Jesus never really fit the traditional mold of a Jewish rabbi, did he? He was a celibate man, but he traveled with a band of disciples that included women (Luke 8:1-3). He surrounded himself with those who were poor and with people considered unclean and “sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13). And he urged people to sell their goods and live simply (Luke 12:32-33).
So it should come as no surprise that, as the gospel spread around the world, Christians in every generation would also “break the mold” of whatever culture they lived in. This is especially true in far-flung places like China, which enforced very strict roles for men and women. As the head of the family, the father was the authority figure. He interacted with the outside world, controlled family property, and arranged marriages for his children. Wives rarely went out into society and were expected to obey their husbands in every aspect of their lives.
Yet it has been said that the Church in China would not have survived without the outward-focused evangelistic work of women. And one woman in particular stands out in this regard: Candida Xu (1607–1680), a wellborn woman who has been called “the Apostle of China.”
A Mixed Marriage. Candida Xu was born in Shanghai in 1607. Her family was known for its generosity and love of learning. Her grandfather, Xu Guangqi, a high government official, was baptized as a Catholic in 1603. This led to the conversion of his son and daughter-in-law, who made sure that Candida and her eight siblings were baptized soon after they were born.
Candida was a sweet child who happily learned the teachings, prayers, and practices of her faith. She recited the Rosary daily from an early age and developed a rich devotion to Mary. When she was sixteen, she was married to Xu Yuandu, a young man from the neighboring city of Songjiang. Their names were pronounced the same, but they came from different families. Xu Yuandu had been raised by his grandfather, Xu Leshan, who met Western missionaries while serving as an official in Beijing and was baptized in 1610.
When Xu Yuandu and Candida were still children, their grandfathers had arranged for them to marry. Xu Guangqi believed that this union would assure that Candida would remain free to practice her faith. But Xu Leshan’s interest in Christianity was passing. He neither had his grandson baptized nor taught him the faith, and the family returned to the practice of Buddhism. Since they were obligated by a contract, Candida and Xu Yuandu were married nonetheless. At the wedding ceremony, Candida bowed to an image of Jesus while Xu Yuandu bowed to a statue of the Buddha. The couple eventually moved to Songjiang, in the northwest part of the country, where Xu Yuandu taught in a local school.
A New Network of Faith. Adapting to life with a Buddhist husband was difficult for Candida, especially since Xu Yuandu tried to prevent her from practicing her faith. Committed to obeying her husband, Candida could only ask for prayers from her family. In a letter to one of her sisters, she wrote, “Now I live here among Gentiles, where no one cultivates these matters of salvation. What is worse, my husband prevents me from my holy exercises.” But relying on her family’s intercession and the goodness of God, Candida gently persisted. Eventually her husband was won over and permitted her to take up her devotions again.
When Candida first moved to Songjiang, the Church there was very young and meetings were held in a house. There were very few priests, so Masses were rare. For the most part, the believers gathered to pray, to share about their faith, and to encourage one another. It wasn’t until some fifteen years later, in the late 1630s, that an actual church was built.
Because Chinese social practice did not allow men and women to meet together, they gathered at separate times, or the women met in a home while the men went to the church. When a priest could visit, he celebrated Mass with the men while the women chanted prayers in a separate location.
But this is where Candida began to break the mold of a quiet, deferential wife. She began scraping together whatever money she could until she had enough to fund the building of a small separate church for the women. She named it the Chapel of the Blessed Mother. That chapel made a huge difference, for it allowed the women to form a strong network of faith.
Difficulties at Home. Xu Yuandu loved Candida deeply, and through her example, he developed a genuine concern for the poor in their region. In the 1630s and 1640s, Northwest China experienced a punishing cycle of droughts and floods that caused repeated crop failures. Moved by the plight of starving peasants and desperate refugees, Candida and Xu Yuandu used all their spare money to feed as many people as they could.
At some point, Xu Yuandu contracted tuberculosis, but his suffering was eased—and his life prolonged—by Candida’s skill in herbal remedies. In 1651, however, he took a sudden turn for the worse, and he finally agreed to be baptized. Xu Yuandu died two years later.
Over the next three years, Candida’s grief was compounded by the deaths of her eldest daughter, her second son, a granddaughter, and the wife of her third son. In her sorrow over all these losses, Candida turned to the Lord for strength and consolation. She also began to ponder how she could serve the Lord and his Church more directly now that she no longer had her husband to care for.
Businesswoman and Evangelist. The answer came quickly. The Jesuit missionaries in China had been sorely lacking in funds, so Candida decided to sell the fine embroidered objects she had created over the years to help them. She was a skilled embroiderer, and some of her pieces rivaled paintings in their beauty and detail. But rather than donate the sizable amount of money she had raised, she invested it instead in the commercial economy of the lower Yangzi River.
Candida proved to be a shrewd businesswoman. She acquired a fortune from her investments and used it to undertake a host of evangelistic and construction projects for the Church. In some form or another, she had a hand in just about every church, chapel, and mission in the country. She supported missionaries, financed thirty-nine buildings, and funded the publication of Catholic books and pamphlets.
Candida also continued her commitment to helping the poor in a personal way. Following the death of her husband, she moved into the women’s quarters in the home of her eldest son, Xu Zuanzeng. As was customary, there were no windows or outside doors in this part of the house, and women were not allowed to answer the front door themselves. So she paid for a separate entrance off the women’s quarters. There she was able to meet with the needy, offer them food and clothing, pray with them, and share the gospel with them.
At other times, she acted as a facilitator. For instance, she initiated a project to teach blind storytellers about Jesus so that they could make a living telling Christian stories. She also hosted a group of young women who went out into the community with food, medicine, and Catholic publications. She left no stone unturned!
“Is Your Soul at Peace?” Candida did not hesitate to leverage her son’s devotion to her and his status as a high government official to help carry out her projects. One day when he was visiting her, she asked him, “You, son, held the governorship in the province of Yunnan for more than a year. Tell me, how many did you give life to in that time? How many times did you show sympathy? Is your soul at peace?” Having successfully jogged his conscience, she suggested that he help her start an orphanage.
Xu Zuanzeng got down to business and enlisted the aid of the wealthy and powerful in the area. He donated a house he owned to serve as the orphanage, and with much of the funding provided by his mother, he hired servants, wet nurses, and doctors to care for the children. In the first twenty years of its existence, this orphanage rescued nearly five thousand baby boys and girls.
Leading the Way. There is so much more we wish we knew about Candida Xu: personal details, stories, and her own words about her life and faith. But we do know the important things: that until her death in 1680, she lived simply and shared all she had, that she was faithful to her responsibilities, and that she was utterly devoted to God.
In a society where women were separate and secluded, Candida found both creative and practical ways to live her faith and share it with the people around her. And by doing so, she not only built up the Church in China; she also paved the way for more women in her country to take an active role in the work of evangelization.
Gail King writes from Utah. Her book, A Model for All Christian Women: Candida Xu, a Chinese Christian Woman of the Seventeenth Century, is available on Kindle.