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Liam Brockey

“The First China Hands: Europeans in China

during the Late Ming and Early Qing Period”
Liam Matthew Brockey, Michigan State University


     This presentation will discuss the first Europeans to live within China during the modern era. These men were primarily missionaries from the Society of Jesus, men who came from all across Europe from Germany to Italy to Portugal. They frequently sent reports of their activities in China to their Jesuit brethren back in Europe, informing their superiors and colleagues about contemporary Chinese realities. While the writings of some of their number, such as Matteo Ricci, Álvaro Semedo, and Martino Martini, were printed in Europe, most of the Jesuits’ accounts of China circulated in manuscript only. Moreover, these texts were written in Latin, Spanish and, above all, Portuguese, languages which gradually lost pre-eminence in European intellectual circles in favor of French. In this discussion, we will focus on this first age of information exchange, analyzing those assessments of China that were not edited for a pre-Enlightenment reading public. This presentation will focus on lesser-known figures such as António de Gouvea, João Rodrigues, and Gabriel de Magalhães, men who lived in China for decades but whose writings were not (until the late twentieth century) translated into Northern European languages.


     The purpose for focusing on these figures is a simple one. Their unpublished writings retain a freshness that some early modern publications lack, especially those ones which were translated into contemporary English. As all writers know, translation is an art fraught with ambiguity, a fact which had led to many curious debates among scholars attempting to examine European views of China. Our discussion of these manuscript texts will be done in the light of the more well known European works (and will also serve as an introductions to the writings of Ricci and Semedo for those participants who are not familiar with them), and will hopefully suggest something of the richness of the materials on this topic that have yet to be brought to the attention of a wider reading public.


     The purpose of this presentation will be to present a general overview of European views of China that were based upon observation and experience from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century. We will start with some considerations of the first European arrivals on the Southern China coast in the early 1500s and proceed through the foundation of the city of Macau, at the mouth of the Pearl River, in 1557. That Portuguese colony served as a focal point for European activities in China for over two centuries (although it lasted as a colony until 1999), and would be the headquarters for the Jesuit missions throughout East Asia in the early modern period. The missionaries mentioned above would all pass through its Jesuit college, and would all channel their correspondence to Europe through Macau. It should therefore be no surprise that some of the issues of greatest importance for these Jesuits were trade, education, and religion. Yet these were not all that the Europeans found interesting about China: they were also fascinated by the Chinese political system and by Chinese culture and thought. Recall that these men produced the first translations of the Confucian classics into Western languages, and spent their lives in pursuit of a way to best graft Christian teachings onto a Confucian philosophical framework. Through their eyes, participants in this session will come to experience the wonder that these missionaries felt as they were confronted with a coherent civilization that few Europeans had ever seen.


Liam Brockey is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University. His research concerns early modern European history, with special focus on Portugal, its overseas empire, and Catholic history. He has written Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724 (Belknap/Harvard, 2007) and has edited a volume of essays entitled Portuguese Colonial Cities in the Early Modern World (Ashgate, 2008). His articles discuss Jesuit missionary activity in Asia, as well as the development of European overseas empires in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Current research projects include a study of the calamitous seventeenth century in the Portuguese empire in Asia, a translation of the sermons of the famed Portuguese Jesuit preacher António Vieira, and an examination of religious life in the city of Lisbon in the second half of the sixteenth century.

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