Christianity came early to China. The first known missionary was Alopen, a Nestorian Syrian monk, who in A.D. 635 arrived in Chan-gan, the capital of China during the T'ang dynasty. He built several monasteries and churches over a wide area of China. Persecution in the Ninth Century, however, caused a gradual disappearance of Christianity.
Roman Catholic Christianity first arrived in China in the late Thirteenth Century. A Franciscan friar, Fr. John of Montecorvino, went to Pei-ching (Bei-jing) in A.D. 1294. He was soon making thousands of converts. The Mongol (the Yüan) dynasty that was then governing China often showed favor towards Christian missionaries (perhaps because Kublai Khan's mother had been a Nestorian Christian).
But, after the ousting of the Mongols in A.D. 1368 and with their replacement by a new, native Chinese, dynasty (the Ming), the Roman Catholics in China suffered persecution and Christianity once again almost entirely disappeared from the country.
Then, in the late Sixteenth Century, began the third major effort to Christianize China when Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and (especially) Jesuit missionaries came from Portuguese India and the Spanish Philippines. In A.D. 1583 the most famous of them, Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J., arrived. As a result of his efforts, Confucian scholars were soon being converted.
In A.D. 1654 the first Chinese was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. This was Fr. Lo Wen-tsao (Luo Wen-zao) Gregory, O.P. (1616-1691).
In 1685, Fr. Lo (by then more widely known as Fr. Gregorio de Lopez, O.P.) became the first Chinese bishop. He was consecrated Titular Bishop of Basileus and made the vicar apostolic for Nan-ching [Nan-jing] in Kiang-su [Jiang-su] Province. The Pope at the time gave Bp. Lo the right to name his own successor. When the time came, however, Bishop Lo chose to succeed him not a Chinese, but an Italian co-worker, Fr. Giovanni Francisco de Leonissa.
For the next three centuries, the Roman Catholic hierarchy in China consisted entirely of foreign missionaries.
The Roman Catholic Church in China has always been organized territorially. But until 1926 there were no dioceses in China (i.e., there were no areas of China headed by bishops holding Chinese episcopal sees). Instead there were only either vicariates apostolic (i.e., areas intended someday to become dioceses, but in the meantime just headed by titular bishops, viz., bishops with titles to long-defunct sees located in the Near or Middle East), or apostolic prefectures (i.e., areas likely someday to be promoted to vicariates apostolic or possibly even directly to dioceses, but in the meanime just headed by priests to whom the Pope had given most of the authority of bishops).
Pius XI was elected Pope in February 1922 and immediately he resolved on establishing a native hierarchy for China. He began the project by appointing Archbishop Celso Costantini as the first Apostolic Delagate (later "Inter-nuncio") to China.
Archbishop Costantini, once in China, laid the groundwork for an ethnic Chinese hierarchy by, in 1923, persuading Bishop Graziano Gennaro, O.F.M., the missionary Vicar Apostolic for Han-k'ou (Han-kou) in Hu-pei (Hu-bei) Province, to release four counties in the southern part of his vicariate to become the Apostolic Prefecture of P'u-ch'i (Pu-qi).
Fr. Cheng He-de (Ch'eng Ho-te) Odoric, O.F.M., was appointed its Prefect Apostolic of P'u-ch'i (Pu-qi).
The next year, in 1924, Msgr. Costantini created, from parts of the vicariate apostolic of Pao-ting (Bao-ding) in Ho-pei (He-bei) Province, the Apostolic Prefecture of An-kuo (An-guo).
Fr. Sun De-zhen (Sun Te-chen) Melchior, C.M., was appointed the Prefect Apostolic of An-kuo (An-guo).
Thus came into existence a native Chinese hierarchy in China.