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The Controversial Priests Who Bridged East and West
How the Jesuits linked China and Europe
In the early 1700s, Voltaire, the French Enlightenment philosopher, fell in love with China. He extolled the virtues of the faraway land, calling it the “wisest and best-behaved nation” in the world.
In this, as in many things, he was a trendsetter — for a while, fashionable French people became enamored of Chinese goods, Chinese culture, and Chinese philosophy. Chinoiserie — European imitations of Chinese styles — became all the rage. You can see the French fascination with China in paintings like Francois Boucher’s 1742 The Chinese Garden:
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Right around the same time, the Qianlong Emperor in China was building a new summer palace. He included in the grounds an elaborate area called the Xiyang Lou, or “Western Mansions” — an area full of buildings and gardens designed to mimic European palaces. He, like many wealthy and powerful Chinese people, had become fascinated by European culture. The complex looked something like this:
Why were Europeans and Chinese people so interested in each other in the 1700s? How did they learn about each other in the first place? And when did the mutual admiration society come to an end?
The story of the interaction between Europe and China coincided with the rise and fall of a controversial set of Catholic missionaries — the Jesuits.
The Jesuits (who Voltaire hated, by the way) are an order of Catholic priests founded in the 1500s as an arm of the Counter-Reformation. They served as the Catholic Church’s intellectual shock troops in the battle for hearts and minds after the Protestant Reformation. Jesuits built a network of schools and universities — many of which still exist today — and became known as the church’s elite intellectuals and missionaries.
Jesuits traveled all over the world in an attempt to spread Catholicism and bolster papal authority. Some of the most famous Jesuit missionaries — like Francis Xavier — were among the first Europeans to arrive in places like Japan and China.
As missionaries in China, the Jesuits had modest success. They built some churches and converted a tiny percentage of the Chinese population to Catholicism.
But in their attempts to bring Catholicism to China, the Jesuits built a cultural bridge that would last for centuries — and then fall apart amidst imperialism and war.
When Jesuits showed up in the middle of the 1500s, China’s ruling Ming Dynasty, was uninterested in accomodating foreign missionaries. The Ming had once been interested in the outside world — in the early 1400s, China had sent out gigantic fleets, much larger than those of Christopher Columbus and his European peers, to visit India, Africa, and everywhere in between. But the Ming effort at outreach would be short-lived. In 1433, the Xuande Emperor concluded that there wasn’t much to be gained from this sort of interaction, and China became more isolated.
Jesuit missionaries spent decades trying to gain access to China. For a long time, they were relegated to offshore islands and the Portuguese colony of Macau. But, by the late 1500s, the Chinese government decided to let them in. Though the emperor had no interest in Christianity, he realized that Jesuits were extremely well-educated and could provide China with the latest in European technology and science. The priests were happy to comply — anything to get a foot in the door.
The Jesuits weren’t perfect, but they did have relatively enlightened attitudes for the time in which they lived. Many of them truly respected Chinese culture and, though they certainly wanted to spread Christianity, they also saw themselves as ambassadors who could help China and Europe to learn about one another. Over time, a number of Jesuits became trusted advisors in the royal courts of the Ming Dynasty (and its successor, the Qing, which took power in 1644).
One of the Jesuits’ first projects was to learn Chinese in order to translate Western works into Chinese and vice versa. Here’s a page of a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary compiled by two Jesuits, Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri:
The Ming were particularly interested in the Europeans’ knowledge of geography — it was the age of European exploration, after all. Jesuits like Ricci provided the Chinese with very detailed maps of Asia:
Chinese people were just as fascinated with the discovery of the Americas as Europeans were, so the Jesuits filled them in on what was known about the lands across the Pacific:
The Ming and Qing emperors also wanted to learn about European scientific and mathematical discoveries; the Jesuits were happy to oblige.
Matteo Ricci (there he is again — the man was an impressive polymath!) helped to translate European mathematical knowledge like Euclid’s Geometry into Chinese — here he is, with his co-author Xu Quangqi:
As the “Sons of Heaven,” Chinese emperors were especially interested in astronomy. The Jesuit astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest — after a lengthy rivalry with Chinese astronomer Yang Guangxian that saw both men thrown in jail (!) — impressed the Kangxi Emperor by defeating Yang in an astronomy-prediction contest. The emperor then tasked Verbiest with revamping the imperial observatory, where he installed the latest instruments:
These instruments remained in Beijing for a long time — here’s an 1875 photo of them, still intact at the observatory:
Jesuits also helped to introduce more mundane Western technology to China. One of them, Johann Schreck, worked with Wang Zheng, a Chinese scholar, to produce a book with the self-explanatory title Collected Diagrams and Explanations of the Wonderful Machines of the Far West.
So the Jesuits, in addition to opening some churches and converting some people to Christianity, brought a lot of Western knowledge to China. But what did they bring back to Europe?
Unlike the stereotypical European missionaries of the time, many of the Jesuits who traveled to China had real respect for the culture they encountered there. In fact, they believed that understanding China was essential to their mission because they wanted to convince Chinese people that Christianity was compatible with Chinese traditions and culture.
The Jesuits were especially interested in the philosophy of Confucius, which they believed dovetailed quite nicely with Christianity. In fact, they invented the name we use for the man. “Confucius” is a Latinized version of Kong Fuzi, or “Master Kong.” Some scholars even say that the Jesuits helped to create Confucianism as a distinct philosophy.
The Jesuits were instrumental in translating and dispersing the philosophy of Confucius in Europe. By the late 1600s, their translated versions of Confucius’ works were widely available. Soon after, Voltaire would read Confucius and declare that his philosophy was a more humane and tolerant worldview than Christianity.
Europeans were also fascinated by Chinese society and culture more generally. A Jesuit named Athanasius Kircher — who had never been to China, but used the reports of those who had — published one of the more popular books of the 1600s, China Illustrata, which contained many scenes from China. He depicted wildlife:
Some of the images were more accurate than others. Here’s Kircher’s illustration of Chinese people training a “large squirrel:”
Kircher also tried to give Europeans a sense of Chinese life and culture:
As we’ve seen, by the early 1700s, all of this Jesuit-facilitated interaction between China and Europe had created a fashion in Europe for Chinese culture and a fashion in China for European culture. But it didn’t last.
First, the Jesuits got in trouble with the Catholic Church. Other missionaries had become suspicious of the Jesuits’ embrace of Chinese culture. Jesuits believed that Confucian rites, including ancestor worship, could be compatible with Christianity. Chinese converts could keep their traditions. Other orders of priests, like the Franciscans, were horrified by this — they thought ancestor worship and other ancient rites constituted idolatry.
The Jesuits lost the fight. Other, less accommodating missionaries took control of the Chinese church. The new missionaries angered the Chinese government, which began to issue anti-Christian decrees in the early 1700s. In response to a Papal decree forbidding emperor worship, the Kangxi Emperor wrote this scathing rebuke:
Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the Westerners are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China. There is not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works, and their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous. To judge from this proclamation, their religion is no different from other small, bigoted sects of Buddhism or Taoism. I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.
Over time, things got uglier. As the Qing Dynasty weakened, European merchants began to push their way into Chinese markets, often in spite of rules that prohibited them from doing so. Many of these merchants sold opium, addicting millions of Chinese people and unleashing all sorts of social problems. The Chinese emperors eventually stopped hosting European delegations in the European-inspired formal gardens of the old Summer Palace outside Beijing.
Eventually, tensions came to a head. When the Chinese government objected to the opium trade, the Europeans ignored their protestations. When the Chinese tried to stop the trade, the British and, later, the French invaded, humiliating China militarily and imposing unfair treaties on it.
By 1860, British and French troops occupied the Summer Palace. Incensed at the news that the Chinese had tortured and killed some Westerners — and hoping to get some valuable loot — they stole many of the palace’s treasures and burned much of the complex to the ground.
If you visit Beijing today, you can see the ruins of the old Summer Palace’s “Western Mansions.” They were built as an homage to European culture, designed at the emperor’s request by the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione, and then destroyed by European imperialists — as succinct an encapsulation as you can find of the complex relationship between Europe and China between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
This was originally published on Medium
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