Jesuit Missionaries in China during the Early Modern Period

Their Role in the Development of both China and Europe


Engraving of Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) shown on the left and the first Chinese convert to Christianity, Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) on the right. © Steve McCluskey / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons


One of the most insightful periods of Sino-European relations is the early modern period, when via the establishment of the first Jesuit missions to the Chinese empire, China and the West made their first major cultural and civilizational encounter. In that sense, Jesuits deployed to China are especially intriguing as they stand at the crossroads of two epochs, straddling between East and West and allying mediaeval Christian missionary spirit and early Enlightenment scientific curiosity (Hsia, 2009). Acting as global actors of interaction and knowledge transmission between cultures and people, Jesuit missionaries might be seen as “agents of an early religious form of globalisation” (Clossey, 2005, p.16).


Despite their role as knowledge brokers and as first mediators between the Chinese and European civilizations, Jesuits have traditionally been studied solely for their influence on China’s development and more specifically for their lack of long-term scientific impact. In addition, Imperial China has often been pictured as close-minded and uninterested in Western science, a misconception which has long been a popular answer to the Needham Puzzle, the question as to why China failed to develop modern science after the 14th century despite having reached the threshold for a scientific and industrial revolution. However, this article, as an addition to the scarce literature on the topic, investigates Jesuits as illicit actors in the development trajectory of both Europe and China and highlights the active interest of Chinese intelligentsia for European sciences until the late 18th century. Moreover, this paper participates in the deconstruction of the traditional view in the literature that the early modern Jesuit missions in the Far East were a virtuous attempt to engage the Chinese as equals.


The Society of Jesus in China


Founded in 1540, the Society of Jesus expanded considerably over the course of the 16th century, growing into a global religious order with rampant influence in Europe, especially in the domain of education. Renowned for their scientific rigour, the Catholic Church often relied on them for scientific inquiry or to accompany colonial missions as mathematicians or cartographers (O’Malley, 2016). Thus, they accompanied the first European expeditions to China during the late Ming Dynasty, period ranging from the mid-16th century to the demise of the Ming in 1644. First establishing themselves in Macau in the 1560s, then in Guangdong in 1582, Jesuits firmly established themselves in mainland China and successfully integrated Chinese elites as key advisors to the Imperial Court in diplomacy, science, engineering and the arts in the 17th century (Wu, 2013; Rule, 2016). Their stature survived the dynastical transition from the Ming to the Manchu Qing before falling out of favour with both Rome and the Qing Emperors over the 18th century, largely because of the Chinese Rites Controversy during which the Vatican condemned Confucian and ancestral rites as heretic and the Jesuit accommodating attitude towards them (Rule, 2016).


Among the Jesuit missionaries sent to China, the literature has dedicated most attention to Matteo Ricci who spoke Chinese almost better than his mother tongue, dressed as a monk before switching to literati clothes for higher status, and carefully stressed scholarship over religion to avoid conflicts with Chinese sensibilities. His success supposedly lies in his learning and consummate tact such as not condemning ancestor worship, adopting a Chinese term for God, adapting the liturgical message to China and using Confucian doctrine as a complement to Christianity (Sebes, 1978). This approach is known as the ‘accommodation policy’, the adaptation of the Christian message to the Jesuits’ audience. In addition to the inclusion of Chinese custom and philosophy into their religious proselytism, Jesuits allied scholarship and science with Christianity. Hence, Ricci and his successors spread European scientific, philosophical and technical knowledge through the Middle Kingdom whilst converting high officials more successfully than the general population. Whilst, according to Chinese sources, a Grand Secretary to the Emperor got baptised and certain presidents of the Supreme Court embraced Christianity, only 0.1% of the population converted to Catholicism (Sebes, 1978; Ma, 2019). Parallelly, Jesuits translated scientific writings and produced maps, celestial and terrestrial spheres of high quality to the extent that they, for instance, filled the position of director of the Imperial Board of Astronomy for over a century. In addition, they even participated in the negotiations of the first European-Asian diplomatic treaty in Nerchinsk between Russia and the Qing in 1689 (Gerlach, 2005; Brown, 2020). Therefore, through an impulse to “promote scientific specialisation as part of an apostolic enterprise”, Jesuits had both a short-term and long-term impact on the scientific and cultural development of Chinese society (Hsia, 2009, p.147).


Jesuit impact on Early Modern China


The Jesuits’ Christianisation of China is by far less impressive than their scientific and intellectual legacy. More than in Catholicism, Chinese emperors were interested in astronomy, Western artillery and cartography. In the case of the latter, the Jesuits’ precise abilities laid the foundation for all subsequent geographic studies of China and built self-awareness among Chinese officials about their nation’s geography (Waley-Cohen, 1993). Furthermore, the Kangxi Emperor, reigning from 1689 to 1722, sponsored Jesuit missionaries to improve upon existing cannons which would remain in the imperial arsenal until the Opium Wars. At this point, however, Western technology had already outmatched what used to be technological wonders. Nevertheless, European mathematical knowledge of trajectories and other useful measurements introduced by Jesuits would significantly influence the development of Chinese ballistics and firearms (Xiaodong, 2008). In other domains like medicine, the impact was rather short-term, notably due to the lack of translation into Chinese or Manchu of most of the 280 European books collected in Beijing by 1773 which limited the transmission of knowledge (Golvers, 2011).


It seems that the long-term impact on Chinese scholarship and society can be found in the realm of ideas, scientific methods and the arts (Yang, 2017). Surprisingly, the first text translated from Latin to Chinese by Jesuits was not the Bible but a selection of Cicero’s “On Friendship”, as an attempt to appeal to Confucianism; friendship being one of the five basic Confucian relationships (Waley-Cohen, 1993). Most translated until the 1800s however, were books pertaining to astronomy and mathematics which introduced concepts new to the Chinese such as logarithmic table, methods of high order equation and the calculation of infinite series (Landry-Deron, 2011). By appealing to science, the Jesuit presence stimulated the Chinese literati toward scientific research. In fact, it seems that many Chinese literati had found in European science and methodology a rigour and preciseness that was superior to Chinese science. Thus, many started studying from Jesuits and translated European works in an attempt to then reconstruct Chinese classical sciences based on European methods (Ma, 2019).


Consequently, the presence of Jesuits and European knowledge triggered among Chinese literati the shixue, ‘concrete studies’, an intellectual movement which praised the studies of natural phenomena over Confucian classics and their metaphysical properties (Yu, 1975). This, in parallel to the Jesuit discourse towards Chinese popular religious beliefs and superstitions, provoked a surge of interest among Chinese scholars to investigate them through a more scientific approach (Qiong, 2017). Though the wonders of European sciences and instruments did not foster curiosity for trading with Europe, Jesuits’ accounts of China on the other hand, prompted in Europe a fascination for the Far East which likely contributed to an imperialist appetite for trade with the closed off Empire whose foreign trade was limited to the southern port of Guangzhou.


China ‘Vogue’ and the Enlightenment


More than science and technique, Jesuits played a significant role as cultural intermediaries in the transmission of Chinese values and philosophy to Enlightenment Europe. Until confronted to Confucian ethics translated into Latin by Jesuits, Europeans had for centuries believed that the only true and sound foundation for individual and social morality was Christianity. Though Jesuit missionaries might have exaggerated the practical Confucian influence on Chinese society to legitimise their religious mission in China, their translations were nonetheless highly accurate and spread throughout Early Modern Europe, resonating the most among educated elites and thinkers. Indeed, some were convinced that Chinese moral philosophy could provide a model for Europe as it had supported the enduring vibrancy of imperial China throughout history (Brown, 2020). Voltaire for instance, applauded China as the ultimate model of a secular and humane civilization and praised Confucius in those words: "Let us confess that there is no legislator who has announced more useful truths to the human race" (Bailey, 1992; Gao, 2017, p.106). According to Gustave Lanson, father of historical studies of French literature, Confucian ethics responded to the spiritual needs of the French population at the time. First, because the Confucian moral code is independent of religion and secondly, because it combines politics with ethics thus implying that a country is governable through morality (Gao, 2017). Furthermore, Christian Wolff, renowned German mathematician and philosopher, insisted that Chinese civilization had demonstrated the possibility of having a highly effective social morality based not on religious revelations or sanctions, but solely on the innate powers of human nature (Brown, 2020). Despite idealising Chinese society and ethics, Voltaire and Wolff, like other contemporary thinkers who were confronted with accounts of the Middle Kingdom, therefore integrated Chinese morality and ethics into their philosophy. Ultimately, Confucian principles indirectly influenced the development of secularisation and governance as separated from religion in Europe.


A further, but not less important, example of the influence of Chinese philosophy on European thought can be found in the economic realm. Brought back to Europe by Jesuit accounts in the 17th century and actively taking hold in the Low Countries, France and Switzerland between 1648 and 1848, the Chinese political economy concept of wu wei would drastically impact European economic thought. Dating from the early Western Han dynasty, this concept means “doing less/nothing” and was redefined into “order and equilibrium will be achieved without [the] ruler’s intervention” (Deng, 1999, p 258.). The concept of wu wei, related to the idea of a natural order and to the principles of non-intervention, shaped the intellectual foundations of the first well-developed economic school of thought in Europe, Physiocracy. Originating from François Quesnay in the 18th century, physiocrat theories argued that labour was the sole source of value and claimed “[...] that free trade would lead to a natural distribution of [agricultural] produce [...]” (Irwin, 1996, p.65; Gerlach, 2005). Despite his criticism of Quesnay in “Wealth of Nation” and their conceptual differences, Adam Smith’s theoretical system unmistakably borrowed from the Physiocrats and their laissez-faire doctrine, itself inspired by wu wei (Young, 2002). Ultimately, this refutes the idea that economic liberalism is an indigenous product of the European Enlightenment.


Moreover, the veneration of Chinese philosophy in Europe co-evolved with a growing European trade and the rising demand for ‘chinoiseries’, Chinese fine manufactures such as printed silk and bronze ornaments. In fact, the Jesuits’ idealised accounts of China lead to intense Sinophilia in Europe. This fueled European commercial lust which was confronted with China’s Canton system, restricting foreign trade to the Guangzhou area. Motivated by their huge trade deficit with China, the British attempted to put an end to this restrictive trade system but repeatedly failed. European frustration in this regard grew parallelly to the 18th century shift from Sinophilia to Sinophobia provoked mostly by changes endogenous to European society (Waley-Cohen, 1993; Millar, 2007; Gao, 2017). On the one hand, the emerging negative narratives about China may have contributed to the orientalist paradigm that constructs the Orient, as stagnant, irrational and backward, as a ‘contrast case’ to explain the Occident as changeful, rational and progressive (Turner, 1989). On the other hand, one can wonder if the Jesuits’ contribution to a fashionable image fueled British appetite for luxury Chinese goods like porcelain or silk, which through the creation of an illegal market led to the Opium Wars.


Whilst the legacy of Jesuit accounts of China may have shaped European Enlightenment and development to largely neglected extents, it seems that the Jesuits were considerably less significant to China’s trajectory. In fact, after the intellectual contact between China and Europe was broken in 1793 when the Pope dismissed the Jesuit mission due to a theological quarrel, the constructive effect of Jesuit science on Chinese literati progressively disappeared. Due to the limits of Jesuit knowledge diffusion, including the focus on the elites or the remaining orthodoxy of Confucian classics among Chinese scholars, the latter oriented themselves at the end of the 18th century towards the rediscovery of ancient classic antiquity, emphasising textual studies, kaoju, over natural science (Ma, 2019). However, the universalist and enlightening dimension of the Jesuit mission to China, examined in the following section, may have left a more memorable mark on Imperial China.


The Enlightening Mission


During their overseas missions, Jesuits were particularly adept at cross-cultural intimacy by operating according to long-term residency, learning local languages, attention to customs and desire to win the trust of the locals (Harris, 2005). However, one should not be blinded by the Jesuit’ scientific enthusiasm and curiosity. Above all, Jesuits went to China to spread a religious message and ultimately, also a ‘civilising’ one endowed by the ‘superior’ principles of universal reason and sciences. In these lines, Qiong, Z. makes the pertinent and new argument that rather than “suave negotiators”, Jesuits took it upon themselves to sow the seed of a ‘superior’ Western civilization in Chinese soil (Qiong, 2017). In that sense, the ‘first attempt to engage Chinese as equals’ consisted more of a masquerade to an underlying universalist project at the heart of which was Ricci’s accommodation policy and the instrumentalization of science. By looking into Jesuits literary accounts, the feeling of superiority over the Chinese is sensible. For instance, Ricci shares his disappointment in Chinese empirical knowledge in a letter to a Jesuit General in November 4, 1595:


“To be honest, if China were the entire word, I would not hesitate to call myself the greatest mathematician and also the greatest philosopher of nature. The things they say are ridiculous, and there is little that they know which merits my amazement. (…).” Ihrim.


“They do not know anything about air, but have a theory of five elements which excludes air and includes metal and wood. They think that the earth is a square (…) They say that the sun hides itself beneath a mountain close to the earth at night and that the sun is just a bit bigger than the bottom of a barrel. There are many other such absurdities. They think that I am a person of broad knowledge who can accomplish just about anything. (…). To them I am a ‘Knowledge Monster’ who must have no peers in all of Europe. This made me want to laugh.” Ihrim.


In this passage, one can feel in each sentence Ricci’s perception of Chinese knowledge as far inferior to European sciences. A similar mindset can be found in the correspondence of Francois-Xavier Dentrecolles, superior of the French Jesuit mission in China who writes in 1735:


"If we can one day establish a college here, such as we have in France, the Chinese will feel with astonishment the superiority of our European ways over those of their Sages. (…) I beg your Reverence to endeavour to have devout persons fund schools for our young Christians in the places where we have Churches. This is a very necessary safeguard for them against error and corruption…” (translated, cited from Wu, 2013, p.14)


Here, Dentrecolles considers that Europe’s education system is undoubtedly superior. Moreover, he pleads for means to build schools to protect the youth from “error and corruption”, which apart from its literal and religious meaning, refers to Chinese beliefs and ingrained customs considered heretical or defying pure reason. Therefore, Ricci and many of his peers conceived of their mission as fundamentally one of enlightening China and considered the Chinese worldview not as a possible alternative mode of thought and expression but rather as the ‘collapse of rationality’. Thus, it seems that Jesuits were not carriers of a sole religious message adorned with tantalising science and knowledge, but also brought with them the first flames of Enlightenment universalism.


In conclusion, whilst the role of 16th – 17th centuries Jesuits in the development of China has traditionally been overstated, China arguably played an unconscious role in the making of Europe through the knowledge brought back by Jesuits from the Far East. Who knows what Europe would look like in the 21st century without this early encounter with Confucianism and Chinese ethics. Going back to the Needham Question, many have attributed China’s stagnation in sciences to a lack of interest in learning from the West which David S. Landes calls a “repudiation or depreciation of Western science and technology” (2006, p. 12). However, this paper adds to the more recent literature that has been deconstructing this perception of China, notably by showing Chinese elites’ interest for Jesuit knowledge which justified their influence at the imperial court. Additionally, this paper suggests that the ideological universalist and almost soft-power imperialist dimension of the Jesuit missions could add on to our understanding of Imperial China’s weariness towards Europeans and their knowledge at the time.




Alice Chauprade is a French student currently interning at a research institute in Vienna, Austria, and holding a bachelors in Political Sciences, History, and Chinese Language & Culture from University College Utrecht, the Netherlands. Above all, she is interested in laying new foundations in our understanding of China-EU relations as well as in how the EU could reshape their foreign policy in Asia in a more pragmatic and pluralistic way. YOu can find her on LinkedIn.




The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.



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