Русский | | "Diplomat". DIPLOMACY AND RELIGION column. pg 22-27 (September 2008)


Portrait of Archimandrite
Ioakinf (N.Ya. Bichurin),
chief of the 9th mission,
in Chinese dress

The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Beijing was entered into the Guinness Book of Records for occupying more area than any other embassy in the world. Only a few people now remember that the Embassy sits on just a fraction of the grounds of the former Russian Ecclesiastical Mission that performed the functions of both an outpost of Orthodoxy and the Embassy of Russia to China.

Christianity came to China as early as the 7th century. Starting in the 16th century, Western missionaries did not confine themselves only to teaching the Gospel in Confucian China. Using the scientific and technical knowledge of the Western world, the missionaries became trusted people at the imperial court serving as astronomers, mathematicians, physicians, and translators there. They influenced — with varying degrees of success — the policy then followed by Chinese rulers, including foreign policy.

View of Mission's
North Compound

(Bei-guan), 1805.
Drawing by a Chinese artist

Unlike Western Christianity, Orthodoxy came to China much later, at the end of the 17th century. In 1685, after the troops of the Qing dynasty yet again laid siege to the Albazin fortress on the Amur River, the Russian Cossacks had to leave Albazin fortress. Qing military commanders took some of the Cossacks with them to Beijing as a proof of their victory. Emperor Kangxi was benevolent to them, he assigned them to the imperial guard, formed a "Russian company" of them, allocated food supplies for them and settled them in the northeastern corner of the external city wall. The captured Cossacks took a priest, Father Maxim (Leontyev) with them to Beijing. When leaving Albazin, they also brought simple church vessels and an Icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, the Bishop of Myra in Lycia. The Buddhist shrine next to the Beijing houses where the Albazinians were billeted was transformed into an Orthodox chapel named after St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Father Maxim conducted services there, thus becoming the first Orthodox preacher in China. When Emperor Peter the Great learned about the existence of Orthodox Christians in the Chinese capital, he thought it would be a good idea to set up a Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Beijing to promote Russian interests and develop Russo-Chinese relations. However, it was not until Father Maxim died in 1711 that the Qing emperor consented to receive the Russians sent to man the Church Mission in China. They arrived in Beijing in 1715.

Kitayski Blagovestnik
(Chinese Evangelist)
magazine. 1930

The Beijing Mission, the earliest of all the foreign missions of the Russian Orthodox Church, was founded at a time when the Qing dynasty in China was conducting an isolationist policy of "closed doors." Up to 1864, the Mission actually served as Russia's unofficial diplomatic mission in China and was subordinated to the Holy Synod and to the Collegium of Foreign Affairs (renamed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia in the early 19th century). Emperor Kangxi conferred high court ranks on all the Mission's members, salaries in cash and rice, and allotted state living quarters next to the Albazinian church, which was near Dongzhimen, the east gate of Beijing. Except for Russia, no state had representatives of its own in China under the Qing dynasty until the 1860s.

All those years, the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission was a connecting link between Russia and the Middle Kingdom and a source of reliable information about China—its language, history and culture—for Russia, and, on the other hand, a source of information about Russia for China. From the mid-18th century on, the Beijing Mission carried out programs for studying China developed by the Russian Academy of Sciences. For a long time, it was the only Russian center for Chinese studies. By the mid-19th century, works of scholars who had been at the Beijing Mission raised Russian Chinese studies to the world level.

Portrait of Archimandrite
Peter (P. I. Kamensky),
chief of the 10th mission.

The Mission was also engaged in enlightenment, inasmuch as it was possible in a closed society, which China was during the Qing dynasty. On the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission's recommendation and with its direct participation, there was an exchange of books on astronomy, medicine, mathematics, history and an exchange of geographic maps and artworks between the rulers and governments. The Mission's lay members, including students, artists, doctors as well as police officers attached to accompany the next mission to China and protect the members of the earlier mission returning to Russia, were all actively involved in research work, cultural exchanges, and in studying Chinese culture. The Mission's members taught Russian at the Russian Language School founded under the Imperial Chancellery in the early 18th century. The physicians treated high-ranking Chinese, whereas the artists did portraits of them. Many Mission's members were decorated with Russian government awards, conferred high scientific degrees and some even became world-famous scientists.

Portrait of Archbishop
Viktor (L. Svyatin),
chief of the last 20th
mission (1935—1954)

The Mission's diplomatic importance especially increased when the infrequent envoys came from Russia and during talks and the signing of treaties. The Mission's clergymen and staff were used as experts, translators and interpreters. They also took an active part in the negotiating process. They worked particularly hard during the 13th (1850—1858) and 14th (1858—1864) missions when four Russo-Chinese treaties were signed within 10 years: the treaties of Kuldja, Aigun, Tientsin and Beijing. After a Russian diplomatic mission was established in Beijing in 1861 and other foreign diplomatic missions followed suit in 1864, the Beijing Ecclesiastical Mission focused on missionary and scientific areas.

From the very start, the Mission in Beijing made it a point not to try to actively spread Orthodoxy in the culturally different Confucian environment. Tsar Peter the Great took account of exactly this point that was important under the conditions of Qingruled China. He cautioned the Church and officials against hurrying to convert the population to Orthodoxy. "It is a truly complicated matter. For God's sake, don't do anything rash for fear of enraging the Chinese superiors or the Jesuits who have built a nest there a long time ago…" The tsar gave that warning back in 1698 in a letter to A. A. Vinius, head of Sibirsky Prikaz (Siberian regional administration). The instructions of Mission's top officials were formulated in much the same spirit up to 1864. Following with those guidelines, the members of the Mission tactfully declined the offers of the Qing authorities to fill the positions vacated after the expulsion of the Jesuits. Nor did the Mission's members get involved in the internal affairs of Qing China. Due to the Beijing Mission's special status set down in the Russian-Chinese Treaty of Kyakhta of 1728, its successes or failures affected the development of Russo-Chinese relations.

As the Albazinian captives passed away, their descendents born in their marriages with Chinese, Manchurian, and Mongol wives gradually lost touch with Russian culture and their Orthodox roots. The members of the Mission realized that both theological and liturgical texts needed to be translated into Chinese in order to bring that congregation back into the fold. The staff of all the succeeding missions starting with the 11th (1830—1840) mission worked on the arduous translation of those texts from Church Slavonic into Chinese, painstakingly choosing equivalents of Orthodox terms, notions, and symbols that were familiar to the Chinese. The New Testament alone was translated three times, the last time in the early 20th century. The attempt of Father Isaya (15th mission) to hold church services in Chinese failed, because the Synod's instructions, as before, prescribed services be conducted only in Church Slavonic. It was not until the appearance of the first Chinese-born Orthodox priest, Father (Mitrofan Tszi) Mitrophan Ji (16th mission), that the Mission began using Chinese in the church services.

Aware of the steadfastness of the traditions of Chinese society as well as the special role played by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, which had long filled all spheres of the spiritual life of Chinese society, the Mission's members began studying, along with the official languages of Qing China, (Manchurian, Chinese and Mongolian), Tibetan and Sanskrit. They used the knowledge acquired in translating the most significant ancient Chinese and medieval treatises into Russian and studying them. The members of the Mission also studied China's life of that time, the history of the ruling Qing dynasty, and the peculiarities of the latter's rule.

The following clergymen and employees of the Beijing Mission made an invaluable contribution to studying China, its languages, history, politics, and ethnography: Archimandrite Ioakinf (N.Ya. Bichurin), chief of the 9th mission; Archimandrite Pallady (P. I. Kafarov), chief of the 13th and 15th missions; Hieromonk Nikolay (Adoratsky); Archimandrite Peter (P. I. Kamensky); Academician V. P. Vasilyev, D. A. Peshchurov, K. A. Skachkov, Z. F. Leontyevsky, I. Rossokhin, A. Leontyev and many more.

The 20th century began with harrowing trials for the Beijing Mission: during the Boxer Rebellion, otherwise known as the uprising of the Yihetuan (1898—1901), the Mission's Bei-guan (the north church) was looted and burned. Orthodox temples in other parts of China were also destroyed. In Beijing alone, 222 Orthodox Chinese were massacred. Despite the fact that the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission was rebuilt and transformed into a diocese thanks to the efforts of Archbishop Innocent (Figurovsky), the chief of the 18th mission, who became metropolitan in the last years of his life) the trials went on until the Mission was closed in 1954.

The year 1917 not only dramatically changed the Mission's status, goals and methods of work, but virtually brought it to the brink of bankruptcy due to the breaking off of ties with Russia and the suspension of funding. The Mission fell into debt and to get out of it the Mission was compelled to sell part of its property. In 1924 the Mission won a court case versus the Soviet government — Metropolitan Innocent proved that the property was owned by the Church and not by the state. Later, both the Kuomintang rulers and Japanese claimed the Mission's property which, by the way, was fairly large. The Mission made it through all those trials without any serious losses, which was due, to no small measure, to the forceful actions of Metropolitan Innocent and Archbishop Viktor, the chief of the last, 20th, Mission.

In 1919 and early 1920, after the defeat of the White Movement in Siberia and the Far East, a flood of Russian refugees poured into China. Many of them were helped by the Mission. The coffins with the remains of the "Alapayevsk prisoners": the Grand Princess Yelizaveta Fyodorovn, five other members of the Tsar's family and two of their life companions killed in Alapayevsk by the Bolsheviks were interred in the Mission church. The Mission tried to soften the hard lot of Russian Émigrés and carried on with its charitable and educational activities.

The complex but lustrous history of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission came to an end in Communist China in 1954.

A. S. Ipatova, leading researcher, Institute of Far Eastern
Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Illustrations from the contributor's archive

The article was written as part of the scientific project "Russia's Relations with China in the 18th—20th Centuries" with the financial support of RGNF (Russian Humanitarian Scientific Foundation).