There has never been much that China has wanted from the outside world. Exotic produce from Southeast Asian rainforests used to be of interest; now it’s luxury goods from London and Paris, plus entire vineyards in Bordeaux. Foreign ideas, too, have rarely interested China. It took millennia to develop the blend of Confucianism and Taoism that has served most of the Middle Kingdom’s spiritual needs.
There have been gaps, though. Buddhism filled some of these, and Christianity a bit less. Neither Catholic nor Protestant missionaries convinced many in China that they offered a superior product. But there was one exception. European missionaries who arrived in the 13th century found female deities among the pantheon of Chinese folk religions. They tended to personify somewhat impersonal qualities such as water or the Moon. The warm-blooded tenderness of a mother and child, especially a son, was missing.
The Franciscans brought images of the Virgin Mary with Jesus, which turned out to be the most enduring part of their mission. When they were expelled in 1369, the imagery remained. Divorced from its original meaning, the Madonna and Child iconography was incorporated into something more Chinese with a Buddhist veneer. Buddhism was also a foreign religion in China, no matter how closely Westerners now associate the two. Indeed, its temples have not escaped the current wrath of Xi Jinping – and he is thought to be a Buddhist himself.
The Franciscan mission to China had been welcomed by the Mongols, who ruled the empire until 1368. Emperors such as Kublai Khan had Nestorian Christian mothers from Central Asia and corresponded with the pope in Rome. When the nativist Ming dynasty took back control for the Han Chinese, one of their first actions was to expel foreign religions.
The Franciscans were soon forgotten. The Jesuits arrived two centuries later and were astonished to find statues and paintings that seemed to be of the Madonna and Child. Some may have been. The majority were a conflation of the Indian-Buddhist Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (in East Asia, Guanyin) and Chinese folk beliefs. While travelling from India to China, the formerly male deity had been transformed first into androgyny and then full-on femininity – and had also acquired a child. The new “son-bearing Bodhisattva” was an entirely Chinese invention, especially cherished by women hoping for male offspring.
Much of the evidence suggests the inspiration for this imagery came from Catholic missionaries. The Franciscans were firm advocates of the Madonna of Humility. In this manifestation, the Virgin sits without ceremony on the ground or a low platform holding the baby Jesus. There are striking similarities between this and the Guanyin-plus-baby iconography that proliferated afterwards. There is one example that is surely the Madonna and Child, rather than their Buddhist counterparts. A gravestone in Yangzhou has a Latin inscription for Katerina Vilionis, a Catholic resident who died in 1342. Clearly visible is the Madonna of Humility, along with some angels and another scene depicting the execution of the deceased’s namesake, Catherine of Alexandria.
Inevitably, some of the Madonna’s humility was overlooked in later images. “Regally enthroned” would be a better description. Chinese artisans were also inclined to add figures who gathered at Mary’s feet. These might be Buddhist acolytes or were perhaps inspired by less-humble versions of the Madonna of Humility in which Mary is accompanied by angels or heavenly musicians.
The growing confusion of identity would have been useful for persecuted Christians throughout East Asia. There were eras in which to display Christian imagery was a crime; the confusion could save lives.
In a curious reversal, Europe became an important market for Chinese figurines. It was common to see on a ship’s manifest statuettes listed as being the Virgin Mary. This was how the European importers described them; the ceramicists probably thought they were images of Guanyin. Most of them were in the ethereal-looking whiteish porcelain known as Blanc de Chine, which seemed to embody the sanctity of the Virgin Mary and Child.
There is a further twist to the trail of the Madonna in China. Despite being unaware of the possible Western origin of Guanyin, its religious affairs department has been transforming statues of her into Confucius. To be fair, it’s not usually Son-bearing Guanyins who are the victims, but to see even the childless female form now topped with an old man’s head is disturbing. If the revival of Confucian values of male supremacy continues, it is unlikely we will ever see Guanyins of the future with a female child instead of the desired son of traditional China.