Early Modern Evangelization of China: The Franciscan Mission and its Theory


Marie Curie Skłodowská Individual Fellowship

call: H2020-MSCA-IF-2019

Proposal number: 892795




The project grows out of the interdisciplinary approach of the researcher, which combines philology, literary theory and cultural history. It builds upon a body of Early modern documents that are all related to the cultural milieu of Romance languages (Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, Italia) because the majority of the 16th and 17th century missionaries come from these cultural areas, and reflects a deep academic interest of the researcher in East-West cultural encounter and in transcultural translation. It is also complementary to a significant line of modern scholarship in Spanish speaking cultural areas, which focuses on the Early modern evangelization of Latin America (the Spanish and Portuguese Indies) and the role of different religious orders in it.

The project develops a synthetic and exhaustive study of the Early Modern theory and methodology of Franciscan mission to China (late Ming and early Qing dynasties, cca. 1580-1660). Due to the cultural, historical and spiritual idiosyncrasies of the Middle Kingdom, ecclesiastical authorities could not directly transfer their missiological methodology, employed in the Indies and in other parts of the world, to the Chinese Apostolate. They had to design specific, unique and novel strategies; the problem is that several religious orders were operating in China in the first phase of evangelization, and they all developed fairly different and sometimes directly conflicting approaches towards the mission. Modern scholarship has devoted its attention almost exclusively to the policy of the Jesuit order, failing to recognise the importance of the mendicant orders in the evangelization of China. The project aims at filling in this void: it focuses on the Franciscan order, and more specifically on the first 80 years of its presence in the empire, crucial for the China Apostolate. It thoroughly examines this Franciscan evangelization project, as developed in a body of theological, missiological and official Church documents, historical accounts and epistles. It explores not only its basic theological assumptions, but also its ideological, spiritual, and symbolical underpinnings. It analyses the ways in which the Franciscan missionaries attempted to introduce Christianity to a civilization that was, in many aspects, alien to the Christian message, and in which ways they tried (or resisted) to reconcile Christian spirituality and doctrine to the specific Chinese spiritual and cultural idiom.


Iveta Nakládalová is a specialist in Early Modern Comparative Literature and Cultural History. Her lines of research include Early Modern theory of reading and censorship, premodern epistemological practices, Early Modern spiritual literature, and utopia. Her current research is focused on the history of Christian missionary enterprise in China (Ming and early Qing Dynasties, 16th- early 17th centuries), in particular on the theoretical underpinning of the Catholic Apostolate in China, and on the Early Modern representation and textual construction of China.



One of the outcomes of this project was the international workshop “Ut sanguis martyrum sit semen christianorum:  Martyrdom in Early modern Christian missions in Asia”, celebrated at Palacky University Olomouc, 1-2 June 2022.

Martyrdom -understood in the Christian culture as suffering and, ultimately, death for Christ-, is a rich and controversial field of study, which has received considerable scholarly attention, especially in the last decades. The idea of martyrdom is, by its very nature, intrinsic to the Christian evangelization enterprise, because the Apostolate is considered as the continuation of the activity of Christ’s disciples in spreading the faith, and as the perpetuation of the deeds and the doctrine of Jesus Christ as well as of his Passion.

From this point of view, martyrdom is deeply embedded in the missionary discourse and imagery. In fact, Early Modern Christian missions are bound to the idea of martyrdom not only in their theological and spiritual underpinning, but also in practice: missionary relationes often depict suffering, hardship, persecution, and in many cases, heroic deaths in the name of God’s glory. Moreover, the Jesuit indipetae letters are full of desire of martyrdom, longing for death in the Indies. Despite this relevance of martyrdom for Early Modern evangelization enterprise, the scholarly exploration of this particular period is fairly limited, especially in regards of a global, integrative perspective not focused on single case studies.

The workshop aimed at contributing to the study or martyrdom in Early Modern missions, especially in Asia (complemented with Latin American perspectives). This period is, in our understanding, crucial for the very idea of martyrdom, because it was precisely in the 16th century, following the confessional split between the Catholics and the Protestants, when the Catholic notion of martyrdom re-emerged after its medieval latency. The aim of the workshop is to explore the idea and the practices of martyrdom in Early modern missions from multiple points of view, including, in the first place, historical and literary, but also anthropological, theological or iconographical perspectives.

• Program 

• Book of abstracts 

• Poster


New Worlds. Far East in Early Modern European Culture

One of the topics closely related to the project is the Early modern representation of China and Japan (and of the Orient in general), created in the 16th and 17th centuries mainly by Catholic missionaries active in those territories, and transmitted in their relationes (informs), chronicles and letters addressed to their European brethren. What is the image of the Far East in these documents? How do missionaries perceive and undertstand these new worlds, which are often completely alien to the European eye, and how do they transmit their experience to the readers back in Europe? What is the result of the encounter of the first-hand missionary experience with the often dreamlike image of the Orient, that had been present in European imagination from the Middle Ages?

The exhibition focused on the image and the myth of China and Japan in early modern Europe. Its aim was to present a selection of old prints in the collection of Research Library in Olomouc. These texts played a decisive role in the creation of the image of China and Japan in the 17th century, and it should be remembered that this early modern image is extremely influential also for the contemporary Western perception of the Far East.  


This book was published to accompany the exhibition New Worlds. The Far East in Early Modern European Culture, held in 2023 at the Research Library Olomouc, one of the largest libraries in the Czech Republic. The aim of the exhibition was to present a selection from its ancient collection’s prints that contributed to the image of China and Japan in the 17th century, a key period for the Western perception of the Far East. The book analyzes both its discursive and iconographic representation in contemporary books, engravings, and illustrations. It employs the perspective of the Otherness, in order to show how the European view of the Far East is determined by expectations, stereotypes, fantasies and dreams about an exotic and magical Orient that have existed in European imagery since the Middle Ages and that remain in force to this day.

Nakládalová, I. (2023). Nové světy. Dálný východ v evropské kultuře raného novověku. Research Library Olomouc.


The outcomes of the project were presented at the following conferences:

  1. 24th biennial conference of the European Association for Chinese Studies (EACS)
    UPOL, Olomouc, 24-27 August 2022

  2. International Workshop Caute lege: lectura y escrúpulo en la Primera Edad Moderna
    Colegio de España, Paris, 22-23 September 2022
    Seminario de Estudios sobre el Renacimiento (UAB) a Centre de Recherche sur l’Espagne des XVIe et XVIIe siècles (Sorbonne Nouvelle)

  3. International Workshop Devoción y disenso en la Monarquía hispánica durante la primera modernidad
    29-30 September 2022, Instituto de Estudios Medievales y Renacentistas y de Humanidades Digitales, Universidad de Salamanca, Spain

  4. Ecclesiastical History Society Summer Conference 2022-23: “The Church and Hypocrisy¨
    York, Great Britain
    19-21 July 2022


The project has been furthermore presented at the following dissemination events:

  1. MSCA Fostering Balanced Mobility Flows in Europe
    Online conference 2021, Slovenia, Ljubljana, 15-16 November 2021

  2. Jornadas de investigación del Seminario de Estudios sobre el Renacimiento
    online, 1 February 2022

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