Imperium inter Imperia: The Catholic Church in Shanghai, 1842-1957


Steven Pieragastini

PhD defended at: 

Brandeis University


This dissertation is a study of the Catholic Church in Shanghai and its hinterland (Jiangnan) from the 1840s until the late 1950s. This region was home to a sizable Catholic community from the seventeenth century which maintained its religious devotion despite suppression and isolation during the mid-Qing era. Following the Opium War (1839-42), European Catholic missionaries capitalized on a tide of imperialistic ventures to develop a well-financed and wide-ranging missionary enterprise in China, with the French Jesuits’ Jiangnan Mission being among the most successful mission fields. The strength of this mission resulted in large part from its curious alliance with the anticlerical French state, which provided Catholics with extensive diplomatic and military support in exchange for using Catholicism as a conduit for promoting the mission civilisatrice (spreading French language, culture, and ideas) in China. The mission also benefited from the fractured administration of treaty port Shanghai; where several imperial projects overlapped, a space was created that belonged to none of them but instead was the province of “entrepreneurs.” Though historians have tended to focus on business tycoons, gangsters, and aspiring revolutionaries, the Catholic Church was also such an extra-governmental power holder in the city, one which collected revenue and distributed services (including poverty alleviation, health care, and education) in ways similar to a modern state. By situating themselves not within but between the bureaucracies of Chinese and Western imperial orders (less so an imperium in imperio than an imperium inter imperia), the Church capitalized heavily on jurisdictional lacunae and legal gray areas, most notably by accruing vast real estate holdings throughout the region.
But the power accumulated in the nineteenth century would become a political liability in the early twentieth century, as the missionaries faced intense pressure from the Holy See and the Chinese Catholic community on the one hand to create an indigenous church, and from ambitious Chinese state-builders on the other seeking to extirpate the remnants of imperialism, including treaty rights granted to Catholic missions. However, despite being challenged by long-building forces of nationalism and state centralization, the Catholic Church was granted social and political capital by a succession of Chinese governments in exchange for providing educational, charitable, and medical services that the state was unable or unwilling to deliver. All of China’s twentieth century regimes (imperial, Nationalist, Japanese collaborationist, and Communist) aimed to craft policies that would limit the wealth and power of the Church, but the Church’s prominence and provision of social services forced each regime to accept a conciliatory approach. Even after the Church lost its autonomy and Catholic institutions were subsumed into a seemingly hegemonic party-state after 1949, there were initially broad continuities in Church-State relations. It was only in 1958 with the launch of the Great Leap Forward that overt religious activity faced outright suppression, which peaked during the Cultural Revolution, after which a familiar pattern of Church-State relations reemerged. Therefore, in spite of the dramatic political changes across China’s twentieth century, there was a great deal of continuity in the institutional logic of the state towards the Catholic Church, and religious organizations more broadly, which was augmented by steadily increasing bureaucratic capacities.