New Perspectives of the Jesuits and Science in China: 1600-1800

By Elman, Benjamin A. | Bucknell Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

New Perspectives of the Jesuits and Science in China: 1600-1800


Elman, Benjamin A., Bucknell Review


Narrative accounts of the history of science worldwide from 1500-1800 have, until recently, been portrayed mainly through European frames of reference, even when comparative themes are stressed. Hence, the contested nature of the interaction since 1550 between late imperial Chinese and early modern Europeans over the meaning and significance of natural studies is a little known story. These Eurocentric portraits of the rise of modern science, while not monolithic, mainly represent variations of a single-minded historical teleology of Western European scientific "success," and non-Western "failure." Usually the plots of such accounts reproduce uncritically the story of the seventeenth-century Protestant-based scientific revolution or return to the narrative of the medieval, Catholic roots of modern science.

Between 1600 and 1773, Jesuit authors worldwide wrote more than 4000 works, 600 journal articles (almost all after 1700), and 1000 manuscripts dealing with the sciences. The vast majority were by Jesuit educators. Some 437 works were translated or compiled by the Jesuits and their converts in China between 1584 and 1790. Thirty percent of that total (131) were in the sciences, while fifty-seven percent (251) were on Christianity. Usually the Latin texts were orally translated by a Jesuit and dictated to a Chinese in a style known as kouyi [oral translation] or bishou [received writing]. The Chinese collaborator then prepared a polished written version for review. For example, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) translated Christoph Clavius's 1607 Elementorum in this manner, as did Sabbathin de Ursis (1575-1620) for his 1612 Taixi shuifa (Western techniques of hydraulics). Jean-Nicholas Smogolenski (1610-56) and his collaborators introduced the European method for calculating eclipses in an astronomical work of circa 1656, which was also the first to introduce spherical trigonometry and logarithms. Later, Ferdinand Verbiest's (1623-88) 1672 Kunyu tushuo (Maps and explanations of the earth) furnished further information on world geography beyond Ricci's earlier mappa mundi. By way of contrast, most eighteenth-century translations in China were theological works, and Jesuits turned instead to translating Chinese works into European languages. (2)

The Jesuits in late Ming China saw the "investigation of things" [gewu] and "exhaustively mastering principles" [qiongli] as a necessary way station to the doctrinal transmission of the experience of God to the Chinese they hoped to convert. Because of the physico-theology lurking in the Jesuits teleology of nature, however, the investigation of things was ultimately "to find God" for the Jesuits and "to fathom principles" of the Tao for the Chinese. Despite this theological twist to the Jesuit interpretation, the Jesuit conception and practice of scientia was ingeniously presented by some of the Chinese who collaborated with the Jesuits, such as Xiong Mingyu (b. 1579), as roughly corresponding to the natural studies of the Chinese. (3) Both sides saw an order and purpose in the cosmos and on earth, which the Jesuits linked into a physico-theology that used theology and geography to delineate God and nature as one. Most Chinese literati also saw the earth and heavens as a harmonious whole, but their teleological view of nature framed arguments for the design of the cosmos around an eternal and always changing Tao rather than around the chronology of a divine providence informing the cosmic order in Christianity. In place of a cosmos made up of "four elements" (air-ether, fire, earth, water), the Chinese conceived of change in light of a "Supreme Ultimate" [taiji], which through the medium of yang and yin forces set in motion the five phases (wuxing [earth, fire, metal, water, and wood]) of cosmic evolution and yielded the concomitant production and destruction cycles of the "myriad things" [wanwu] in the world. (4) Indeed, Alphonso Vagnoni's 1633 Kongji gezhi [Investigation of the atmosphere], was in part a refracted presentation of the theory of the four elements from the Conimbricenses edition of Aristotle's Meteriologica entitled In libros meteorum, which was in use in the Jesuit University of Coimbra in Portugal where many missionaries were trained before leaving for Asia. …

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