Pope Francis and the PRC

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The election last week of the first Jesuit pontiff in history brings to mind the storied China mission begun by Pope Francis’ Jesuit predecessor (and indirect namesake) St. Francis Xavier.  Though undertaken for religious purposes, the Jesuit involvement in China was arguably most successful as a cultural exchange.

It began in 1552, when Francis Xavier, frustrated at his inability to make Catholics out of the Japanese, concluded that his best hope was to convert the Chinese first.  In a letter  to Rome, he explained that when he preached the existence of God to the Japanese, they rebuffed him.  If what you say is indeed true, they told him, the Chinese would have known about it first.

“For the Japanese,” he wrote, “give the Chinese the pre-eminence in wisdom and prudence in everything relating either to religion or to political government.”

Impressed by all he had heard of China’s bounty, wisdom and riches, and by the Chinese he himself had met, Francis decided, “China is that sort of kingdom, that if the seed of the Gospel is once sown, it may be propagated far and wide. And moreover, if the Chinese accept the Christian faith, the Japanese would give up the doctrines which the Chinese have taught them.”

A little more than a decade later, in 1563, the Jesuits established a mission in the Portuguese colony of Macau.  However, they made little headway in gaining converts – perhaps because they preached exclusively in Portuguese and required any converts to wear European dress, adopt European names and habits, and cease the traditional practice of honoring their ancestors and Confucius.  (They also insisted on monogamy, but that was non-negotiable.)  A far-sighted superior named Alessandro Valignano (Fan Lian, 1539-1606) realized that this Eurocentric approach was doomed to fail and called for recruits willing to learn Chinese language and culture.  Two Italian Jesuits volunteered to take on this task, Michele Ruggieri (Luo Mingjian, 1543-1607) and Matteo Ricci (Li Madou, 1552-1610).

Learning Chinese was never easy for Ruggieri, but Ricci was able to master it so thoroughly that he could debate with the most educated Chinese mandarins and write like a literati.  His prodigiously trained memory enabled  him to memorize long Chinese poems after a single reading; at one literati dinner party, he astonished everyone by quickly reading through a list of 500 randomly chosen Chinese characters prepared by his fellow guests and then reciting it from memory – first forwards and then backwards. Ricci had tremendous admiration for the learning and intellectual curiosity of the educated Chinese he encountered and decided that the best way to make friends – and, potentially, converts – was to share European scholarship.  He translated Euclid’s “Elements” into Chinese, with his friend Xu Guangqi (Paul Xu, 1562-1633) – a Catholic convert and high-ranking official – and also built sundials, clocks, and astronomical orbs, created several spectacular world maps for the Wan Li Emperor and wrote important books on religion and frienship.

Ricci’s gifts to the Wan Li Emperor (who he never met in person) included a clavichord that four eunuchs from the College of Musicians learned to play, thereby beginning a remarkable tradition of Western music performance in the imperial palace.   The Qing Dynasty Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722) took music lessons from the Jesuit Thomas Pereira (Xu Risheng, 1645-1708) for a time, and even learned to play a few songs on the harpsichord.  He also asked Pereira to give a series of lectures on Western music, which were attended by several of the Emperor’s 56 children.  The most attentive student was Kangxi’s third son, Yinzhi, who later helped compile “The Elements of Music,” a book that explained Western musical notation, theory, scale, mode, harmony, and more.  Kangxi’s grandson, the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799), employed two Jesuits as palace music teachers and even ordered them to teach 18 eunuchs to sing in a chorus and play Western instruments in a European music ensemble while wearing Western-style suits and powdered wigs! (For more on Western music history in China, see our book “Rhapsody in Red.“)

Jesuit priests also served as palace artists and architects.  Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688-1766), a favorite of Qianlong, was a court painter who created a new style that combined Chinese-style brushwork with Western concepts of perspective and dimensionality.  He painted a number of important events and his paintings are considered priceless works of art and history, many of them held in the collection of Beijing’s Palace Museum.  Castiglione was also involved in the design of the European-style structures and fountains at the Yuanmingyuan  palace complex (which was looted by British and French troops in 1840 and then burnt to the ground by the British).  The French Jesuit Father Amiot (Qian Deming, 1718-93) explained some of the Jesuit’s artistic work for Qianlong in a 1754 letter:

“It was to please him [Qianlong] that Father Chalier invented the famous alarm-clock, a work which even in Europe would have passed as a marvel, or at least a masterpiece of art; that Father Benoit made, a few years ago, the celebrated hydraulic works (du Val de Saint Pierre) to furnish the greatest variety of pleasant fountains that embellish the surroundings of the European houses, built under the design and direction of Brother Castiglione; that Brother de Brossard made, in the way of glass, works in the best of taste and of the most difficult execution, works which shine today in the Throne Room together with those that are the best and have come from France and England; it was to please him again, and to obey orders, that Brother Thibaut has just finished an automatic lion which walks one hundred steps like a live animal, and conceals, under his skin, all the machinery that makes him move.  It is astonishing that, with only the most elementary notions of watch-making, the dear Father was able, by himself, to invent and combine all the skill in a machine that encompasses everything that could be found in mechanics…”

Jesuit contributions to the study of math and sciences – including astronomy, cartography, geography, mechanics, and geometry – were also great.  Johann Adam Schall (Tang Ruowang, 1591-1666), for example, became head of the Board of Mathematics and with colleagues created a complete course in astronomy for which they wrote and published more than 100 books.  Jesuits held this critical government post for years afterward.

Even as they shared European culture with an elite Chinese audience, the Jesuits also explained Chinese culture to Europe – and reached many more people in the process.  After Ricci died in Beijing in 1610 his colleagues edited his journals and added an introduction to Chinese history and culture.  The book was published in 1620, with editions in Latin, Italian, German, French, and Spanish, and created significant interest in China.

Ricci and his successors introduced Confucian philosophy to Europe – even coining the word “Confucius,” as well as the more narrow concept of “Confucianism,” which the Chinese called “literati thought” – alongside detailed explanations of Chinese history, customs, and rituals.  To be sure, they had an agenda – to show that the basic tenets of Confucianism were compatible with Christianity, and to attract funding and staffing for their mission.  But, they were nonetheless sincere in promoting their view that China’s millennial civilization and highly developed cultural traditions were in no way inferior to Europe’s and, in any case, would not be abandoned for Christianity.  Indeed, in many cases when the Jesuits compared China to Europe, it was China that came out looking better. As Ricci wrote of China:

“Though they have a well-equipped army and navy that could easily conquer the neighboring nations, neither the king nor his people ever think of waging a war of aggression. They are quite content with what they have and are not ambitious of conquest.  In this respect they are much different from the people of Europe, who are frequently discontent with their own governments and covetous of what others enjoy.  While the nations of the West seem to be entirely consumed with the idea of supreme domination, they cannot even preserve what their ancestors have bequeathed them, as the Chinese have done through a period of some thousands of years.”[i]

The influence of Jesuit writings was great.  As an example, the Jesuit Martino Martini (Wei Kuangguo, 1614-61) wrote a chronology of Chinese history that depicted, for the first time in Europe, the Yi Jing (I Ching) and its 64 hexagrams.  Martini’s account was seen by the great German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), who today is perhaps best remembered for laying the foundations of binary math, which itself is the basis of modern computational architecture.  Intrigued, Leibniz in turn began a correspondence with Joachim Bouvet (Bai Pu, 1656-1730) – tutor to the Kangxi Emperor’s children – and became convinced that the Chinese creators of the Yi Jing had been familiar with the concepts of binary arithmetic.  This meant that he himself, in his own word, had only “rediscovered” it.

Jesuit and other Catholic writings on China also presented a major challenge to European conceptions of world history, which were then rooted in the Bible.   According to this view, the three historic events of global significance were creation, the great flood, and the fall of the Tower of Babel, each of which was given a date.  Debate did exist – adherents of the Vulgate version of the Bible dated creation to 4004 BCE and the flood to 2348 BCE while those who used the earlier Septuagint version said creation took place before 5000 BCE and the flood around 3617. [ii]

Both interpretations, however, were challenged by accounts of Chinese history, which stated that the first Chinese emperor, Fuxi, began to reign in 2952 BCE, when Chinese society was already so advanced that the Yi Jing had been written and astronomy was a developed science.  Though some dismissed these claims, most scholars were persuaded by the authenticity of Chinese historic records and thus had to begin reconciling the two chronologies – often with great creativity.  By some accounts, Fuxi was actually Adam; by others he (or another sage emperor, Yao) was Noah, or Enoch (the son of Cain). This led to debates as to whether – if Fuxi were Noah – the Chinese developed from Shem, his oldest son, or Ham, who was said to be the father of all idolaters.

Efforts to reconcile Chinese history with the story of Babel were even more interesting.  The British writer John Webb published an essay in 1669 suggesting that the Chinese had not been affected by the fall of the Tower of Babel, since they lived so far away – and that Chinese, rather than Hebrew, was the Primitive Language given to Adam by God and spoken by all the world’s people before the tower fell.  Leibniz also became interested in the possibility that Chinese held the roots of a universal language and he began to search for a “clavis sinica” (which a man named Andreas Muller claimed to have devised) that would be the key to this language.

Leibniz remained fascinated by China throughout his life, going out of his way to correspond with and even meet in person Jesuits who served there.  He pushed for an extensive cultural exchange between two equals, China and Europe, writing in one letter, that the Chinese “are superior to us in observational skills, as we are superior in theoretical skills—thus let’s trade each other’s talents, and let us catch fire with fire!”[iii]   On another occasion he suggested that the trade of “merchandise and spice” should become a “commerce… of light and wisdom,” with the Chinese and Europeans learning from each other.

Such positive views of China and its culture became so widespread among the European intellectual elite that it gave rise to a period known as “Sinomania” in the 16th and 17th centuries.  (Sinomania was especially strong in France and Germany, while it was weaker in England, which had remained Protestant and was thus less enamored of Jesuit viewpoints.)  China entered popular culture, with educated people expected to have opinions on certain issues that related to it (especially those that intersected with Catholic missionary work).  Confucianism, as explained by the Jesuits, was compelling to many – and, ironically, a source of inspiration to Enlightenment intellectuals who offered it as an example of a moral philosophy that did not need God or the Church.  Voltaire was one of these intellectuals, and he wrote about China extensively between 1740-60, oftentimes using it as a weapon by which to criticize French politics.  As he put it, “One need not be obsessed with the merits of the Chinese to recognize that their empire is the best that the world has ever seen.” Voltaire even adapted the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) play, “Orphan of Zhao,” which premiered in Paris on August 20, 1755, and wrote poems in honor of Qianlong.

This enthusiasm for China spilled over into the arts and led to Chinoiserie, a quixotic blending of Chinese and European design elements.  Chinese porcelain became so popular that tens of millions of pieces were sent to Europe on Dutch ships.  Pagodas were built in European gardens, like London’s Kew Garden where a 160-foot high pagoda stands to this day.  (For a fascinating account of Sino-European cultural exchange from 1500-1800 see D.E. Mungello’s The Great Encounter of China and the West.)

But then, for a variety of reasons – the vicissitudes of fashion, the growing global economic and political power of European nations, the onset of the era of imperialism and colonialism, the internal decline of the Qing Dynasty – Sinomania came to an abrupt end.  So too, did the Society of Jesus, which was dissolved by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, in part because of long-festering arguments over the appropriateness of the Jesuits’ accommodating approach to Chinese culture.   The society was restored in 1814, but by then China-European relations had taken a completely different direction.

Looking back, however, it is apparent that cultural exchange was the true base of productive Sino-Vatican relations for centuries – and perhaps it is culture that can provide a road forward, enabling both sides to get out of their current hostile impasse.  In 2008, the China Philharmonic Orchestra, under Maestro Yu Long, made a step in this direction when it visited the Vatican and performed Mozart’s “Requiem” for Pope Benedict. Now, perhaps, the Vatican could reciprocate by working with one of China’s countless museums to hold an exhibition of some of its many treasures in China.

St. Francis Xavier started the Jesuit China mission, but he never completed his journey.  Instead, he died on a rocky island called Shangchuan, just off the shores of Guangdong, while trying to gain entrance to China.  It would certainly be fitting if, five centuries later, Pope Francis could help heal the rift with China – and perhaps become the first pontiff to visit the nation so admired, and even loved, by hundreds of his Jesuit predecessors.



[i] Western Views of China and the Far East, Volume I Ancient to Early Modern Times

Edited by Henry A. Myers

Asian Studies Monograph Series, Asian Research Service, Hong Kong 1982,

Chapter IV Chong-kun Yoon, Sinophilism During the Age of Enlightenment: Jesuits, Philosophes and Physiocrats Discover Confucius, p. 152


[ii] Leibniz and China a Commerce of Light, p. 25

[iii] Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 2006 Issue 33

Wenchao Li and Hans Poser, p. 19


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