelligent nature), liangzhi 良知 (innate knowledge), fangcun 方寸 (square inch, mind, heart) and weifa zhi zhong 未發之中 (equilibrium before the feelings are aroused). Aleni was of the opinion that such terms actually conveyed the same idea as the Christian concept of the rational soul. Despite their use of different terms, to both Ricci and Aleni the rational soul was originally good because it had been created by the highest good, the Lord of Heaven. Longobardo intended to interpret linghun as spiritual substance, rational soul, and daoti 道體 as prime matter, from which all physical things were created. Linghun and daoti were two different He intended to server the unity of li (理 the Principle) and qi (氣 material force) in the metaphysic of Confucianism in terms of these two different concepts in Scholaristic philosophy.

 The Jesuits' redefinition of human nature in Neo-Confucianism by means of rational soul, indeed, was pinpointed as a criticism to the theory of wanwu yiti 萬物一體n (all things are of the same substance), which regards all beings as having been produced from the same substance, viz., material force. In Cheng-Zhu school, everything in the world as seen as a combination of two inseparable elements, i.e., li and qi. Everything in the world shared the same and the whole Principle, which was absolute good, and thus everything was innately good by nature. Through the Principle, everything was endowed with the virtues such as ren ( 仁 humanity), yi (義 righteousness), li (禮 propriety), zhi (智 wisdom) and xin (信 faith). No matter the degree of clearness, all things received the same principle, and thus shared the nature (xing, 性). The difference between human beings and other beings or things is merely a matter of difference in the endowment of material force. While animals, for instance, have a turbid material force; human beings receive material force in its highest excellence and clearness in which the goodness of Principle can be fully completed if they follow the nature.

 The difference between the two systems of thought can be described as a difference between three souls and one nature. The missionaries wanted to make a clear distinction between human beings and other beings, because only the first possessed an eternal soul, which continued to exist after death. It could be rewarded in heaven or punished in hell for moral actions during life. This was essential for their moral system. Therefore, missionaries refuted opinions that tended to obliterate these differences. Confucian scholars, however, criticized missionaries and converts precisely for the multiple distinctions they established and for taking human 'nature' (xing 性) as a separate and enduring entity coming from outside. Since compensation for moral actions is to be expected in this world (for oneself or one's descendants), they stress how the human person considers all things as one substance. The material force of plants, animals and human beings disappears after death, but the one principle is found in all things.


2. "Overcoming Nature" versus "Following Nature"

 A major discussion in traditional Confucian thought was whether the human nature was good or evil. Zhu Xi had settled the debate in favour of Mencius who was of the opinion that human nature is good. Confucians adopted the Mencian opinion that in moral conduct one should "follow one's nature" (shuaixing 率性). This idea sharply contrasted with the Christian theory of original sin and obliged the missionaries to reformulate their thought.

 Ricci was rather vague on the question, though he demonstrated that human nature, considered as rational soul, is good. He advanced the traditional Christian theory that human nature has "three moments": "integral" nature, as it was before the Fall, "fallen" nature, the result of Adam's unhappy legacy, and "redeemed" nature, as renewed by grace in Christ. This was further developed by his successors like Aleni. Aleni advanced the opinion that "following one's nature" could only be applied to the nature before it was spoiled. The present nature, however, is fallen, and therefore one should speak of "overcoming one's nature" (kexing 克性) instead of "following one's nature". This is the only way to reach the perfection of the Dao.

 Yet, this reformulation created new misunderstandings. Some Chinese scholars, like Huang Zichen 黃紫宸, pointed out that human nature is not something that comes from outside and should be overcome. He argued that nature is innate. What should be overcome is not human nature itself, but the habits and its contamination (xiran 習染) which surround and stain it. Moreover, nature is nothing but the principle and, therefore, it is always good. How could it be evil? This was one of the major topics in the discussions between Great Secretary Ye Xianggao 葉向高 (1559-1627) and Aleni. After being pressed, Aleni finally gave three reasons why there was also evil in the world: original sin, the xueqi ( 血氣 blood and breath) of parents, and the customs of the environment. This explanation confirmed the opinion that evil came from a human nature which was originally good but later spoiled by original sin, and this was the reason why everyone should overcome his nature. Another opponent to Christianity, Xu Dashou 許大受, inquired into the same question. In the Chinese perspective, according to Zhu Xi, evil is not something concrete as if it exists as a substance, but rather a way refering to a lack of goodness. Whenever the activity deviates from the Mean ( 中 zhong ), it is called e (evil). All things are combinations of the Principle and material force. Nature is good, but it is enclosed with material endowment as if a jewel silted in dirty water. Therefore, everyone should transform his material force, just like cleaning the silt enclosing a jewel, through education and cultivating the Way, i.e., following its right way and finding the nature of oneself.


3. Salvation versus Forming a "Trinity between Heaven, Earth and the Human"

 The morality taught by the Jesuits in late Ming China was based on the theory of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): God, not man himself, is the sole source of goodness, although man can only attain this by means of his free will and rational decision. However, the original sin not only spoiled human nature but also severed the relationship with the Lord of Heaven. Therefore, as no one could rely on his own nature and reestablish the relationship, the Lord of Heaven himself offered a way to salvation in three successive stages: xingjiao (性教 enlightenment of the people with a revelation to every individual nature), shujiao (書教 revelation of God's teachings by the Ten Commandments), and enjiao (恩教 personal revelation by Incarnation in Jesus Christ).

 In line with the Christian doctrine, Ricci stressed the role of will (motive or intention yi 意) in moral action. "Good and evil, virtue and vice all stem from right or corrupt motives." More importantly, the rational faculty enables human beings to exercise control over desires. A person who is determined to follow what is right and rational is in his moral conduct a superior man and will obtain the protection and support of the Lord of Heaven. In the discussion on human nature, Ricci distinguished between two kinds of goodness: acquired goodness or the goodness of virtue acquired by human effort (xishan 習善), and innate goodness or the goodness of human nature bestowed on the human being by the Lord of Heaven (liangshan 良善). Confucianism, Ricci argued, fails to see that one cannot cultivate virtue by one's own will and strength only, because the will tires easily. The Confucians are not aware that they need the grace of the Lord of Heaven for protection and support; therefore, one rarely sees a Confucian who has cultivated virtue to perfection. Ricci was not able, however, to clearly explain how human goodness and virtue is the result of divine help on the one hand, and of the merits accumulated by man himself on the other hand. Aleni, rather straightforwardly, insisted on the importance of accumulating merits. Since redemption had already been granted to human beings, one should take up one's responsibility, i.e. accept the belief in incarnation, observe the Ten Commandments and accumulate merits by way of Sacraments, good deeds, overcome the seven capital sins, and practice the fourteen works of spiritual and material charity.

 Within a Confucian perspective, the relationship between Heaven and all things could never be severed. Heaven and all things penetrate and respond to each other because they share the same Principle (li). Everyone can cultivate the Way and fully develop one's nature and "participate in the transformational activity of Heaven and earth" (zantiandihuayu 贊天地化育). As a result of this participation, human beings form a trinity with Heaven and earth (yutiandican 與天地參). This is the basis of their morality, which they practise on their own effort. It is realised in the present world and has nothing to do with a world after death.

 One may conclude that in the Christian view, truth and perfection only lie outside this world; man has to fight his own nature, his body and all its temptations. The sole thing that matters is the salvation of his soul and this constitutes the purpose of all morality. People have the free will to have their actions and behaviour guided by reason and in this way to be rewarded with the salvation of their soul. Confucian morality, however, is based upon the idea of an immanent moral order that is present not only in cosmos and society, but also in the human being self. Thus, for each person to act correctly means to integrate himself into the order of the world without looking for a reward in a world to come.

 Though the differences are obvious (which made some modern scholars conclude that a mutual understanding was rather difficult), some Chinese Christians like Yang Tingyun underscored those differences do not disprove similarities between the two systems.


Practical Parallels

 Despite distinctions on the ontological level of morality, there were parallels between Christianity and Confucianism on the level of practical morality, two of which similarities will be discussed below. Western practical morality was rather well received in Late Ming. Moreover, the way in which missionaries expounded their moral principles, corresponded well to the style as practiced in the academies (shuyuan 書院 ), which flourished in Late Ming and which were an important place for relationship building among the Chinese gentry.


1. The relationship between tianli 天理 (heavenly principle) and renyu 人欲(physical desire)

 An important aspect of Confucian self-cultivation is "conquering oneself" (keji 克己) to achieve harmony with the principle of heavenly order (tianli). This principle is believed to be actively present in nature, in society and even in human beings when they are able to silence their selfish thoughts. To conquer oneself consists in rediscovering one's share in this heavenly principle and developing it, while getting rid of the human and physical desires. This idea was similar to the Christian morality, which insisted on following of the commandments of the Lord of Heaven and subduing human desires.

 There was also similarity in the practice of conquering oneself. During the 16th and the 17th centuries, there was a wide distribution of "ledgers of merit and demerit" (gongguoge 功過格) in China. These were lists of virtues and moral actions, which one was supposed to fill in after daily self-examination. The earliest form of gongguoge was operated in a religious context. To each merit or demerit corresponded some points, which in a rather mechanical way indicated the degree of reward of punishment to be obtained. The practice of this system was closely related to a belief in supernatural retribution of good and evil, which was not paralleled with the orthodox Neo-Confucianism. This method, which was rather "fact-centered" and otherworldly orientated, accommodated well among the popular. A new orientation of gongguoge was later developed to encourage moral behaviour in a social, political and intellectual context, which was practiced, by many scholars and officials alongside the "ideal-centered" method of self-cultivation. It not only furthered moral perfection through the mastery of scholarly learning but was also justified by the orthodox Neo-Confucian teachings. It reflected the social and moral values which were generally accepted within Chinese society, viz. the five relationships. This system of self-examination, especially in its early form, was very similar to the Christian tradition of self-examination of sins.

 This similarity resulted in Christian adaptations to the Chinese gongguoge practice. Yang Tingyun, for instance, imitated the Western method of self-examination, which consisted in keeping record of the sins one committed and was very similar to the gongguoge. Not satisfied, however, with the mechanical aspect of the gongguoge, he insisted on asking God's forgiveness and the practice of confession. For him, the exigency of moral cultivation transcended cultural difference. Another Chinese convert, Li Jiugong 李九功n(?-1681) was of the opinion that it was much better for one's spiritual cultivation if one only records demerits. He himself wrote two books on practical morality: Lixiu yijian 勵修一鑑 (A Mirror for Encouraging Cultivation) and Shensi lu 慎思錄 (Album of Cautious Thoughts). Both books are arranged according to three relationships: self related to the Lord of Heaven (jingzhu 敬主 or hetian 和天 ), to others (airen 愛人 or heren 和人n ) and to oneself (xiuji 修己 or heji 和己). Li's purpose was to harmonize the three relationships since they cannot be separated. To serve one's parents or to clothe the naked, for instance, are the same as to obey the will of the Lord of Heaven. Li's works show that his way of thinking had already become Christian. All moral practice is for the sake of salvation, or in his own words: xihezhuyi ( 翕合主意 fitting in with the will of the Lord of Heaven).

 Other works on ethics were Diego de Pantoja, (1571-1618) Qike 七克 (The Seven Victories over the Seven Capital Sins), which was quite popular among the Chinese and Ricci's Ershiwuyan 二十五言 (Twenty-Five Sayings), a partial translation of Epictetus's Enchiridion, which was a Stoic morality manual in which the things that depend upon ourselves and those that do not were set in opposition. They were close to Chinese teaching that one should quietly accept fate and be content with one's lot. Qike was a book of moral advice in which seven items were distinguished: pride, envy, greed, anger, lust and sloth. These seven items were seen as deadly sins that should be overcome so as to fulfill the will of the God. However, the practical meaning of this book as a manual of self-examination was well accepted by the Chinese rather than its theological meaning.


2. Relationship between the Self and the Other

 The other major point of similarity was the relationship between the self and the other. Filial piety served as a cornerstone in the Chinese moral system. It was the cardinal social virtue that gave stability and permanence to the Chinese family and lineage system and, through this, to the whole of Chinese society. Filial piety even received a cosmic dimension since Heaven was considered as father and Earth as mother. Serving one's parents leads as such to serving Heaven. Filial piety is full developed in the moral principle of the Three Bonds (sangang 三綱: between ruler and minister, father and son, husband and wife) and the Five Constant Virtues (wuchang 五常: righteousness on the part of the father, love on the part of the wife, brotherhood on the part of elder brother, respect on the part of younger brother, and filial piety on the part of son).

 The similarity of these values with Christian values appears from descriptions of the West. For instance, Aleni explained in his Xifang dawen 西方答問 that the basic principles on which the states and societies of the West are based are identical with the Three Bonds and the Five Constant Relations of the Confucian doctrine. Although the primary place is given to the Lord of Heaven in the first three of the Ten Commandments, filial piety follows immediately (the fourth commandment). Jesuits like Aleni and Vagnone also described the three major aspects of Western ethics in terms directly borrowed from the canonical Daxue 大學: xiushen 修身, self-cultivation (ethica), qijia 齊家, regulating the family (oeconomica), zhiguo 治國, ordering the state (politica) and pingtianxia 平天下, bringing peace to the world.

 Chinese Christians also observed the similarities between the two systems. The clearest example is Han Lin 韓霖 (1600-1644). In his Duoshu 鐸書 (Book of Admonition), he attempted "to introduce Christian ideas into the official system of Confucian indoctrination--a combination of the institution known as 'community compact' (xiangyue 鄉約) and the institutionalized explanation of the Holy Edict (shengyu 聖諭) of the founder of the Ming". Han Lin's explanations of the Six Maxims, found in the Holy Edict, "are based on both Confucian and Christian arguments, not placed in juxtaposition (as an eclectic would do), but used to support each other, as the true syncretist does." For example, he argued that the Lord of Heaven is the great father and mother (da fumu 大父母) of all men, mankind constitutes one family, so all human beings should obey the will of the head of this great family, the Lord of Heaven. Such Christian elements in Duoshu (but not the doctrine of incarnation, passion and resurrection) are integrated into official Confucianism. The message of Duoshu is that the doctrine of the Lord of Heaven is a useful instrument for the improvement of society. In Han's eyes, one cannot preach the Way (dao 道) and the Christian teaching outside human relationships (renlun 人倫), because these relationships are rooted in the nature of Heaven (tianxing 天性).

 Also in the eyes of some officials, Christian morality was an excellent way to complement and to strengthen the rulers' transformation (wanghua 王化). One example is Zuo Guangxian 左光先 (magistrate of Jianning 建寧) who established a hall entitled Zunqin (尊親 respecting one's parents) for the sake of transforming and educating the people in the county. The other example is Lei Chong 雷翀, the magistrate of Jiangzhou 絳州, who consciously used the ideas and practices of Christianity to reinforce Confucian orthodoxy. Lei was influenced by the teaching of Alfonso Vagnone. In an official proclamation by Lei, he used Vagnone's teaching as a defense of Confucianism and a way to combat heresy.

 Religious associations of the West also met analogies in Chinese culture. The trend of forming associations spread all over the state in late Ming China. Most of them were established for academic reasons. Some were for the sake of accumulating merits, such as fangshenghui 放生會. Setting the captive animals free is a kind of merit in the doctrine of Buddhism. After conversion, Yang Tingyun transformed it by establishing renhui 仁會n. The major works of renhui were the fourteen acts of charity 哀矜十四端n, which can be divided two sections: The acts for physical cultivation 形修nand for spiritual cultivation 神修. The acts for physical cultivation includes seven items: feeding the hunger, drinking the thirsty, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, housing travelers, redeeming slaves and burying the dead. The acts for spiritual cultivation also includes seven items: enlightening the ignorance, encouraging people to do good by good deeds, comforting the sorrowful, correcting the mistaken, forgiving the repentant, pardoning the weakness and praying for the live and the dead. Indeed, Yang Tingyun had practiced this charity before his conversion. For him, the difference was that setting the captive human persons free, both physical and spiritual aspects, instead of animals became one way of accumulating merits.


Major dilemma


 In Ming and Qing times, the practice of concubinage had become more common among the general population than it had been in earlier times. The three major reasons were the need for heirs, the fulfillment of sexual desire and the manifestation of social status. The most explicit reason, however, was filial piety. Indeed, not producing a male heir was considered the gravest among the major offenses against filial piety (不孝有三 無後為大), the two others being not supporting one's parents when they are alive, and not giving them a decent burial upon their death. Therefore, if a man's spouse did not bare a son or his son died young, he could take another woman to get a son. The Ming law even decreed that whoever tried to stop a man over forty from taking a concubine when he had no son would be punished. As such concubinage was a product of and strengthened the Confucian patrilinear family system. A man without an heir would either adopt a son or take a concubine. There were three ways to take a concubine: by marriage (naqu 納娶 ), by sale (qimai 契買n) and by promotion of a maid (shoufang 收房n). It would depend on different situations of men.

 The arranged marriage system and the imperial bureaucracy also encouraged concubinage. Instead of the marriage arranged by his parents, a man could take a wife of his own choice, after becoming wealthy and independent of his parents. Moreover, normally officials had to serve in a province different from his home. Their wives, however, remained at home because they had to take responsibility in the rites of filiality and worship. This separation encouraged men to take a concubine who could accompany them to their place of office. A final reason for taking one or more concubines was to celebrate the official position one had obtained and to show one's social status.

 The Jesuits prohibited the Chinese converts to have more than one wife, on the basis of the sixth commandment that one should not commit adultery (funyin 坊 淫). Ricci colored this commandment and stressed the abstention from lewdness, lasciviousness, filthiness and the like, especially in regarding to the widespread situation of homosexuality and concubinage in late Ming China. He intended to share some insights of the goodness celibacy life to Chinese and to open their eyes to the wonderful reward of chastity (zhen 貞 ) in another world. Three levels of chastity were distinguished. The lowest one is monogamous chastity (yifu yifu zhi zhen 一夫一婦之貞), the middle one is the chastity of widower or widow (guangua zhi zhen 鰥寡之貞), the highest level is virginity (tongzhen 童貞). The less one practiced sexual intercourse, the chaster one was. The three levels of chastity were compared to the parable of the sower in the Bible: the one who received the seed that fell on good soil will produce a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. In other words, those who remain chaste all their life would yield one hundred times what they had sown.

 Several Chinese Christians were confronted with the question of concubinage. One typical example is recorded in Kuoduo richao. When Lin Youngyn 林用籲, a disciple of Aleni, passed as first in a yearly examination, his friends encouraged him to take a concubine. As a good Christian and disciple, however, he rejected the suggestion, which rejection Aleni highly praised.

 Yet, a practical problem arose when those who had already taken a concubine requested baptism. There were several ways to solve this problem. The first solution was that the convert was asked to separate from his concubine(s) forever, for instance by putting the concubine(s) in another place and never have contact with her any more. This was the solution adopted by converts like Yang Tingyun, Li Zhizao, Han Lin and others. It was the most common solution. A second way was divorce, which meant to marry the concubine to another man. For instance, Chen Zheng 陳鉦, a disciple of Aleni, gave his concubine in marriage to another man along with a large amount of money and clothes. A third way was to marry the concubine (or one of the concubines) after the legitimate wife died. Qu Rukui 瞿汝夔nand Wei Yijie 魏裔介 did so. A more disputable way was, when the Jesuits allowed the convert to marry one of his concubines in case the legitimate wife refused to become a Christian. To marry a concubine before the legitimate wife had died, however, was forbidden by Ming law.

 There were also cases of transgression of the rule. Most famous is the case of Wang Zheng 王徵 (1571-1644). Initially, he rejected to take a concubine even though he still had no son when he passed the jinshi examination (1622). Afterwards he took a concubine and was excommunicated. Several years later, in 1637, he felt remorse and promised to give his concubine a separate dwelling, as he wrote in his Qiqingjiezui qigao 祈請解罪啟稿R (A Draft of Confession Request), in the hope that he could be forgiven by the Lord of Heaven. As a result he was reintegrated in the Christian community.

 The position adopted by the missionaries was criticised by opponents. They advanced the argument that ancient sages like Emperor Shun had two spouses and King Wen had more than nine. How could the missionaries be of the opinion that these sages had been punished for this? They were greatly offended to hear that Jesuits placed these sages in hell because they had committed adultery.

 The Jesuits made little compromise in the field of polygyny, though some sources indicate that they also depended on the leniency of God in case of offense. It was, however, one of the major obstacles for a Chinese man to convert to Christianity since it was closely related to the question of ancestor worship. The Jesuits after Ricci's death, e.g., Nicolas Trigault, were even intended to skip this problem in their writings in order to maintain the help from Rome. When Christianity arrived in China, few Chinese doubted the value and legitimization of concubinage; it was only in the nineteenth century that it would be largely put into question.




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