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Europeans in China

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Europeans in China

Marco Polo (1254–1324) was one of the earliest Europeans to visit China—though he was not the first (Friars John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck both reached China in the middle of the thirteenth century). It was Polo’s account, however, that fired the imagination of Europe for centuries, launching thousands of merchants toward the riches of Cathay. Even Christopher Columbus took a copy of Polo’s account, along with letters to the King of Cathay, on his voyage of 1492. The translation and continual reprinting of Polo’s manuscript carried its influence well into the seventeenth century, and contributed to the later Jesuit interest in China.


In fact, the early modern missions of the Jesuits in China mark one of the most notable steps in early contact between China and the Western world. Jesuit missionaries who gained permission to establish a residence in Guangdong Province in the early 1580s immersed themselves in the study of Chinese literature and culture and became a crucial link in the transfer of knowledge between China and Europe in the seventeenth century.


The first Jesuit to try to reach China was St. Francis Xavier in 1552, but he never made it to the mainland. In 1582, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) did, and the Jesuit missions to China began in earnest. Athanasius Kircher, the director of the Jesuit museum in Rome and the author of China Illustrata (1667) was one of the best known “experts” on China although he had never left Europe and knew no Chinese. Kircher was responsible for widely disseminating, throughout much of Europe, tales and images (some accurate, some not) of the fantastical land to the east.


Athanasius Kircher. China monumentis qua sacris qua profanis ... Amsterdam, 1667

The remarkable cross-cultural achievements in science, philosophy, and literature for which Jesuits like Mateo Ricci are still celebrated would not have been possible without the help of native Chinese collaborators. Ricci provided the first accurate description of the Chinese language and writing system, and he concluded definitively that Cathay and China were different names for the same place. He attempted to translate Euclid’s Elements of Geometry as one of his first exercises in writing Chinese, but found it too difficult. It was only years later working side-by-side with “Paul” Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) that the two were able to complete this extraordinary work in collaboration. Together they also wrote Celiang fayi 測量法義(Methods of Measurement Explained). Xu rose to high office, converted to Christianity, and used his influence to aid his Jesuit friends in many ways. Ricci and Xu became lifelong friends. In subsequent decades, other Jesuits like Adam Schall (1591–1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–88) would be appointed as court astronomers and report directly to the emperor himself.


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Louis Le Comte. Nouveaux mémories sur l'état présent de la Chine. English. London, 1698

Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667]. Courtesy of Timothy Billings.

Collegio romano. Museo. Musaeum celeberrimum. Amsterdam, 1678

Collegio romano. Museo. Musaeum celeberrimum. Amsterdam, 1678

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