Historisches Institut


Gender and Religion in Cultural Exchange: Norms and Practices in Chinese Christianity, 1583–1724

Research Project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (1.1.2011 – 31.12.2013)

The results of this project have been published in the following book:
Nadine Amsler, Jesuits and Matriarchs: Domestic Worship in Early Modern China, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2018.


Research director

Research fellow

  • Prof. Dr. Nadine Amsler, Assistenzprofessorin (mit Tenure Track) für Geschichte der Frühen Neuzeit, Universität Basel

Research subject

When the Jesuits arrived in China at the end of the sixteenth century, they remarked that gender relations here were different from gender relations in their native societies. They described the perceived differences in their letters and relations published in Europe, often praising the virtuousness of Chinese women. In local communities however, Chinese gender relations represented a challenge for the Jesuit mission. Missionaries and Chinese Christians faced the question of how Christian and Chinese gender norms and practices could combine. In many cases, the introduction of Christianity led to a negotiation of gender norms between Chinese actors and missionaries. As a result, new gender norms and practices emerged from the situation of cultural exchange which took place in Chinese Christianity during the long seventeenth century.

The project aims at studying these gender norms and practices within the Chinese Christian communities established by Jesuit missionary activity, during the long seventeenth century. Following the approach of recent studies on Chinese Christianity, we treat these communities as local Christianities. Their norms were established by multi-directional processes of communication; subaltern actors played a major role in shaping their forms of piety and gender norms. Chinese Christian communities constituted spaces of cultural exchange, in which gender norms and practices that elsewhere in local communities were regarded as normal, were questioned and therefore articulated.

Main questions

Particularly, the project focuses on processes of adoption and transformation of gender norms and practices within Chinese Christian communities, including as well the resistances against these social changes. With regard to norms, the project relies on the approach of historical discourse analysis: we study how different normative gender discourses coexisted in Chinese Christian communities and how various actors took part in them. In order to shed light on processes and limits of transfer, the project also focuses on translations.

With regard to practices, we apply a sociological understanding: we ask in which social structures Chinese Christian practice was embedded, and what impact gender norms had on the development of these structures. Furthermore, we study how Chinese Christians and Jesuit missionaries were “doing gender” while being involved in a variety of informal and formal (ritualized) religious and communal practices. The project addresses these central questions from the beginning of the Jesuit China mission in 1583 to the proscription of Christianity by the Yongzheng emperor in 1724. In this chronological set-up, we consider different geographical (Jiangnan region and Beijing) and social (rural and urban) contexts.

Watching Cats while Handling Prayer Beads (Yongzheng’s Screen of Twelve Beauties, between 1709 and 1723)


Because of Jesuit as well as Chinese publishing activities, seventeenth-century Chinese Christianity is unique as a particularly well documented case of cultural exchange. This allows the researcher to rely upon a wide range of sources. The latter include published missionary sources in various European languages and in Chinese, archival missionary sources, and published Chinese language sources written by converts, sympathizers, and opponents of the new religion.


  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Chinese Christianity
  • Jesuit Missions
  • Post-Tridentine Catholicism
  • Cultural Exchange
  • Connected History
  • China
  • Europe