Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology

By D. E. Mungello | Go to book overview
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The most important sources shaping the seventeenth-century European assimilation of information about China were the published writings of the Jesuit missionaries. These were highly informative works interwoven with generally sympathetic attitudes toward the Chinese and their civilization, though as the century progressed, these works grew more defensive and polemical in tone in response to attacks on Jesuit accommodation.

Some of these Jesuit works were popularly oriented general accounts of Chinese society and culture, such as Ricci-Trigault De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas ( 1615), Semedo's Imperio de la China ( 1642) and Magalhaes-Bernou's Nouvelle relation de la Chine ( 1690). Others were scholarly works aimed at a more circumscribed audience, such as Martini Novus atlas Sinensis ( 1655) and Sinicae historiae decas prima ( 1658). Some works, such as Martini De bello tartarico in Sinis historia ( 1655), were hastily ground-out pieces aimed at capitalizing on public interest in a current event. Others, such as the group translation of the Confucian Four Books, Confucius Sinarum philosophus ( 1687), had been in progress since the beginning of the century. While most of these books were written by highly informed Jesuits, the intensification of the Rites Controversy at the end of the century caused the content of these works to suffer by fostering propaganda pieces aimed at a more blatant promotion of the Jesuit position on accommodation. Such were Nouveaux mémoires sur l'etat présent de la Chine ( 1696) by Le Comte and Histoire de l'edit de l'empereur de la Chine ( 1698) by Le Gobien who was the procurator in France and a Jesuit who had never set foot in China.

While the Jesuit missionary authors of works under consideration reflected that blend of respect and admiration for Chinese society and culture which was characteristic of accommodation policy, the European proto-sinologists had a somewhat different outlook toward China. The dominant seventeenth-century European intellectual style of encyclopedic interests was clearly apparent in the fascination with China. Kircher was an intellectual prototype of his age in blending a vast range of interests with amateur boldness of investigation, and his China illustrata most eminently symbolized China as the object of "curious" (i.e. painstaking, detailed and skillful) investigation. Viewed in this light, Kircher's Hermetism may be seen as the product of a restless and encyclopedic mind in an intense state of fascination with unknown and exotic elements of the world -- whether of ancient Egypt or far-distant China. While Kircher's Hermetism may have been relatively unique, his "curious" interest in China was a motivating force shared by most of the proto-sinologists who studied the Jesuit works on China and who went on to develop their own, often bizarre theories.


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Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology


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