The Ecclesiastical Mission

Such was the beginning of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Beijing. For over 250 years it provided Christian enlightenment to Albazinians and native Chinese, and served as the base for the Russian scholars of Chinese land, language, history, and culture. Commenting on the Mission's opening and on conversion of a number of Chinese, Emperor Peter the Great observed:

"This is a very important enterprise. But, for God's sake, let us be cautious and circumspect, not to provoke either the Chinese authorities or the Jesuits whose den is there since long ago. To this end, the clergymen are needed not so much as scholarly, but rather reasonable and amicable, lest this holy effort suffers a painful defeat because of certain kind of arrogance".[3]

Although Peter I is rarely counted among Christian sources, in this case his foresight proved to be amazingly accurate.

The work of the Mission had its ups and downs, but we always see its best representatives following the original guidelines and combine the highest levels of knowledge with deep respect to the country they lived in, to her people and culture. Take for instance Archimandrite Hyacinth Bichurin, Chief of the Ninth Mission in Beijing (1808-1820), one of the most prominent sinologists, author of many scholarly works, Pushkin's friend and inspirer:

"Fr. Hyacinth immediately plunged into the Chinese life, and soon he was feeling himself completely at home. He got used to the Chinese, learned the language to perfection... broad contacts with local people gave him accurate and first-hand knowledge of the country and its life."[4]

Or listen to Archimandrite Peter Kamensky, Chief of the Tenth Mission (1820-1830), who wrote about his contacts with Chinese dignitaries:

"This great minister of the local faith, a Manchurian named Kutouhta, became our good friend in Beijing. He visited us very often, many times was present at the Divine Liturgy, invited us for dinner, and so did we..."[5]

Those who see St. Stephen of Perm, St.Herman of Alaska, St.Innocent of the Aleutian Islands, or St.Nicholas of Japan as a role model for a Christian missionary will find little noteworthy in the above quotes: basically, what else should be expected? But if we hold these saints as a standard, alternative ideals and examples of enlightenment of heathens abound in the Western world ever since the Crusades.

Visible results of the Mission's work could be more impressive. Numbers of the Chinese Orthodox would grow and then shrink again. During the periods of persecutions, Chinese converts would sometimes mask themselves as Albazinians:

"...With God's help and protection, the measures of the Chinese government have not affected our Orthodox Christians of Albazinian origin: it is well known that they are Russian descendants. Thus, other Chinese and Manchurian Christians could safely go to the Church, pretending they were also Albazinians:... in 1768 the Great Khan issued a very stern decree, prohibiting all Manchurians, Chinese, Mongolians and Koreans to convert into a foreign faith under the pain of terrible punishment..."[6]

Unfortunately, Albazinians seemed to be far from exemplary Christians: frequent were complaints of their ignorance, weakness in faith, tendency towards pagan customs, drunkenness... The year of 1900 will judge them from a different standpoint, however, reminding once again of how limited the human judgment could be, and how dangerous it is to draw a line between "good" and "bad" Christians.

[3] V.P. Petrov. Rossijskaja Duhovnaja Missija v Kitae. Victor Kamkin, 1968, p.17
[4] Ibid., p. 64
[5] Ibid., p. 74
[6] Ibid., p. 50