Sojourners in a Strange Land: Jesuits and Their Scientific Missions in Late Imperial China

Joseph Dauben is impressed with the scholarship in a study of 'shape-shifting' missionaries

June 3, 2010

If there is a subtext to this very informative study of the Jesuits' early influence in China during the 16th and 17th centuries, it is that in order to be all things to all people, they were necessarily, in Florence Hsia's evocative description, "shape-shifters", assuming, as she says, "different clothes for different roles". In China they dressed and behaved as if born to the mandarinate they hoped to convert. But matters required more than dress and, as Hsia puts it, "the most enduring guise they assumed in the Middle Kingdom is arguably the most peculiar: that of the missionary as a man of scientific expertise, whose maps, clocks, astrolabes, and armillaries apparently astonished the Chinese". Astonished and, it must be said, impressed in equal measure. For it was the Jesuits' success in predicting astronomical phenomena, and the skill with which their mathematics made such predictions possible, that the Chinese literati, at least in some measure, were won over to the Jesuit cause.

It was the Jesuits' plan to conquer China by making clear the superiority of Western knowledge, from which they assumed it must logically follow that other gifts from the West were likewise superior - including the greatest gift of all, eternal salvation. Given their experience in a Europe riven by the Reformation, where rulers could determine the religious fate of an entire nation by royal fiat, it is understandable that the French Jesuits sought to convert China from the top down. And in this, at least one of the emperors of China, the Kangqi emperor, was a more than avid candidate. Once the bug of Western learning had bitten him, he was a voracious apprentice of everything the Jesuits could teach him. He was interested in learning basic mathematics, the details of astronomy and techniques of land surveying, and was fascinated by the way his calculations were later corroborated in the field, where actual measurements bore out what the mathematics had predicted.

Hsia's scholarship is wide, and runs deep as well. She has clearly learned the value of illustrating her work with elaborate engravings from the grand books generated by the Jesuits, those by Athanasius Kircher and Jean-Baptiste du Halde in particular. She mines the detailed accounts sent back to Europe from Jesuits throughout the world, including China, drawn from thousands of letters published in 34 volumes of Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses that first appeared in 1702, and continued off and on, sometimes with considerable gaps, until a final volume appeared in 1776.

Hsia's book is devoted to recounting the "scientific lives of the China Jesuits" from their own perspectives. In doing so, she also draws extensively from the first detailed report of the China mission, the account by Matteo Ricci, De Christiana Expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu (1615). Similar works by Johann Adam Schall von Bell, the first Jesuit with official duties in the Imperial Astronomical Bureau, and Ferdinand Verbiest, von Bell's successor, also play significant parts in the story Hsia has to tell.

The Society of Jesus, however, faced mounting opposition both within China and at home. It was first suppressed in Portugal (1759), then France (1762-64), and finally, it was universally dissolved by Papal decree, Dominus ac redemptor, in 1773. As Hsia wryly remarks, "The final missive from China to appear in the Lettres edifiantes et curieuses closed with Jesus' prayer for more workers in the mission fields, but there were no more Jesuits to send." Nevertheless, what Hsia succeeds in doing in this brief account (less than 150 pages of text, with another 120 pages of notes) is to show what the Jesuits accomplished over nearly two centuries when the Society was active in early Qing dynasty China. They brought not only the gospel, but European culture generally, and scientific expertise in particular, to the attention of at least the most educated elite at the court of the Middle Kingdom.

Sojourners in a Strange Land: Jesuits and Their Scientific Missions in Late Imperial China

By Florence C. Hsia

University of Chicago Press

296pp, £31.00

ISBN 9780226355597

Published 24 November 2009

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