By the later sixteenth century, the horizons of Rome's intellectuals had widened enormously. They now included not only Rome, Greece, and Egypt but a Far Eastern culture that westerners had hardly known since the days of Marco Polo, long before-- China.

How Rome Went to China

From the 1540s, Jesuit missionaries in East Asia tried to convert the Chinese and Japanese to Christianity, as part of the Counter-Reformation drive to win the world back to Rome. The Japanese mission failed quickly, but the Chinese one seemed immensely promising. Jesuits like Matteo Ricci learned Chinese, mastered the canon of classic Confucian texts, dressed as mandarins, and joined the imperial court. They showed the Chinese intellectuals that the west had superior skills in some areas that the Chinese recognized as vital, like cartography and astronomy, and they translated accounts of western ideas and Christian doctrine into Chinese for their converts. For a time their mission prospered. Meanwhile the Vatican, which controlled and managed the missionary enterprise, became a great repository both of the works the Jesuits produced in Eastern languages and of texts and works of art that they sent back. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the famous Roman Jesuit Athanasius Kircher could try to study Chinese in Rome. He insisted that the Chinese tradition was as old and profound as that of the Egyptians (indeed, he saw Chinese ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphs as deriving from the same roots). Some argued that Chinese culture was actually more moral and pious than European. Like earlier humanist efforts to find pagan sages who could teach Christians basic truths, the Jesuits' Chinese enterprise, too, eventually failed. But the Vatican's holdings wonderfully exemplify the fragile, fascinating bridge of texts and images which the Jesuits built in order to reach, understand--and convert--the most foreign of cultures.

Giulio Aleni, Wan-kuo ch`üan-t`u (Complete map of all nations)

Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary to become adept in Chinese, produced a map of the world, on Western principles, in Chinese. The Ricci map went through several versions from 1574 to 1603 and profoundly influenced western cartography. Although East Asia--and China in particular--is represented clearly and with scientific precision, nevertheless several of China's own cartographers, writing independently of the court, criticized the configuration as an insult to China's centrality. Sometime in the 1620s Giulio Aleni had this abridgment of Ricci's map printed and hand-tinted. Aleni's name is in the left-most column of Chinese on the upper half, above the Jesuit seal.

Giulio Aleni, Wan-kuo ch`üan-t`u (Complete map of all nations). In Chinese. China. ca. 1620

Giulio Aleni, K`un-yü t`u-shuo

Giulio Aleni, the equally skilled and effective successor to Matteo Ricci in China, supervised this wood-block printing of a book on the wonders of the western world, titled literally "An Illustrated Explanation of Geography." Here we see the Colossus of Rhodes, guarding that Mediterranean harbor, an image quite familiar to westerners from both classic and popular archaeology. The Chinese book shown here does not represent the best of Chinese wood-block engraving but appears to be a cheap printing (there is no publishing information given). It was probably sponsored by one of the churches that Aleni fostered in Fukien, where low-cost and quick printing abounded.

Giulio Aleni, K`un-yü t`u-shuo. In Chinese. China. ca. 1620

Michael Boym, Magni Catay: Quod olim Serica, et modo Sinarum est Monarchia; Quindecem Regnorum; Octodecim geographicae Tabulae (Maps of Great Cathay)

The Jesuit Michael Boym based his album of eight maps of China on his own experience of the country and on Chinese gazetteers. The opening page of his impressive album features the entire East Asian subcontinent. Although it does not depict the Korean- Japanese configuration with scientific accuracy, it does give details of China's river and mountain systems. According to a Vatican colophon, the work was purchased in 1729 by someone named Riamonteger and was later deposited in the Borgia collection.

Michael Boym, Magni Catay: Quod olim Serica, et modo Sinarum est Monarchia; Quindecem Regnorum; Octodecim geographicae Tabulae (Maps of Great Cathay). Europe. 1652

Letter of appreciation to the Church

This letter was written in 1621 by Japanese officials who identify themselves as being from Gokinai, a word that referred to five imperially controlled districts around the capital at Edo, near Tokyo. Such officially attached lands were traditional bureaucratic institutions, not natural market or temple towns. Thus the signers would have been speaking as functionaries, not as residents of a town. They offer praise to the Catholic religion. A Latin translation is given on the same sheet.

Letter of appreciation to the Church. In Japanese, with Latin translation. 1621

Adam Schall von Bell, Eight-part cosmological map

Adam Schall was the first European ever to have been a member of the court bureaucracy in Peking. As part of his duties as head of the Office of Astronomy, he produced this large and truly spectacular six-part cosmological map, accompanied by pictures of astronomical instruments.

Adam Schall von Bell, Eight-part cosmological map. Flat printed sheets. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.

Abraham Ortelius, Asiae Orbis partium maximae nova descriptio

Abraham Ortelius's "New Map of Asia," of which a detail is shown here, was printed in 1567 on two flat sheets and shows the state of European knowledge of Asia before the Jesuit mission. Ortelius included traditional terms and images drawn from Marco Polo and other old sources, Tartar and Scythian place-names, renditions of the desert tents of Mongolian Great Khans, and the locations of Inner Asian states, such as Tibet and Tangut, that fought the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Much of north Asia is left blank, and there is no Korea. Two names are used at once for China: "Cataio" (central and central- western China) and "China" (the south). Quinsai and Zaiton, richly described by Polo, are displaced to the north. Ortelius places a pair of lions in the Chinese heartland, but his map lacks the corresponding lavish flora and fauna evident in Michael Boym's later work.

Abraham Ortelius, Asiae Orbis partium maximae nova descriptio. Venice: Donatus Bertelli. 1567. Part 1, Part 2

Back to top

Missionaries and Mandarins

Rome not only collected the books from many foreign cultures; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became the center of missionary enterprises that spanned the world. In China, Jesuits like Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall von Bell performed an incredible task of translation and interpretation. They learned the language; they made converts, some of high rank; and, in order to impress the cultivated Chinese elite with western forms of knowledge, they translated into Chinese the classical western science of cartography and the radically improved astronomy of Galileo. They also argued to their western superiors that Chinese classics--like the Greek and Egyptian ones so prized by some Roman scholars--had a core of values and tenets that matched those of Christianity. Eventually the Jesuits' openness to China led them into trouble; but for the first century and more of their mission, they did a remarkable job of bringing western forms of knowledge to China and Chinese forms of thought to the West. The Vatican preserves remarkable materials from both sides of this cultural exchange.

Adam Schall von Bell, Chien-chieh tsung-hsing t`u (Map of the main stars in the visible realm)

Adam Schall von Bell introduced the new astronomy of Galileo, including the telescope, to China. This single-sheet printed map with explanatory text shows the stars visible in the sky of northern China.

Adam Schall von Bell, Chien-chieh tsung-hsing t`u (Map of the main stars in the visible realm). Printed flat sheet. Red-ink seals

Sabatino de Ursis, T`ai-hsi shui-fa

This elegant and finely engraved Chinese book on Western hydraulics by the Jesuit Sabatino de Ursis reveals both the importation of specific techniques and constructions to China and the eagerness with which many Chinese accepted European technical learning. The list of sponsors, a preface by a well-known convert who was the most skilled of all his peers in mathematics, and the textual breaks before Christian appellations are all evidence of the warm reception that Western technology received. Shown here is a traditional European force pump.

Sabatino de Ursis, T`ai-hsi shui-fa. In Chinese. China. Preface dated 1612

Matteo Ricci, Hun-kai t`ung-hsien t`u-shuo

Matteo Ricci's technical explanation in Chinese of European astronomy was no doubt written with the help of his friend Li Chih-tsao, who contributed a preface. Notice the main circle's division into the twelve houses, and their polar projection. The work contains a preface by Ricci, as well as one by Li Chih-tsao, with a postscript by another Chinese friend. The prefaces give only the rough date "the end of the Wan-li reign" (i.e. ca. 1610- 1620).

Matteo Ricci, Hun-kai t`ung-hsien t`u-shuo. In Chinese. ca. 1610-20

A. P. Ferdinand Verbiest, Astronomia Europea sub Imperatore Tartaro-Sinico C‘am Hy [K‘ang-hsi] Appellato ex Umbra in Lucem Revocata

Adam Schall's assistant, Verbiest, labored in a strange mode not quite Euclidean and not quite Chinese, as he pondered questions of the Chinese I-ching and geometric form. Aside from being a fortune book, the I-ching was the mainstay of an ancient philosophy of number and symmetry. It deals much with the numbers three and six, as seen in Verbiest's hexagons and triangles. He has larded his pages with sayings from that classic, apparently in his own hand. This pull-out page is one of many working notes that were bound together with Verbiest's printed eclipse predictions and his apologia of western astronomy for the Manchu court.

A. P. Ferdinand Verbiest, Astronomia Europea sub Imperatore Tartaro-Sinico C`am Hy [K`ang-hsi] Appellato ex Umbra in Lucem Revocata. European-style binding of miscellaneous pieces. Various dates: 1668, 1671, 1697, etc.

Folding red-colored letter of praise for Father Tseng (Alvaro Semedo)

A group of prominent men in Canton gathered to produce a formal letter of respect to Father Tseng (the Jesuit Alvaro Semedo), calling him "Great Teacher and Priest, Master Tseng, Great Person Removed from Office." The last phrase refers to Semedo's imprisonment and banishment by the court in 1616, along with other Jesuits. Many fled to Macao, just outside Canton, but started returning to their posts throughout China when the furor subsided in 1620. In 1637, the date of the letter, Semedo was about to depart for the West.

Folding red-colored letter of praise for Father Tseng (Alvaro Semedo). 1637

Philippe Couplet (attrib.), Catalogus librorum sinicorum a PP. Soc. Jesu editorum

This three-part manuscript catalog shows the books published and owned by an unidentified branch of Jesuits in China. On the reverse of sheet C is the signature of Philippe Couplet (1622- 1693), which was discovered while examining the manuscript in preparation for shipment to the Library of Congress for the 1993 exhibition. This allows us to deduce (in the absence of any other information) that Couplet, an important biographer and historian of the mission as well as sponsor of important Latin translations of Chinese classics, supervised its production.

Philippe Couplet (attrib.), Catalogus librorum sinicorum a PP. Soc. Jesu editorum. Manuscript on three sheets. ca. 1670-90

Giulio Aleni, T‘ien-chu chiang-sheng ch‘u-hsiang ching-chieh (History of the life of Christ, with illustrations) Chin-chian Fukien: The Chin-chiang Church

The Jesuit Giulio Aleni brought western iconography to China, where it was used as the Chinese themselves had used illustrations, especially in Buddho-Taoist teaching. Here we have an intricate block-printed book of illustrations used as an aid to proselytization. Numbers in the text portion at the bottom of pages refer to figures and arrangements in the scenes of Christ's life.

Giulio Aleni, T`ien-chu chiang-sheng ch‘u-hsiang ching-chieh (History of the life of Christ, with illustrations) Chin-chian Fukien: The Chin-chiang Church. 1637

Francisco Varo, Arte de la lengua mandarina

In 1649, the Spanish Dominican Francisco Varo arrived in Southern China. Seeking a more direct way to master the language, he wrote The Art of Mandarin Language in Spanish. Here we see displayed the addendum, "Brevis methodus confessionis instituendae," written by Father Basilis of Glemona from the apostolate of Shensi province, in northern China. It is important evidence of missionary practices. Its romanized version of the common spoken Cantonese rapidly taught new missionaries how to perform rites and sacraments and hear confessions for potential converts in Chinese by rote; this tool was a Dominican answer to the Jesuits's method of long preparation in literary Chinese.

Francisco Varo, Arte de la lengua mandarina. Edited by Pedrodo Piñuela. In Spanish and Latin. Canton. 1703

Back to top