Manila and Christianity in China

Eugenio Menegon’s book, Ancestors, Virgins and Friars: Christianity as a local religion in late Imperial China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2009), is a history of a 400-year-old community in Fu’an county (福安市) in Fujian province, China.

What makes the book really interesting and significant are historical materials and information about the Chinese in the Philippines unknown to us before. Here are a few:

Dominican missionaries for the China mission were usually selected only after they had spent from one to several years in pastoral work in the Philippines, particularly in Chinese ministry in Manila, either in the parishes of the Parian and later of Binondoc (the “Chinatowns” of Manila) or in the Chinese Hospital of San Gabriel.  During their apprenticeship, the Dominicans had to study chinceo <漳州>, the southern Fujianese Quanzhou <泉州>  dialect spoken by the Manila Chinese. Until the 1630s, the Chinese mission of Manila remained the only training ground for the China-bound friars, who learned firsthand there about Chinese people.

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They <Dominicans> also opened a school for the children of mixed marriages between Chinese men and indio women.

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<Juan> Cobo observed that although they <the Chinese> were “the scum of the earth… in a thousand there will be 10 who do not know quite a lot of characters, while in the villages of workers of Castile, out of a thousand there are hardly 10 who know letters!  We also learn from Cobo that there were some Chinese booksellers and bookbinders in Manila, and he used a number of books circulating in the Parian for his Chinese-language studies: dramas, featuring romantic and historical topics; historical digest; route books for merchants; geographical gazetteers; descriptions of foreign countries; and “flores doctorum (Mingxin baojian 明心寶鍳),” a 13th-century popular neo-Confucian morality book. Benavides offered it in 1595 to the Crown Prince of Spain to show the results of the friars’ effort in their ministry.

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The time spent in the Chinese parishes of Manila gave the Dominicans a first-hand experience of Chinese customs and attitudes to life and religion, as well as working knowledge of Minnanese <southern Fujian> dialects. More important, it gave them access to the network of people and commerce that flowed between Manila and Fujian.

Such was the important role played by Manila and the Manila Chinese in the propagation of Christianity in China, particularly in Fujian.

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