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Jesuits in China

A story of mutual discovery, part 1

Julien Ménabréaz (Photoconsortium)

In the fall of 1860, at the end of the Second Opium War, French and British troops decided to loot and burn the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in response to the torture and execution of British and Indian soldiers by the Chinese. The destruction of the imperial residence was a warning to the Chinese government not to resist Western powers. This event not only shocked China but Europe, too, as writer Victor Hugo's letter Au capitaine Butler (‘To Captain Butler’) - openly criticizing the brutality of the French troops - demonstrates. The most famous part of the palatial complex in Beijing, a garden 'à la française' boasting European-style buildings, was created for the delight of the Chinese emperor by European missionaries from the Society of Jesus. This, in sharp contrast with the raid described above, was a testimony to how two cultures were able to create beauty by working together.

The Society of Jesus, better known as the order of Jesuits, was a society founded in 1539 by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) with the aim to convert the world to Catholicism. Christianity had already reached China in the 7th century with the Nestorians. In the 16th century, when the first Jesuits arrived, China was under the rule of the Ming dynasty. Their first settlement was the port-city of Macao in South China, at that time owned by Portugal. From this base, the Jesuits entered the Chinese hinterland and began their work of conversion. While establishing churches at different locations, they even started fostering the dream of converting the Chinese emperor himself.

One of the most famous Jesuits in China was the Italian Matteo Ricci (1552-1610).To get the Chinese interested in Catholicism, Ricci and his colleagues adopted the manners of the elite, thinking that if they would convert, commoners would follow. The Jesuits started dressing like scholars, studied Chinese language and culture, and became what we now consider the first sinologists in history. They also realized that their Western knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and mechanics could play a part in attracting the Chinese to the catholic faith.

The science of stars was important in ancient China, as it was not only used to predict the future, but also to help determine good and bad days and the seasons. In 1601 Matteo Ricci became the first European ever to get invited by the emperor of China to the imperial palace of the Forbidden City. The meeting must have been a great success since Ricci was given permission to build the first cathedral in Beijing. He also gained persistent access to the imperial palace, allowing him to meet Chinese officials as well as the emperor, who lived a very reclusive life.

This prosperous relationship came under pressure in 1644, when the Ming dynasty was replaced by the family of the Qing (1644-1912). The Jesuits feared they would be denied the privilege to stay in China, but the new rulers understood the benefits of keeping them in service.

The Qing period turned out to be a true “golden age” for the Jesuits. Under the reigns of Kangxi (1654-1722), Yongzheng (1678-1735) and Qianlong (1711-1799), they created a vast body of artworks and made significant contributions to science. Through their writings, furthermore, the Jesuits presented a positive image of China to Europe, as opposed to that painted by the merchants who, at the time, were biased by the difficulties they had in trading with China.

At all times the Jesuits kept the conversation with their home base going, sending letters, writings and translated books. They also authored books and articles about China, its customs and traditions, sharing with Europe their impressions of the empire.

During their stay in China, the cultural exchange between Jesuits and Chinese would result in advances in astronomy and mathematics, beautiful works of art, and shining beacons of architecture. This centre of acculturation was not without its issues, however: read our next blog to learn about the intrigue, spying, and political and religious opposition that would lead the Jesuits to be banned from China for almost 100 years.

This blog post is a part of the PAGODE project, which explores Chinese cultural heritage in Europe.