Tuesday, June 12, 2012

China's only Christian emperor? Southern Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongli (永曆)

I just read in J.M. Roberts' A History of Europe that the last Ming Dynasty emperor (unnamed) of China is the only Christian emperor of China. Having had a reasonable grasp of Chinese history, I did not know that any Chinese emperor had converted to Christianity.

The last Ming Dynasty emperor is Chongzhen (崇祯). It turns out that the emperor in question is not Chongzhen, but Yongli (永曆, 1623 - June 1662, r.18 November 1646 - June 1662), the last emperor of the Southern Ming Dynasty, the remnant Ming regime in Southern China from 1644 to 1662 after the capture of Beijing by rebel armies and the death of Chongzhen in 1644. Ming Dynasty's successor, Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, began its reign in China in 1644. Southern Ming is usually omitted in listing the succession of Chinese dynasties.

Apparently Yongli was sympathetic to Roman Catholicism, and did not object to the baptism of his heir apparent, the Empress Dowager, the Empress, and his biological mother by the Jesuit Andreas Xavier Koffler. However he was not himself baptized. Thus the question of whether he was a Christian has no simple answer. Likewise whether Yongli was an emperor of China is debatable.

I found the following confirmation of Yongli's close connection with Christianity (source):

[Another source:

Christians in China: AD 600 to 2000,  Jean-Pierre Charbonnier (here) ]


This happened in the late 1640s, when the last emperor of the Ming loyalist regime (or Southern Ming), Zhu Youlang (朱由榔) - also known as the Yongli emperor after his reign title - converted to Roman Catholicism [My note. but was not baptized] partly in the hope of receiving aid from the European states (especially the Portuguese) against the Manchus who had by now conquered almost all of China. Zhu Youlang's family and much of his court seems to have converted along with him, and his official mother (i.e., his father's official wife, but not his natural mother) Empress Dowager Wang was baptized as Helena. His natural mother Lady Ma was baptized as Maria, while his wife Empress Wang was baptized as Anna. [My note. His new born son, heir to the throne, was baptized Constantine.]  Zhu Youlang and his family were converted and baptized by the German Jesuit Andreas Xavier Koffler (who died in 1652).

In 1650, Zhu Youlang's court entrusted the Polish Jesuit Michael Boym with the mission of bringing letters from himself and the Empress Dowager to the Pope, the Doge of Venice, and the King of Portugal. These letters were primarily requests for military aid against the Manchus. Boym's mission was exceptionally difficult and dangerous, because the Venetians and Portuguese were both inclined to abandon the seemingly hopeless Ming loyalist cause and concentrate on developing trade relations with the victorious Manchus. Even the leaders of the Jesuit Order did not approve of getting involved in the Ming-Qing conflict. Boym had to wait until 1655, when the new pope Alexander VII was elected, to get a positive response from the Vatican. Even then, the pope did not offer any practical support, only a letter expressing sympathy and blessing for the Ming loyalist court. With this letter, Boym was able to secure a promise of military aid from the Portuguese king, but again it was only a promise without any practical action taken.

Nonetheless, Boym began his return journey to China and reached Vietnam (then known as Dai Viet) in 1658. He then tried to reach Zhu Youlang's court in Yunnan by travelling through Guangxi, but died en route in 1659. Zhu Youlang and his court fled to Burma in 1661, but the Burmese king handed him over to Wu Sangui (who was now serving the Manchus) in 1662 and Wu put him to death.

After reading the story of Michal Boym's mission, I have great respect for his tenacity, courage, and refusal to abandon the Ming loyalist cause despite its bleak prospects. 


Christianity did not actually have that effect until perhaps the late 19th century, with the semi-Christian Taiping Rebellion, the anti-missionary riots, and the anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion. The three major waves of Christian missionizing in China before the Opium War - the 'Nestorian' mission of the Tang period, the Franciscan mission of the Yuan period, and the Jesuit mission of the late Ming and early Qing period - did not make enough converts beyond the elite to be a source of social conflict. 

Conflict could have arisen between Chinese Christian converts and their non-Christian peers after 1715, when the Pope decreed that Chinese Christians should no longer participate in ancestral rites and the worship of Confucius. But the Kangxi emperor simply responded to this decree by banning all Christian missions in China in 1721, and from then until the mid-19th century, foreign missionaries lost the means to regulate the behaviour of Chinese Christians. There is no sign of Christianity being a problem to the Qing state or society in the 18th century, unlike the millenarian semi-Buddhist ideology of the religious sects commonly categorized as 'White Lotus', which occasionally served as inspiration for major rebellions against the government. See Chinese Rites controversy and White Lotus rebellion

In the case of Empress Dowager Wang (Helena) and Zhu Youlang, there is no evidence that their conversions to Christianity caused any division in the Ming loyalist court. One loyalist minister did object to Zhu Youlang's replacement of the Ming empire's official Datong calendar with the Gregorian calendar (which the minister referred to as a 'barbarian calendar' 夷曆) on Andreas Xavier Koffler's recommendation, arguing that this was a violation of ancestral traditions, with the result that Zhu Youlang changed back to using the Datong calendar (this incident is recorded in the Veritable Record of the Yongli Reign or Yongli Shilu, written by the Ming loyalist scholar Wang Fuzhi). But this was a problem of cultural conservatism and chauvinism rather than religious conflict. Also, because Koffler was esteemed as a mentor by the powerful eunuch Pang Tianshou (baptized Achilleus Pang), his position in the loyalist court remained safe until his death in 1652.

Interestingly, by this time (the late 1640s) the Qing regime had adopted a revised and updated version of the Datong calendar, which was originally developed in the early 1630s by the Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell and the learned Christian convert Xu Guangqi (Paul Xu) by incorporating European astronomical knowledge. This revised calendar was called the Chongzhen calendar until the fall of the Ming empire, but was never officially adopted by the Ming court due to opposition from conservative courtiers and preoccupation with the Manchu and rebel threats. Adam Schall then became an advisor to the Shunzhi emperor of Qing, who adopted the Chongzhen calendar in 1645 under the new name 'Shixian calendar'. This is the version of Chinese calendar that is still used today. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted by another Chinese regime until 1912, when the Republic of China did so. 


There is a mention of this in the Dictionary of Ming Biography under Boym. It states:

Some time after 1649, Alvaro Semedo, as Vice Provincial of the China mission, asked Boym to join Andreas Koffler at the court of Chu Yu-lang, then resident at Chao Ch'ing, Kwangtung. By February 7, 1650, however Manchu pressure forced the emperor to move by boat to Wu-chou and thence to Nan-ning, both in Kwangsi. As several members of Chu's court had fallen under the influence of Christianity, it was not unnatural for them , as a last forlorn hope, to request outside aid (or possibly for the Jesuits to put the idea into their heads, as Paul Pelliot suggests) and Boym was asked to take letters addressed to Pope Innocent X and the general of the Jesuits. The Empress Dowager, nee Wang, baptised as Helena, wrote to each of them on November 4, 1650; three days earlier the eunuch P'ang T'ien-shou baptised as Achilleus, did likewise.

The entry continues to explain how the Portuguese officials in Macao sought to prevent the onward travel of Boym and two Christian Chinese companions, but allowed them passage after he threatened the governor with excommunication.