Christian missionaries coming from Europe had a lot of things on their minds. These priests were trained in the art of scholarly achievement, put through rigorous testing mentally throughout their entire lives in the monastic order. They also had to be physically powerful as well to survive a long walk or boat ride out to Asia. In essence, these were the finest and brightest people that the Western world had to offer to Asia. Large barriers in language and culture stood between the missionaries and the people they were trying to enlighten with their scripture and teachings. The road ahead had nothing but uncertainly, the path they chose to take was lined with questions, and doubt must have entered even their faithful minds at times. They came to the Asian countries as merchants, as priests, and most importantly, as scholars. Each branch of Asian civilization acted in a different way to these scholars that had come into their countries from lands they had never seen with their own eyes. In Korea the Catholics were thought wary of until plans written in a letter requesting the French army to come and take over Korea, and Catholicism itself was only seen by the yangban (ruling class of the Chosun dynasty) as a way to become a better Confucian. In India the Christians attacked rapidly, eventually fully colonizing all of India under the Queen's name at one point. The focus of this paper, however, is on the Christian missionaries to China and Japan. What happened in these two prominent Asian countries to Christian missionaries is well-documented; this paper intends to show that while having a little success in the beginning of the missionaries in these countries, neither of them amounted to anything in Asia as time wore onward. Integral Asian thought, such as the father-child and King/Emperor-subject relationship were all challenged by Christianity and their "all-powerful" god.
In 1534, the Christian missionaries started to pour into China. There were a few reasons for doing taking this kind of action - sending their most prized scholars into lands they do not even know. The main reason was a simple one - they wanted more converts as the basic cornerstone of Catholicism is to constantly be spreading the word of Jesus through actions and words.
This was designed to regain ground lost to the Protestants and included renewed efforts to spread Catholicism abroad. In 1534 Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, also called the Order of the Jesuits, dedicated to reaffirming and teaching the Roman Catholic faith and to winning new converts. Asia became the major target because of its huge population and because of the Western conviction that Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism were not legitimate or adequate religions at all and hence should easily yield to the superior message of Christianity. (244-245, Murphey)
The Christians obviously underestimated the Chinese mind and ability to reason, as well as what kind of deep-seeded root Confucianism had taken hold of everything in Chinese culture. There were significant breakthroughs, such as that of Matteo Ricci, who not only amazed the Chinese with his photographic memory, but also his ability to learn Chinese as well as the Classical Chinese texts. Eventually he came to rise as far as to be accepted by the Chinese court. These small successes did not last long however.
The conflicts between Chinese customs (like Confucianism and ancestor worship) and the Catholic doctrine led to one of the biggest confrontations between the Chinese government and the Catholic movement. In the 44th year of Emperor Wenli (1616 A.D., Ming Dynasty), a high ranking official in Nanjing, called Shen Huai, advised the Emperor repeatedly that Catholicism should be banned for the following reasons. 1) Western missionaries were spies, 2) Catholicism taught Chinese not to respect parents and worship ancestors, 3) Western missionaries stole proprietary Chinese knowledge, 4) Catholicism practiced weird customs like Chrismation, baptism and allowed male and female followers to study in the same room (forbidden by the conservative Chinese society). (Yutopian.com)
The Chinese response to this was pretty heavy-handed. Their decision was to send all of the missionaries back to their respective homelands and to not allow any more to come back into China, their followers converted back to Confucianism, and their churches destroyed. This edict was taken very lightly, as the Chinese Court also ruled later laws against the Jesuits who obviously were still in the country. Eventually it was the Pope who put a stop to these missionaries, as the Vatican had caught wind of the "watering down" of Christianity the missionaries were doing in order to make it easier for the Chinese to listen to them and accept them.
In Japan, it became quite a different story altogether. The reaction in Japan was at first welcoming of this new culture, the new ideas, and new civilization, and the expansiveness of brand new trade routes that could be opened up through this act. However the Christians there eventually learned why the rest of Asia felt that the Japanese were "barbarians" quite quickly.
In 1587, Hideyoshi issued an edict expelling Christian missionaries. Nevertheless, Franciscans were able to enter Japan in 1593 and the Jesuits remained active in the West. In 1597 Hideyoshi intensified the persecution of Christian missionaries, forbade further conversions, and executed 26 Franciscans as a warning. Christianity was seen as an obstacle in establishing absolute control over the people; furthermore, many Jesuits and Franciscans had acted aggressively and intolerant towards Shinto and Buddhist institutions. (japan-guide.com)
This action was a very powerful blow to all of the missionaries in Asia. Hideyoshi quickly felt that the usefulness of the Christian missionaries had obviously been outweighed by their annoyance to him and his people. He eventually began to see them as disrupting the peace that he had tried so hard to create, the unified Japan state, and he would not let some foreigners try to take that achievement, that glory away from him.
All Western traders were also expelled by 1638 and relations ended; Portuguese envoys who came in 1640 to ask for a reopening of relations were executed. Japanese were forbidden to go abroad, and no ships capable of overseas trade could be built. In order not to lose complete touch with what has happening in the rest of the world, one or sometimes two Dutch ships a year (because they showed no interest in Christian conversion and were there solely for trade) were permitted to come for trade, on the island of Deshima in Nagasaki Harbor, remote from the centres of Japanese population.
The Japanese subsequently lost almost all Christian influence in their entire country, while the few families that remained Christian had to live underground until missionaries were allowed back in, but much, much later - not until the Meiji Revolution in the 19th century was this privledge granted to foreigners again.
This action clearly shows that one of the main reasons for Japanese and Chinese (as well as Korean) isolationism from Western culture was the constant pressure that their populations were put under from the Christian missionaries. This has much to do with the Asian system of beliefs, in which all loyalty is owed to the Emperor first - the Emperor is the only person who can speak to the gods and communicate with them. Below the Emperor, one was next instructed to obey one's parents before anything else other than the Emperor himself. Christianity flew in the face of this by the fact that all people held allegiance to god first and foremost, as well as all people had a direct discourse with god. Many of the societies had large problems dealing with this kind of ideology, and therefore justly rejected it and the people who practiced it as being disrespectful. One of the main pillars of all Asian culture was the strict class system that was in place. With Christianity's message that all people are equal, this made the lines between classes non-existent, and no one wanted that or truly understood what it meant. The Western culture vastly underestimated Asian culture and their minds, as well as completely ignoring any kind of research at all, which is why, in the end Christianity failed completely in the Far East.
An essay for Asian 101 on Christian Missionaries in China and Japan from the 16th-18th century. Not very good, but still - I typed it up in two hours the day before it was due.