Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology

By D. E. Mungello | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

The history of the seventeenth-century Jesuit mission in China is very much like a plant which developed from a common stem of aims into various branches. In this work I trace the development of one branch of that organic growth and its relationship to the early European study of China which I call "proto-sinology". I focus on the branch of the Jesuit mission which built on the foundations laid by Fr. Matteo Ricci and which developed and evolved in the works of Frs. Semedo, Magalhaes, Martini, Couplet and Bouvet. Because of the flexibility and empathy manifested toward China in this line of Jesuit missionary development, I refer to it as "accommodative" or as "Jesuit accommodation".

Although the fundamental aim of the Jesuit mission was directed at proselytizing and converting the Chinese to Christianity, the Jesuits" intellectual inclinations led them to work for this aim through the European dissemination of information about China in order to secure broad-based support for their missionary effort among European savants and princes. This dissemination combined with a high degree of interest among European savants in this "curious land" called China.

The blending of a vast range of interests with amateur boldness of investigation was so characteristic of seventeenth-century Europe that we find these attitudes reflected in a word which appeared throughout the literature of this time -- "curious"1. For Europeans of that age, the word "curious" had little of

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1
Recent scholarly work on the seventeenth-century meaning of the words curiosus and curiositas is limited and tends to emphasize the notion of curiositas (curiosity) in its broad historical and theological contexts rather than curiosus (curious) in its more specific application to serious works on China, as used in this study. On the difference between the ancient and modern meanings of the notion curiositas and on the theological objections to curiositas as voiced by St. Augustine, see Henri-Irénée Maffou, Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique ( Paris, 1938) pp. 148-157, 277-280, 350-352 & 473f. On the evolution in meaning of curiositas, see André Labhardt, "Curiositas. Notes sur l'histoire d'un mot et d'une notion," in Museum Helveticum 17 ( 1969): 206-224. On the significance of the word to the travel literature of the seventeenth century and how the notion of curiositas absorbed changes in the intellectual climate to acquire a new and more important significance in the economic, theological and scholarly realms and how travel literature served to accommodate new discoveries with the knowledge of Antiquity, e.g. the geography of the Ancients, see Dieter Lohmeier , "Von Nutzbarkeit der frembden Reysen. Rechtfertigungen des Reisens in Zeitalter der Entdeckungen," in Trier Beltrage 1979, Sonderheft 3, pp. 3-8. On the seventeenth-century evolution of the meaning of curieus from an object of human

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