Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Chinese Sacrificial Hat, and Reflections on Inculturation in China

We are very grateful to a Chinese reader for sharing with us this article about the tsikin (also transcribed jijin), the Chinese-style hat formerly worn by priests in China. This was also the subject of one of our NLM quizzes.

The early Jesuit missionaries to China obtained many concessions from the Holy See to adapt Catholic rites and customs to the genius of the Chinese people. Beginning with Pope Paul V’s bull of 1615, permission was granted for a translation of the Roman Missal and Breviary into Chinese, for the continuation of ancestor worship (considered a merely political, social, and cultural practice, not a religious ceremony), and for other unique customs aimed at local inculturation.

The Chinese Rites Controversy that ensued and conflicts of interest between the missionaries’ national sponsors blocked many of those concessions from being carried out, but one permission was applied from the very beginning, and stayed in use for more than 300 years, a considerably long tradition for a place where the Church is merely 400 years old: the use of a distinctive Chinese biretta.
From the Thirteen Emperors Scroll, by Yan Liben (7th century), now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Chinese considered a bare-headed man a disgrace and always appeared covered before a superior. Therefore, all their sacred rituals involved an often ornate sacrificial headwear. Furthermore, Chinese sacrificial vestments were covered with sacred symbols with allegorical meaning, as in the image below. In consideration of this fact, the Jesuits invented a special, symbolic, sacrificial hat for Chinese clergy, the Tsikin (祭巾). Chinese clergy were permitted to wear the Tsikin not only outside choir in place of the Roman biretta, but also during Mass and all sacred functions.

Ming Emperor Shenzong (1563-1620) wearing the most formal Royal Robe of Twelve Ornaments. One of the occasions to wear this robe was to offer sacrifice to heaven. You can see the hat also has a square top and a round bottom. The hat for sacrifice was usually black. The origin of the twelve ornaments on the robe can be traced back to pre-historic period. (
The following text, our translation from a classic Chinese explanation of the Mass, the Sacrificii Missae Explicatio 《彌撒祭義》(1629), written by the Jesuit missionary priest Giulio Aleni, explains the tsikin, and gives the hat a mystical significance:

“Besides the six pieces of the vestment of the priest, currently in China the Pope has permitted the use of a black hat. It has a square top, a round bottom, and four faces. To the top of each face an embroidered square panel is fixed, with three strings hanging from each top corner. One corner faces the front, and from the back hang two long ribbons. This is the sacrificial hat [literally “sacrificial cloth”, pronounced as Jijin or Tsikin 祭巾], signifying the immobility of the uppermost layer of the celestial bodies created by God and the unceasing rotation of those beneath it. The panels of the sacrificial hat face east, west, south, and north, and each face [with its three strings] represents the Trinity of our Lord. Since man is vacillating and not completely faithful, he is not able to enter heaven directly, therefore it also resembles the image of one who is inconstant and errant. Nevertheless, the Holy Cross always rules from above. The whole world has the same origin, and in the beginning there was no difference between one another. Only when man has the constant virtue of humility and the love for both God and man will our Lord grant him to ascend into heaven. The sacrificial hat also represents the crown of thorns worn by our Lord in His passion.” [1]

While Alenio explains that the three strings of the sacrificial hat represent the Trinity, a French Jesuit priest of the 17th c., Théophile Raynaud, in his book Tractatus de Pileo (pp. 148-149) claims that all twelve together represent the twelve gates of Jerusalem. Raynaud further explains why a unique sacrificial hat was so necessary for the Chinese:

“Here we should recall what I mentioned above, that among the Chinese it is a taboo, or at least extremely impolite, ever to leave one’s head uncovered, since this is the way criminals are taken to the gibbet. For this reason Chinese Christians only bare their heads when they confess their sins, to show that they are guilty and worthy of punishment. Since it would have been a scandal for a sacrificing priest to appear without a head covering, they pleaded with Paul V to permit them to respect local custom and not command them to disgrace the sacrifice by allowing the priest to be bareheaded. The pope gave his assent, as long as the head covering was suitable for the sacred and divine action, and differed from a profane hat.” [2]
In an article “Une Pratique Liturgique propre à la Chine” published in Bulletin Catholique de Pekin in 1924, the author repeats the same reasons justifying the concession for the use of the sacrificial hat, saying that according to the traditional Chinese view, the uncovering of head is a sign of contempt and humiliation. He also proposes another reason: the cold winter in China, a problem for a people who typically wore their heads completely shaven besides a pigtail. This reason can be discounted, however, since the hairstyle in question was imposed on the Chinese people by the Manchus in 1644, while the sacrificial hat was permitted decades before, in 1615.

Terracotta Warrior from the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, with typical traditional Chinese hairstyle, 3rd. century BC. (
The priests kept the same Manchu haircut as the local people, for the convenience of their mission.(
For the Chinese Christians, the sacrificial hat was more than a simple vestment; it was a potent symbol of their people’s veneration for sacred sacrifice handed down through 3000 years of civilization, vindicated for Christ. Permitting a Chinese form of the sacrificial hat allowed the missionaries to capture this spirit of veneration, fulfilling the Apostle’s mandate to “lead every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10, 5), much as early Christians in Rome assigned the clergy vestments and signs of veneration usually reserved for the Roman Emperor.

The Tsikin was used in China until the early 20th century, by which time many of the ancient concessions requested by the Jesuits had finally been withdrawn or phased out and a uniform Romanization was enforced by the First Chinese Council of 1924. To Roman officials and local clergy alike, it appeared that the original moral reason for the hat’s introduction had disappeared along with the introduction of European civilization and etiquette into the cities and even the interior of the country. Therefore, the time had come for more rigorous Romanization. From this point of view, as a contemporary author observes, “the sacrificial hat had fallen victim to the social evolution of the Chinese.” [3]

The “social evolution” in question was the advent of western modernism. The 1920s, when the use of the sacrificial hat was officially terminated, was a time of radical social change in China. The spread of western ideas and the overthrow of feudalism began a period of voluntary abandonment of traditional manners by the Chinese themselves. Caught up in this spirit, Catholic priests voluntarily abandoned the ancient hat, so that by the time the order for Romanization came down, there were few who still used it.

Chinese men in western clothes in the 1920s (
In its social context, therefore, official Romanization actually fell in step with the march toward total westernization in China. As a result, it impoverished the local ecclesial tradition and left the Church less able to face the coming storms. The Church and society both were swept into the violent revolutions of the 20th century, with little traditional culture left to resist.

As mentioned above, the Tsikin was more than a simple vestment. It was one of the most visible ways in which the Church redeemed what was good in Chinese culture: its deep and ancient veneration for divine sacrifice. Since sacrifice was the essence of civilization, the removal of the hat when offering sacrifice was, so to speak, a beheading of the spirit of ancient Chinese culture, a decision not to redeem this beautiful element of its ancient civilization. Moreover, de-Sinisation left the Church even more vulnerable to the Communist charge that the Roman Catholic Church was an instrument of the western powers.

We may suppose that, if the sacrificial hat had been preserved, it would have acted as a living reminder to modern Chinese people of their own splendid tradition, and could have been a rallying symbol for cultural resistance, first to modernism, then to the Cultural Revolution. Instead, tradition was abandoned both by the larger society and by the Church together, and the Church missed the opportunity to play its accustomed role as the defender of civilization. In this respect, what happened in China somewhat resembles the situation in the West, where a misguided aggiornamento divested the Western Church of the very resources needed to combat the philistinism and cultural revolution of the post-conciliar period.

[1] Pp. 28-29 of the PDF linked above
[2] [...] In quam rem est recolendum quod supra attigi, apud Seres, sive Sinas, nefas, et saltem apprime inurbanum esse, capite unquam esse nudo. Is enim est habitus eorum qui ad patibulum rapiunter. Itaque Sinae Christiani, tunc tantum capita aperiunt, cum de peccatis confitentur. Tunc enim ut se criminosos ac reos profiteantur, nudant capita. Cum ergo esset apud eos probrosum, quod sacerdos sacrificans, esset aperto capite, insistere apud Paulum V ut pateretur eos servire consuetudini, nec sacrificium dehonestari vellet nudatione capitis, sacerdotis sacrificantis. Annuit Pontifex, dummodo tegmen capitis, super sacrum dumtaxat et rem divinam, usui esset, et a profano discreparet (Raynaud, 148-149).
[3] “Mais la raison morale, d’autre part, semble bien disparaître au fur et à mesure que la civilisation et la politesse européenes s’introduisent dans les villes et à l’intérieur même des campagnes. A ce point de vue, le bonnet de Messe aura été une victim de l’évolution sociale des Chinois” (Bulletin Catholique, 405).

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