The 17th Century Chinese “Biretta”

By Audrey Seah

During a recent visit to the Ricci Institute at the University of San Francisco, I had the rare opportunity to don an original Ji-Jin—the Chinese equivalent of a biretta. This Ji-jin was among other liturgical paraphernalia belonging to a Jesuit church that was shipped out of China in the 1930s when the Sino-Japanese war forced missionaries to flee the country and many Catholic churches to shut down.

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Here am I, wearing a Ji-jin. I am standing by a replica of the 1610 portrait of Matteo Ricci that is now hanging in the sacristy of the Church of the Gesù in Rome. The shape of the Ji-jin was inspired by the hats that were worn by the Chinese literati of the Ming dynasty—the one that Ricci is wearing in his portrait; the embroidery on its flat surfaces resembles those found on hats of Taoist priests.

The next photo shows the flaps attached to the back of the hat. The hat folds flat and is kept in the beige pouch beside it.

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The Ji-jin is noteworthy for it is one of the first cultural accommodations made by Rome for China. Briefs from the Jesuit archives reveal that the father of the Jesuit missions to China, Matteo Ricci, was the first to raise the question of wearing the hat of the literati at liturgies. One letter, dated 12 December 1606 offers the reason for such an accommodation: “It is not the custom to take it (the hat) off even in the presence of the king. To do so is considered greatly disrespectful; they are accustomed to do this only when they are to be punished.” The brief concludes that the wearing of a Ji-jin must be proposed to his Holiness for consideration at the first opportune moment, since this is something that is forbidden in the Canons. (JAP-SIN 3 [Ordin. pro Japon. 1587-16 20 ] f 24 v.)

The request to use the Ji-jin was brought to the Holy Father by Nicolas Trigault, S.J. in 1613 and granted by decree on 15 January 1615 by Pope Paul V. The custom of wearing the Ji-jin lasted 400 years until it fell out of use in the early 20th century. That said, rumor has it that the Hong Kong Archdiocese is considering reviving the tradition. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!

Audrey Seah is an alumna of Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology (Liturgical Studies) at the University of Notre Dame.

5 comments

  1. There are some lovely photos of it being used during Masses and burial services in older issues of the Propagation of the Faith magazines. Some of the photos show only the priest wearing it in the course of the Mass, while others have it also being worn by altar servers.

    http://catalog.hathitrust.org/api/volumes/oclc/1774896.html

    [See for example: Jan 1914:19 and Sep 1917:197-8. There are others throughout those volumes but I’ve lost the references)

    The author of one of the above linked articles claims that it was falling out of use because the Chinese were adopting Western customs in the wake of fall of the Qings….actually however, the hat had been (strangely) forbidden by Rome, sometime in the late 1880s-90s, and reports of the Apostolic Vicars included in the PF annals seem to indicate that it was complied with.

  2. Joshua, I recognize your point about the move towards standardized Roman vestments after the Qing. Ignatius Cardinal Kung’s official photograph on his consecration day in the 1940s shows him dressed exactly as a European prelate would be dressed. This dress included the Roman-style biretta.

    How would a priest doff the Ji-jin at the name of Jesus? Perhaps a tip of the hat was not done as with other biretta. The Ji-jin appears to be better suited as a mitre, as both ritual hats are removed with both hands.

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