Catholic Women in 17th-century China

Gail King, senior librarian for Asian and Near Eastern Studies, shared her research on Catholic Chinese women in the 17th century, focusing on how they received sacraments and contributed to the Catholic church.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 2, 2017)—When Catholic missionaries came to China as part of the counter reformation, some adjustments had to be made to church practices administered to women. Chinese custom dictated that women were not to be touched, or even seen, by men who were not direct relatives or trusted friends, making the receiving of sacraments in the traditional manner impossible. Gail King, the HBLL’s senior librarian for Asian and Near Eastern Studies, shared her research on 17th century Catholic Chinese women in a presentation for the S. Lyman Tyler Faculty Professionalism Award Lectureship.

King’s research focused on the letters of Jesuit, Dominican and Franciscan missionaries who went to China throughout the course of the 17th century. These letters are the only source available for research on Catholic Chinese women as they left no record behind themselves. The priests explain the processes of modified worship for the women as well as the important contributions they made to Catholic China.

“When baptizing Chinese women, the missionaries left out all parts of the baptismal ritual that involved touching with the hand or anointing with oil. Later, by the 1670s, the custom developed of using a pencil or stylus to apply the oil of baptism to the woman’s forehead,” said King. Another tradition that involved the anointing of oil by a priest was the last sacrament, which King explained very few Catholic Chinese women received at their death. In a handful of cases, King said, “their faith overcame their fear of touch by a strange man,” and they were able to receive their last rite.

All baptized Christians were expected to gather regularly to worship, and while in other countries the women and men would sit on opposite sides of the church during mass, this was not sufficient in China. Adjustments, which King called “common sense solutions,” were soon made. When numbers of converts were small at the beginning of the church, women would meet in each other’s houses, but as numbers grew that was no longer an option. Groups began to schedule different meeting times for men and women in the same church until financial resources allowed separate buildings to be built for women.

“A main consideration in determining where to buy or build [women’s churches] was the fact that the rhythmic chanting of women at prayer could be heard clearly outside the walls of the chapel and might disturb the neighbors,” said King. “The mass itself was no different for women than for men. The only condition was that the priest was to be careful not to look directly at the women in attendance.”

Married, unmarried and widowed women made important contributions to the growth of the church. King continued, “[Chinese women] could not inherit from parents or own property, but some had dowries or donated through wealthy husbands, or sold weaving and embroidery handicrafts to support the needs of the church and missionaries.”

Many widowed Chinese women became involved in charity work, including the building of orphanages. “Abandoning unwanted babies, especially girls, was commonplace in China. . . . Christian women would go out at night and find babies abandoned at the roadside and take them into their own homes to rear,” King explained.

King closed, “Without women, Christianity would have been much poorer in faith and action. Chinese Christian women in the 17th century were strong and faithful. In the solid rooting of Christianity in China, Chinese Christian women of the 17th century were indispensable.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Department of Asian Near Eastern Languages for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Images: Matteo Ricci (left) and Xu Guangqi (right) in the Chinese edition of Euclid’s Elements published in 1607.

Theresa Wo, Our Lady of China, early 20th century.