Past intense relations between Italy and Wuhan, China

 Enrico Canuto, Former Faculty Politecnico di Torino, Torino, Italy

March 20, 2020

Traduzione in Italiano a cura di Irene BELLAN tra gli articoli in questo stesso sito


Since 2010, I was several times in Wuhan, cooperating with the Center for Gravity Experiments, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, but, unfortunately, I remained ignorant of the past relations between Italy and Wuhan, … up to Covid-19 epidemy (see the relevant page) and news about dr. Wenliang Li, the ophthalmologist of the Wuhan Central Hospital who warned fellow colleagues about a possible outbreak of an illness that resembled the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), later acknowledged as Covid-19.

Then, I discovered the origin of the Wuhan Central Hospital, founded in the late XIX century as the Catholic Hospital of Hankou, one of the three cities that together with Wuchang and Hanyang were merged into Wuhan. Further, I discovered that the modern hospital, which was rebuilt just after the destruction of the American bombing in 1944 and later expanded, is located in the same place of the old hospital, close to the Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph. But who, and when, brought and organized Catholic Church in Hankou (previously written Hankow, according to Wade-Giles (WG) romanization), and generally in the Hubei province (Hupeh, according to WG romanization) ? Since the XVIII century, the Italian Franciscan friars (Ordo Fratrum Minorum, OFM) of the Venetian province.

Recent accounts of Italian contribution to Wuhan religious and civil architecture and society  have been provided by Italian architect F. Maglioccola [3], [4], [5], [7],[12],[13].

Hankou, Wuchang and Wuhan
Hankou (汉口, WG Hankow), on the navigable Yangtze river (长江, Cháng Jiāng, the long river) was one of the major fluvial ports of the central China, at the confluence with the navigable Han river (汉江, Hàn Jiāng), which allows the northern central provinces to be reached. During the Northern Expedition of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) of the Kuomintang (KMT, 中国国民党, pinyin Zhōngguó Guómíndǎng, usually translated as Chinese Nationalist Party), the military campaign from South to North China aiming to defeat warlords and unify China, Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang were captured in the fall of 1926. Their municipal governments were subsequently merged to form Wuhan. Soon after, the KMT left wing established the so-called Wuhan nationalist government, in contrast with Chiang Kai-shek, the NRA leader, who formed his government in Nanjing (the Wuhan-Nanjing split). The Wuhan government, marked by workers and peasants uprisings, dissolved in the fall of 1927. 
Figure A - the Yangtze basin with Hankou and Han river. 

Wuchang (武昌 Wǔchāng), on the opposite side of Yangtze river, unlike Hankou, was closed to foreign trade, but since the early XX century became an important manufacturing center: ironworks for the manufacture of rails and other railway material were established. Three vital railway lines started from Hankou railway station: to Beijing (north), to Guangzhou (south), to Sichuan province (east). The Railway Protection Movement against Qing government's plan to nationalize railways and transfer control to foreign banks, was the the opportunity to launch the Wuchang Uprising, which triggered the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China. 

Figure B - 1915 map of Hankou, Hanyang and Wuchang.
In the late 1938 Wuhan was taken by the Japanese army. Since July 1942, American aviation was bombing Hankow [8]. On December 10, the Italian Bishop E. Massi, Vicar of Hankou, was killed by a bomb fragment. On December 18, the US General C.E. LeMay (who later clashed with US President J.F. Kennedy about Cuba bombing) launched a fire raid over Hankow, sending tens of B–29s with incendiary bombs aiming to slow down the Japanese offensive against the US Air Force airport in Chengdu (Sichuan province). Incendiary weapons were imported to China following British fire bombing of German cities. The attack left Hankow burning for three days, proving the effectiveness of incendiary weapons against the predominantly wooden architecture of the Far East [9]. More than 20,000 civilians were killed.  

Figure C - Hankou after the American fire-bombing of December 18, 1944.

People's Liberation Army troops entered Wuhan on May 16, 1949. Italian Franciscan Friars and Canossian Sisters (see below) had to left Wuhan in 1952. 
A minimal history

Italian Canossian Sisters

In the late XIX century (1868), the Vicar Apostolic of Hubei, the Italian Bishop E.V.M. Zanoli, OFM, invited Italian Canossian Sisters to Hankou. In 1860, Canossian Sisters had already established a mission in Hong Kong (formerly a British colony), where  they founded the Italian Convent School for girls, renamed in 1960 as the Sacred Heart Canossian College (SHCC), regarded as one of the most prestigious schools in Hong Kong.
During more than 80 years, until 1952, about 100 sisters served in China, mainly among the poor and especially young girls.

Figure 1 - Mother T. Cupis, founder of the Canossian Mission in Hankow (credits to


The history starts in 1696 when Pope Innocent XII established the Apostolic Vicariate of Hukwang  ( 湖广, Huguang in modern Chinese). Huguang was a Chinese province during the Ming dinasty (1368-1644), which was partitioned by the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) into actual Hubei (湖北) and Hunan (湖南) provinces. Their names mean ‘North and South of the Lake’, respectively, the lake being DongtingHu (洞庭湖), a large, shallow lake acting as a flood basin of the Yangtze River.  The first Apostolic Vicar, G. F. de Nicolais, OFM (died 1737) never reached the Vicariate, which was administered by and later joined to other Vicariates until it was re-established in 1838 by pope Gregory XVI, and then partitioned in 1856 into the Vicariates  of Hupeh (Hubei) and Hunan.

A jewel of the Catholic architecture in Wuhan is the Romanesque style Baiquan (柏泉) Church, located in Dongxihu District (东西湖区). I could not find a complete history of the church, except that it was built in 1840, likely by Bishop G. D. Rizzolati, O.F.M  (1839-1856),  Apostolic Vicar of Hubei and Hunan. It was located beside the minor seminary of the Vicariate [3]. Figure 2 shows the simple, yet elegant facade and the bright interior. The church, restored, was re-opened in 2014.

Figure 2 - Baiquan (柏泉) Church, Dongxihu District (东西湖区), Wuhan. Left: facade. Right: interior (credits to    

Vicariate of Hubei

The first Vicar of Hubei, the Italian Bishop C.L. Spelta (1856-1862, 徐類思,Xú LèiSī), OFM, operated during the Taiping Rebellion (太平天國之乱, 1850-1864). Concerned with the fate of the most promising young Christians,  he sent five of them to complete their studies at the ‘Collegio dei Cinesi’ in Naples, Italy (now Università degli Studi di Napoli ‘L’orientale’), founded in 1724 for the Catholic education of Chinese youth (the first Chinese school in Europe). Among them, father F. S. Wang (王佐才, 1842-1921) and father G. M. Kuo (Guō DòngChén, 郭栋臣, 1846-1923) emerged [1], [4]. Amid several difficulties, they taught Chinese language during 20 years, before coming back to China in 1891 and 1892, respectively, where they animated the Hankou’s Catholic church. Father F.S. Wang, in 1894, completed Vetus ac Novum Testamentum Carminis Mnemonicis Comprehensum et in Tetrastichon Sinicum Versum a P(atre) D(omino) Francesco Wam M.A. (Poetical and easy-to-remember compendium of the Old and New Testament in Chinese tetrastic stanzas by Father Francis Wang, Apostolic Missionary) [2], to be used during his pastoral care in Hankou.  The 314 page booklet is an ‘opera prima’: for the first time a Chinese scholar composed a poetical compendium of the whole Bible.

Figure 3 - The Hubei's Vicar E. Carlassare (first row, center, see below) with Chinese clergy. Father F.S. Wang is numbered 3 (first row, rightmost), Father G.M. Kuo is numbered 4 (first row, leftmost) (credits to F. Maglioccola [4]).

Vicariate of Eastern Hubei

The second Vicar, the Italian Bishop E.V.M.  Zanoli (明位篤, Míng WèiDǔ, 1831-1883), OFM, promoted the construction of a new Cathedral in Hankou, under the design of his successor, father E. Carlassare (see Figure 3). To this end, a marshland on Yihe Street (怡和街), today’s Shanghai Road (上海路), close to the Yangtze river and the British concession was bought in 1866. Reclamation took about ten years, until the Cathedral could be built from 1875 to 1876. The architectural style reminds Romanesque basilicas, and the layout a Latin cross. The bishop residence changed from Wuchang to Hankou.   In 1870 the  Hupeh (Hubei) Vicariate was split into three Vicariates: Eastern Hupeh (Hankou), Southwestern (Yichang) and Northwestern Hupeh (Laohekou).

Figure 4 - Left: the facade of Hankou's St. Joseph Cathedral in Shanghai Road 16, Jiang'an District, Wuhan 430014, Hubei. The Wuhan Central Hospital is located opposite on the right hand side of the Cathedral (Poyang Street). The tower in the picture background should belong to the hospital. Right: Google map  of the Cathedral and Central Hospital area.

E. Carlassare, OFM, bishop, architect and scientist

The second Vicar of Eastern Hupeh, the Italian Bishop E. Carlassare (江成德, Jiāng Chéngdé, 1884-1909, see Figure 3), the designer of St. Joseph Cathedral, was visionary and active in providing solid foundations to the Catholic Church in terms of people (see Figure 3) and achievements. In 1890 a clinic was founded, and from 1893 to 1895 expanded, under the design of his successor Father G. Gennaro (see below), to become the Catholic Hospital in Hankou. Hospital management was entrusted to Canossian Sisters, as well as a school located close to the Hospital. The first hospital pavilion was reserved to European patients. From 1911 the second pavilion was reserved to Chinese patients and a third one to children [3]. Most of the hospital buildings were destroyed by American bombing in 1944. The modern Wuhan Central Hospital was erected in the same place, being the heritage of the Catholic Hospital (see Figure 5, right, and the page ‘Epidemie di coronavirus COVID-19 (2020) e SARS (2003)’).

From the main page of the Wuhan Central Hospital ( 

Vicissitudes of life wash and diffuse.  The Wuhan Central Hospital, located on the banks of the Yangtze River, was founded in 1880. It was formerly known as the hospital of the Hankou Catholic Church.  After 140 years of development, the hospital has become a medical, scientific, teaching, prevention and training institution

Many Italian physicians worked in the Catholic hospital. Their names deserve to be remembered,  M. De Giovanni, M. Meoni, A. Fraticelli, V. D’Arienzo, A. Ammirati, G. Pezzi [7].

Figure 5 - Left: the first pavilion of the Catholic Hospital in Hankou (credits to F. Maglioccola [3]). Right: a wider picture of the original hospital shown in the home page of Wuhan Central Hospital. The Chinese motto should read: A hundred years of humanity, devoted to perfection (rén shù bǎinián jīngchéng zhì shàn). (photo credits to Wuhan Central Hospital, from

In the same years, at the southern foot of Huayuanshan (花园山,Garden Hill), Bishop E. Carlassare designed and built (see Figure 6) (1) the ‘Holy Family Church’, 2 Huanyuanshan, Yanzhi Road, Wuchang, 430061 Wuhan, (2) the convent of Canossian Sisters (now demolished) and their  small beautiful Chapel (now Xu Shiming Art Gallery), (3) the grandiose wood and brick building of the Diocesan Curia (from October 1983, South Central Academy of Theology for clergy education of the Catholic churches of six Central and Southern Chinese provinces), and an orphanage, among other institutions.

Figure 6 - Left to right. The Holy Family Church (credits to F. Maglioccola [3]), the former Canossian Sisters' Chapel (now art gallery) and the Diocesan Curia (now Academy of Theology). The last two pictures are taken from Hubei-China,

Bishop E. Carlassare was also active in science. He designed and built a meteorological and astronomical observatory in Wuchang, on the same Huayuanshan (花园山,Garden Hill) already mentioned. Today, only the eastern structure of the old building remains.  The observatory was active until II World War. Since 1923, the Eastern Hupeh Vicariate was split into the Apostolic Vicariate of Hankou and the Apostolic Prefectures of Wuchang and Hanyang. Wuchang Prefecture was entrusted to American Franciscan friars, who took in charge also the observatory [5]. The daily weather observations were sent together with those of other observatories to the Jesuit observatory of Zikawei (Xujiahui, 徐家汇,now Shanghai Bureau of Meteorology) to elaborate weather reports for the Yangtze river navigation. E. Carlassare published early meteorological data of the observatory on the Bollettino della Società Geografica Italiana [6].

Figure 7 - The weather observatory of Wuchang around 1930. The priest in the picture is the American friar father C. Burtschy who conducted the observatory in those years, and implemented water and electrical services as well as flood defenses in Hubei province (credits to F. Maglioccola [5]).

Vicariate of Hankou

The third Vicar of Eastern Hupeh and first Vicar of the Hankou Vicariate, the Bishop G. Gennaro, OFM (田瑞玉, Tián Ruìyù, 1909-1923), continued the achievements of his predecessor in religious, health, school and children services.  Among  them, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a gothic style jewel with a bright blue interior (Figure 8), and the second and third pavilions of the Catholic hospital (Figure 9).

Figure 8 - Church of the Immaculate Conception (汉口圣母无原罪堂, shèngmǔ wú yuánzuì táng), 25 Chezhan Road, Jiang'an District, Wuhan. Left: facade (credits to Right: interior (credits to

Figure 9 - The classical architecture of the second pavilion of the Catholic hospital in Hankou, reserved to Chinese patients. The plate on the main door reads 'Catholic Mission Hospital' (credits to F. Maglioccola [13]).

The last two Italian Bishops of Hankou

E. Massi (希賢),  OFM (1925-1944) and G.F.M. Rosà (羅 錦章), OFM  (1946-1961) expanded the achievements of their predecessors. E. Massi died in Hankou during the American bombing of December 10, 1944. In 1946, the Vicariate of Hankou was elevated to Metropolitan Archdiocese of Hankou.  In 1952, Archbishop G.F.M Rosà had to leave China. Among the major achievements were the Saint Joseph School for girls and the Father A. Melotto Memorial Hospital for infectious diseases.

St. Joseph School for girls

In 1911, the  Italian Canossian Sisters of the Hankou Vicariate, invited to Hankou 1n 1868 by the Apostolic Vicar of  Hubei, founded the St. Joseph School (圣若瑟学院, shèng ruòsè xuéyuàn) for young girls. In ten years, school attendance increased so greatly that a new grandiose building was erected starting in 1923 and opened in 1925, close to Catholic hospital, in the actual Zìzhì Street 242 (自治街242号). The new school, renamed  St. Joseph Girls High School offered Chinese girls five school grades from kindergarten to high school. In 1932, a board of directors was established,  including the Vicar of Hankou, Bishop E. Massi (希賢), O.F.M., the Mother Superior of the Italian Canossian Convent and  six eminent Chinese people.  When, in 1952, Canossian Sisters together  with foreign missionaries had to leave China, the school was taken over by the Wuhan municipal government and renamed Wuhan No. 4 Middle School for Girls, and later, in 1968,  Wuhan No. 19 Middle School.

Figure 10 - A recent picture of the grandiose building of the former Saint Joseph Girls High School, in 242, Zizhi Street, Wuhan (credits to

Father A. Melotto Memorial  Hospital (梅神父医院)

To reconstruct the foundation of the Father A. Melotto Memorial Hospital, which occurred from 1923 to 1926, I suggest to read the following paragraph from the Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud issued by Pope Benedict XV in 1919 about worldwide activity of Catholic Missionaries.

“Fac vero eum terrenis aliqua ex parte inservire consiliis, nec se virum undique apostolicum gerere, sed suae quoque patriae negotia procurare videri: continuo omnis eius opera in suspicionem veniet multitudini: quae quidem facile adduci poterit in eam opinionem ut christianam religionem putet propriam cuiusdam externae nationis esse, quam religionem qui amplexus sit, subiecisse se tutelae imperioque civitatis exterae, propriaeque civitatis ius exuisse videatur.”
19 … Suppose it becomes clear that he is involved in worldly schemes of some kind, and that, instead of devoting himself exclusively to the work of the apostolate, he is serving the interests of his homeland as well. The people immediately suspect everything he does. And in addition, such a situation could easily give rise to the conviction that the Christian religion is the national religion of some foreign people and that anyone converted to it is abandoning his loyalty to his own people and submitting to the pretensions and domination of a foreign power.

The “difficult missionary case (一场莫大的教案, 1923)”, caused by the harsh kidnapping (September 4 to December 2, 1923) and the painful agony and death of the Italian Franciscan friar A. Melotto (梅增春,Méi Zēngchún), was composed by wise eminent Chinese and Italian people. Their names deserve to be reminded: Lù Dézé (陆德泽, Catholic, first Director of the Hospital), Liú Xīnshēng  (刘歆生, Catholic, he donated the hospital land), Xiāo Yàonán (萧耀南, governor of Hubei province, he allocated public funds to the hospital, in turn Wuhan citizens collected private funds), Archbishop C.B.L. Costantini (刚恒毅, Gāng Héngyì, Italian, first Apostolic Delegate to China, he strenuously pursued China decolonization, his motto was ‘China to Chinese people’), Bishop G. Gennaro, OFM (田瑞玉, Tián Ruìyù, Italian, Apostolic Vicar of Hankou). The Italian Catholic bishops, inspired by the Apostolic letter ‘Maximum Illud’, refused the usual compensations claimed by foreign embassies in China and fostered the agreement with Chinese authorities of commemorating Father A. Melotto with a charity institution [14].

The memorial hospital was completed in 1926. It was located in 18, Jianghan North Road (江汉北路), Jiang’an District, Wuhan. During the 1931 deadly and catastrophic flood of the middle Yangtze river, the hospital was very active in helping  flood victims. In 1952, the Wuhan municipal government took over Father A. Melotto Memorial Hospital, which was renamed Wuhan Hospital of Infectious Diseases  (武汉传染病医院, Figure 11, right). Later the hospital was progressively merged with other medical institutions and relocated under the name of Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital (武汉市金银潭医院). The building of the Father A. Melotto Memorial Hospital in 18, Jianghan North Road (Figure 11, left) was demolished in 2008 [14].


Figure 11- Left: the now demolished building of the Father A. Melotto Memorial Hospital in 18, Jianghan North Road (credits to F. Maglioccola, [12]). Right: the building of the Wuhan Hospital of Infectious Diseases in 18, Jianghan North Road (credits to[11])

During one hundred years (XIX and XX centuries) Italian Franciscan Friars and Canossian Sisters provided Wuhan and Hubei province with a kaleidoscope of passionate and efficient religious, education, medical and scientific institutions. Building architecture, as discovered by Italian architect F. Maglioccola  [3], was always remarkable, and a few edifices precious as jewels. Fairly all buildings and institutions still exist, except hospitals as they were converted into modern buildings. Navigating Chinese web sites, the heritage, after 70 years, looks fairly acknowledged at least locally (see also [3]). The same may be hardly said of Italy, myself being the case, apart the precious work of the architect F. Maglioccola [3] and Franciscan blogs [14].


[1] M. Fatica, ‘Le tribulazioni di chinesi in Italia’.  Le esperienze nel ‘bel paese’ di Francesco Saverio Wang e di altri suoi connazionali (1871-1890), in Oriente, occidente e dintorni, … Scritti in onore di Adolfo Tamburello, Vol. III, a cura di F. Mazzei e P. Carioti, Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’orientale”, Dipartimento di Studi Asiatici, 2010, pp. 1061-1094.

[2] H. Bai, Uno sguardo cinese sulle Sacre Scritture: la traduzione di Wang Zuocai, Collegio dei Cinesi di Napoli, Atti del XIII Congr. Associazione Italiana di Studi Cinesi, a cura di C. Bulfoni e S. Pozzi, Franco Angeli, 2014, pp. 28-40.

[3] F. Maglioccola, List of historical places of Italian architecture in Wuhan,  2016, from

[4] F. Maglioccola, Guō DòngChén (1846 – 1923):the man which was a great bridge between
Wuhan and Naples, in Italy in Wuhan, 2016, from

[5] F. Maglioccola, Ancient meteorological and astronomical observatory in Wuhan (R.P. China),  in Drawing as (in)tangible representation, R. Salerno ed., 2018, Gangemi Editore.

[6] E. Carlassare (missionario),  osservazioni meteorologiche di U-Cian-Fu. Settembre 1880-Giugno 1881. Bollettino della Società Geografica Italiana,Vol. XVIII, No. 1881, p.664. (U-Cian-Fu is the XIX century romanization of Wuchang Fu, 武昌府, meaning Wuchang Prefecture).

[7] F. Maglioccola, Per Wuhan. Firmato Italiani che erano a Wuhan,

[8] Pacific Wrecks – American missions against Hankow and Hankow Airfield, from…

[9] The United States Air Forces in Word War II. Over the hump to Matterhorn. from

[10] Benedictus PP. XV. Epistula Apostolica, Maximum Illud, 1919, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

[11] 湖北省武汉市传染病医院, from

[12] F. Maglioccola, Wuhan e l’ospedale per le malattie infettive, 2020, from…

[13] F. Maglioccola, Wuhan, la città del Coronavirus sconosciuto e l’ospedale italiano, 2020, from…

[14] Fraternità Francescana Internazionale per il dialogo ecumenico e interreligioso, Wuhan — I francescani vi erano presenti da oltre 100 anni, 2020, from…