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
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.
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
Portrait of Archbishop
Viktor (L. Svyatin),
chief of the last 20th
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).