Episode 43: When the Saint Comes Marching In

June 25, 2024

After the fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty drove the few small Nestorian Christian communities in China underground and largely closed China off to foreigners. Only in the 16th century with the arrival of Portuguese traders did contacts with the West begin to be revived. The newly founded Jesuit order organized a mission to China led by Matteo Ricci. After finding his efforts at establishing a presence in the country stymied by the government, Ricci discovered that the key to securing a permanent Jesuit presence in China was his knowledge of Western astronomy.


Good evening, and welcome to the Song of Urania, a podcast about the history of astronomy, from antiquity to the present, with new episodes every full moon. My name is Joe Antognini.

Well, we have spent the last six episodes peering into various aspects of the astronomy of ancient and Imperial China. By and large this astronomical tradition was indigenous to China, though as I mentioned when we were talking about the hsiu, or lunar mansions, there was certainly some cultural contact between India and China, particularly in the latter part of the first millennium AD. In this episode I wanted to chronicle another period of rather remarkable cultural contact in China — the arrival of the Jesuits in the 16th century. The ability of the Jesuit missionaries to leverage their knowledge of European astronomy to gain permanent access to the highest echelons of power in Chinese society is rather unparalleled. And, thanks to the copious documents that both Chinese scholars and Jesuit missionaries produced, we have a tremendous view into what all sides were thinking during this period.

Now, in some ways this episode is coming a bit out of order from the main narrative. The reason that the Jesuits had so much success in China was that quite a lot had happened in astronomy between the last time we checked in on Europe during the late Roman Empire and this period, the 16th century when the scientific revolution was well underway. I’ll mention some of the specific developments that occurred as they are relevant, but we’ll have to save a deep dive on these topics for future episodes. That being said, the developments of the scientific revolution that are the most famous and which you probably already know something about, like Copernicus’s heliocentric theory and Kepler’s laws, really weren’t very relevant at all to the Jesuits in China, at least directly, and they hardly mentioned them to their Chinese counterparts. The more relevant developments in European science were more obscure things like the Alfonsine Tables and later the Rudolphine Tables. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Even on the Chinese side, quite a lot had taken place since the last episode, where we talked about the early Song Dynasty in the 11th century. Now, in the first episode on Chinese astronomy I quoted the famous opening line of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This work was written in this intervening period and begins “the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.” After we’ve now spent a few episodes looking at the sweep of Chinese history across millennia you can see how apt the line is. There were periods of strong, centralized government, followed by periods of fragmentation.

The early Song Dynasty where we spent the last episode was a period of increasing centralization, but over the centuries, it, too, could not avoid the internal and external forces of decay to which earlier dynasties had also succumbed. Now, in many earlier dynasties, like the Earlier Han Dynasty, the internal forces of decay had been the predominant factor in the fall of the dynasty. The Song Dynasty, however, whatever its internal dysfunctions, felt much stronger external pressures than many of the earlier dynasties, particularly in the north. I had mentioned in the last episode how Emperor Shenzong had made conquest of the north the primary goal of his reign. This wasn’t simply naked imperial ambition, though I’m sure there was a fair bit of that. It was also a foreign security policy. I talked a little bit about the geography of China in the first episode on Chinese astronomy and how China is fairly well protected to the south and west by a combination of mountains, deserts, and jungles. But the country is quite vulnerable to the north. The plains of the major river valleys connect in the north to the vast Eurasian steppe.

Now, throughout the Song Dynasty, the major threat from this direction came from Manchuria, the region in the northeast of modern day China along with parts of the far east of modern day Russia. In the period we were discussing in the last episode this area was controlled by the Liao dynasty, but in 1125 it was toppled by a client kingdom and became the Jin dynasty. Either way the region remained a threat to the Song Dynasty. And, in fact, the Jurchens, as the subjects of the Jin dynasty were known, were able to invade far south enough to take control of the capital city of Kaifeng and the imperial court was forced to retreat to the south of the country and establish a new capital at Hangzhou.

Well, after these events, it is perhaps no surprise that the Song rulers began to adopt a policy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and they began to build an alliance with another rising kingdom that had started to harass the Jin dynasty, the Mongols. The only precedent of the explosive growth of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century is really the rise of the Macedonian Empire under Philip II and Alexander the Great that we talked about back in Episode eighteen. But even that was outdone by the Mongols. In their attacks on the Jin Dynasty they were able to recruit large numbers of disaffected Han who still lived in the area, as well as being able to marshal resources provided by the Song Emperor. But, after the Mongols had successfully conquered the former lands of the Song Dynasty, including the old capital, they went more or less overnight from being allies of convenience to foes. And, in this newly adversarial relationship, the Mongols were able to get the better of the Song rulers. In the early days, the Song generals were able to fairly easily reconquer Kaifeng, along with a number of other cities of historical importance to them. But in doing so they effectively declared outright war on the Mongol Empire, and the Mongols turned out to be a formidable foe. The Mongols were able to easily retake these lands and then proceeded to try to push their way south. The next four decades saw a series of attempts from the Mongols to bring the Song Dynasty under their heel.

Now, these invasion efforts by the Mongols were at times paused due to other matters they had to attend to in their rapidly expanding empire. By the 1270s the empire’s extent reached from the tip of the Korean peninsula in the east to as far west as the Levant and Hungary. So, from time to time, their attention was naturally focused elsewhere. But in 1258, the Great Khan, Möngke, one of the grandsons of Genghis Khan, put his younger brother, Kublai Khan, in charge of the east, and he had a particular focus on conquering the remnants of the Song Dynasty in southern China.

Now, during this time period, the Song Dynasty was naturally under significant internal pressures as well. In order to support this continual war against an enemy that was growing stronger by the day, the Song Emperor was forced to resort to levying punishingly high taxes and confiscating lands from the aristocracy. Kublai Khan was sensitive enough to internal Chinese politics to use these developments to his advantage. He encouraged merchants and aristocrats to defect to his rule where the taxes would be lower and they would have their land back. Whereas punishments in the collapsing Song Dynasty had become capricious, Kublai Khan made a great show of his generosity and mercy as a ruler. Throughout this period, Kublai Khan saw a series of victories, and by the late 1270s he had defeated the remaining dregs of the Song army. Rather than keeping the Song rulers around to run a client state, Kublai Khan set himself up as the ruler of all of China, and thereby established the new Yuan Dynasty.

Now, this development was quite important in the history of Chinese astronomy. The Mongol Empire now extended from China all the way to the Middle East. Again, we are going somewhat out of order, but in the intervening time, quite a lot had happened in astronomy in the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age. Among his various reforms, Kublai Khan brought in Muslim astronomers to add their expertise to the Astronomical Bureau in China. To minimize friction between the established Chinese astronomers and the foreign newcomers, Kublai Khan divided the astronomers into two separate schools which would carry out their activities in parallel: the Chinese school and the Islamic School. The two schools would use their different traditions to make their predictions and these could then be compared against each other. The most important astronomer in this effort was Jamal ad-Din Bukhari, who was one of the founding members of the Islamic Astronomical School. When he traveled from Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan, he brought with him seven astronomical instruments, some of which, like the Persian astrolabe, were new to China. Among these was one of special note, it was a globe. As I discussed in Episode 38, the more traditional cosmology in China, the Kai Thien theory, held that the Earth was essentially flat, square in shape, and curved somewhat down towards its edges. Although later models like the Hun Thien model held that the Earth was spherical, they were never developed to the point that anyone had constructed a globe. The Chinese had a long history of cartography — I mentioned in the last episode how Shen Kuo was able to get his sentence reduced by producing an atlas for the Emperor. But the maps were always two dimensional. This was the first three dimensional representation of the Earth.

At any rate, over time the Yuan Dynasty established by Kublai Khan suffered the fate of all the dynasties that had come before. Like the Macedonian Empire, the cohesion of the Mongol Empire after its rapid expansion had been due to small number of charismatic leaders. After their deaths the sprawling Mongol empire began to fragment into four main pieces, of which China was one. So by the turn of the 14th century the Mongol Empire was falling apart, but the dynasty Kublai Khan had founded in China was able to operate more or less independently.

Nevertheless, without military reinforcements from the north, the Yuan Dynasty’s situation became more precarious. The Mongol rulers instituted privileges for those of Mongol ethnicity and this naturally bred resentment among the Han majority. Within a century the Han Chinese were able to organize under a peasant rebel named Zhu Yuanzhang and overthrow the Yuan Dynasty. In 1368 Zhu Yuanzhang claimed the Imperial throne as the first emperor of the newly founded Ming Dynasty. But the Islamic Astronomical School that Kublai Khan had established stuck around through this transition.

Well, at this stage it’s worth taking a look at the development of contacts between China and the West. Now, trade between China and other lands across Asia and beyond had been taking place for centuries. In the earliest days this trade took place as a kind of daisy chain between neighboring lands, but even so Chinese goods were able to have a long reach. Chinese silk has been found in ancient Egypt dating back to the late 2nd millennium BC. In Imperial Rome, Seneca the Younger inveighed in the Senate against the decadence of Chinese silk.

In time, these trading routes across central Asia became formalized into the famous Silk Road, or, to use the more accurate modern terminology, Silk Routes since there was more of a network of routes across both land and sea rather than a single road. As these trading routes became more established, merchants could make longer journeys and remove some of the links of the daisy chain.

Now, one source from the 4th century AD claims that Christian missionaries had reached a land called Serica, which was the Latin term for northern China. Incidentally, this name is etymologically related to the English word silk. But the first good evidence of the arrival of Christian missionaries to China was in the 6th century AD. A pair of monks who had been preaching the gospel in India made their way to China and learned of the silkworms that produced the famed Chinese silk. In fact, the Chinese emperor had long maintained a tight monopoly on silk production. Anyone caught leaving the country with live silkworms or silkworm eggs was subject to death. Now, I’ve been saying Chinese silk, but for the Romans out in the Far West, they just knew it as silk. Because of the daisy chain of trade, they had no idea where it came from and generally assumed that their silk came from India. The monks conveyed this critical information that silk was produced in China to the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Justinian responded favorably and promised great rewards if the monks could bring him several silkworms. By some surreptitious means which have not survived to history, these two monks were able to smuggle silkworms out of China all the way back to the Byzantine Empire where an independent silk industry thrived for some six centuries.

Well, this initial expedition of Christian missionaries into China had more benefits in the temporal realm than the spiritual realm. But over the centuries contacts between China and the West continued to increase and these contacts lead to the establishment of a small Christian minority in the country. Like other minority or peasant religions like Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, its adherents suffered from imperial persecutions from time to time. But being so few in numbers, Christians in the country were usually just swept up in persecutions of the much more numerous Buddhists rather than targeted specifically.

Well, during the Song Dynasty there was a community of Armenian merchants living permanently in China, but after the Mongol invasions the size and nature of the Christian community in China changed rather dramatically. Because the Mongol Empire extended so far to the West, there were many more contacts with Christendom and Christianity was not uncommon among the Mongol people, even up to the highest echelons of power. And what’s more, unlike in China, the Mongol leaders were relatively tolerant of Christianity.

Now, at this stage it’s worth noting that the Christianity that was present within the Mongol Empire and which was imported into China during Kublai Khan’s invasions, was rather distinct from the Christianity we are more familiar with in the West. You may be familiar with the Great Schism of 1054 in which the Eastern Orthodox Church and Catholic Churches formally fell out of communion with one another. Well, the fact that this was a “Great” schism implies that there had been many smaller previous schisms in Christianity’s past. A few centuries after the death of Christ, there had been a series of major ecumenical councils, where bishops who claimed the Christian faith gathered from lands far and wide to hammer out some particular detail of Christian doctrine. Usually by the end of these councils the vast majority of bishops would fall into line with whatever the council had decided. But it was inevitable that there would always be some holdouts who simply could not accept the council’s decision, and these holdouts would split off into a separate church. Well, without getting too deep into the arcana of Christological theology, one of the earliest such splits was 431 AD after the Council of Ephesus where one of the central questions had been about the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, one of the most important positions in the Church, argued that Christ held two separate natures in his person, divine and human. The more immediate question that had prompted this discussion was whether it was apt to call Mary, the “Theotokos,” or Bearer of God. Nestorius argued that it was not, because while Mary was the mother of Jesus’s human nature, she was not the mother of his divine nature. Instead it was more appropriate to call her the Christotokos, or Bearer of Christ. Well, the Council of Ephesus ultimately rejected Nestorius’s arguments and instead settled upon the idea of the hypostatic union, that Christ was both of human nature and divine nature, but that these two natures were perfectly united in his person. Now you could perhaps be forgiven if the distinction between the hypostatic union and the so-called prosoponic union that Nestorius proposed eludes you. This is a subject where, even after years of study of theology it is all too easy to accidentally fall into material heresy. But for our purposes, the main result of this was that after the Council of Ephesus the followers of Nestorius broke off from the main branch of the Christian Church and formed what has been called the Church of the East. The Church of the East, as the name implies, was largely found in the eastern reaches of Christendom, particularly in Persia, and, by the rise of the Mongols, Central Asia. So when the Mongols conquered China under the leadership of Kublai Khan, they brought with them a substantial minority of Nestorian Christians.

Despite this schism, the Mongol rulers were receptive to contacts with Christians from the Far West. Early on, permission to travel through the Mongol Empire was granted to Latin clerics, under the condition that they promise not to proselytize. But by the end of the 13th century, the Franciscans led by John of Montecorvino had established a mission in China with the permission of the Yuan Dynasty emperors, or at least, without their opposition. These missions were relatively small in scale and more often than not the Franciscans were simply converting Nestorian Christians to Roman Catholicism rather than finding new converts to Christianity.

Well, after Zhu Yuanzhang expelled the Yuan Dynasty and established the new Ming Dynasty, the relative tolerance of foreign influences disappeared almost immediately. The small Christian communities in China probably went underground for a time, but a few centuries later there is no evidence that any of them had survived. So for two centuries, from the early 14th century until the early 16th century, China once again became relatively closed off. Trade with the outside world continued to some degree, of course, but it was much reduced, and it could not be conducted privately — any foreign trades had be conducted by the government itself. And as a rule Europeans were not permitted into China during this time.

So, this brings us to the early 16th century, when the so-called Age of Discovery in Europe was well underway. European explorers, particularly under the Portuguese and Spanish flags, had begun to make sea voyages across vast distances and came into contact with new lands and peoples across the globe. In the 15th century, the Portuguese and Spanish began making ever longer voyages in the Atlantic Ocean, culminating towards the end of the century with Columbus’s discovery of the Americas in the west and Bartolomeu Dias reaching the Cape of Good Hope in the south of Africa. Now, to stave off conflict, in 1494 the Portuguese and Spanish agreed to the Treaty of Tordesillas in which all new lands discovered to the west of a line of longitude passing through the Atlantic Ocean went to Spain, and all new lands to the east went to Portugal.

So, in the next twenty years the Portuguese focused their efforts on exploring the Indian Ocean, and soon they had passed through the Malacca Strait and began sailing up north in the Pacific Ocean. By 1513 Portuguese explorers had reached China. Their early efforts to trade were not very successful. The Portuguese were fairly aggressive, both in claiming lands and in trading with local merchants without making any attempt to get the permission of the central government. The Chinese had previously established an island called Tuen Mun for all foreigners to trade at. A Portuguese trader named Simão de Andrade built a fort on the island and expelled all the other foreigners on it, who were mostly Thai. When a Chinese official landed on the island to investigate what was going on, Simão de Andrade struck him. It also didn’t help that the Simão abducted a number of Chinese children and sold them as slaves in India. Eventually, after one too many outrages, a band of local Chinese men killed him.

Well, Simão de Andrade was something of a scoundrel, but this was not really out of the ordinary in the initial contacts between the Portuguese and the new lands they were coming upon. While the captain of the overall expedition might have been someone with at least a veneer of respectability, the sailors and their hangers-on largely consisted of the dregs of Portuguese society. Oftentimes they would go looking for the warm bodies they needed to run their ships in jails and give the criminals there the choice between continuing to sit in jail, or sailing across the world.

Well, this initial Portuguese expedition was being led by Simão’s brother, Fernão Pires de Andrade, who behaved somewhat more respectably. But Fernão was not able to get good results, either. Early on he had some luck when the emperor happened to be touring in the city of Nanjing, which is situated on an inland port quite close to the sea. Fernão managed to get a brief audience with the emperor with the promise that he would be granted a more substantial audience where they could negotiate trading arrangements when the emperor was back in the capital. According to the Portuguese sources, at least, part of this process involved traveling to the Forbidden City twice a month and prostrating themselves outside the walls in the hopes that the Emperor would grant them their audience.

Well, unhappily for both the Emperor and the Portuguese, the Emperor died less than a year later, before this audience was granted. Due to the Emperor’s death, Chinese authorities ordered all trading to cease on the island of Tuen Mun. By this point more Portuguese trading vessels were arriving by the day, and after traveling halfway around the world, they had no intention of just going back home simply because the Emperor had died. When the Portuguese refused to leave the Chinese Navy attacked, and in a series of battles over the course of the better part of a year, the Chinese mostly were able to drive the Portuguese out.

So that more or less paused further European contacts with China for another 30 years or so. By the late 1540s, though, there was a thaw in Sino-Portuguese relations. The Portuguese had helped the Chinese drive out pirates in the area to their mutual benefit, and with the rocky start far in the past, more sober negotiations began to establish a trading agreement. By 1557, the Emperor gave official permission for the Portuguese to establish a trading post on the island of Macau.

Well, with the Portuguese having established a permanent trading location off the coast of China, it became possible for larger scale missionary efforts to begin. The primary motivation for all of these voyages was of a more temporal nature — Portugal and Spain wanted to discover new goods like spices, or new sources of old goods like gold, as well as expand the territory claimed by their sovereign. But the Catholic Church was happy enough to piggyback on these efforts and attain some more spiritual goals in the salvation of souls and the conversion of new lands to the Christian faith. The early expeditions, whether to China or the Americas or elsewhere typically brought priests along, but for the primary purpose of ministering to the sailors on board. Any missionary work they performed in the lands they visited was more incidental. But as more permanent outposts and colonies began to be established, the Church started to organize true missionary expeditions for the express purpose of converting the peoples they encountered in these new lands.

Now, the middle of the 16th century was quite a tumultuous time in the history of the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation had gotten underway in 1517 and was in full swing within a few decades with huge swathes of Europe, mostly in the north, breaking away from the Church. Historically, periods of doctrinal tumult or laxity have spurred the development of new religious orders to reinvigorate Catholic life, and the Protestant reformation was no exception. In 1521, the same year that Martin Luther had been excommunicated, a Basque nobleman and military officer named Ignatius of Loyola was nearly killed by a cannonball that shattered his femur. During his long and painful recovery he underwent a spiritual awakening and resolved to devote the remainder of his life to the works of God. After nearly a year he had recovered his ability to walk, although he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. St. Ignatius gave his possessions to the poor and entered into a life of poverty, earning his keep by doing odd jobs at a nearby hospital. A few years later he decided to embark on a course of study of theology and enrolled in a public grammar school and eventually was accepted to the University of Paris.

By the 1530s, St. Ignatius had moved to Paris to study theology, and there he had gathered around him a group of six companions who called themselves the Companions of Jesus. In 1534, they all took a solemn vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Pope and this vow became the foundation of the Jesuit order. By 1540 they had gotten permission from the Pope to found a new religious order and the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits for short, was officially founded.

Now, a few words about the character of the Jesuit order. Each religious order in the Catholic Church has a unique character, much of which is due to the goals that the founder of the order was trying to attain. So, the Dominicans, established by St. Dominic, had a particular focus on studying theology and preaching it to the faithful. This came in response to a particular heresy that was popular in southwestern France in the early 13th century, the Albigensian Heresy. The Benedictines, established by St. Benedict, had a particular focus on contemplative prayer and asceticism, and came about in the 6th century during a period of perceived laxity. The Franciscans, established by St. Francis of Assisi, had a particular focus on poverty and charitable works.

Well, having come from a military background, St. Ignatius imbued the Jesuit order with martial discipline. Most religious orders in the Catholic Church operate more or less autonomously, sometimes down to the level of individual monasteries. They, of course, are in communion with the Pope in Rome, but in terms of how they should be structured, funded, what their goals should be, spiritual or temporal, they act independently. By contrast the Jesuits have a far more structured org chart with a Superior General at the top, who in turn, reports to the Pope. A Jesuit priest is famously instructed to obey the orders they are given from a superior “perinde ac cadavar,” or “as if he was a lifeless body.” Because of this, the Jesuits have sometimes been described as the “pope’s shock troops.”

Well, in this period where the Catholic Church was losing followers all over Europe and new lands were opening up around the world, St. Ignatius felt that his new religious order could best address these circumstances by focusing on two specific activities. The first was the development of schools and a focus on pedagogy, to help teach the faith to the young so that they could avoid the errors of the Protestants. And the second was to establish missions in the newly discovered lands with the explicit purpose of evangelization. One of St. Ignatius’s six original companions was a man named Francis Xavier and in service of this second kind of activity, missionary activity, St. Ignatius ordered Xavier to travel to India and begin missionary work there. So, in 1541, just a year after the Jesuits were founded, Francis Xavier found himself at the age of 35 on a boat headed for India with just two other Jesuit priests.

Francis Xavier ended up having a surprising amount of success in India. While he was firmly rejected by the upper caste brahmins, he discovered that the lower castes were much more open to this foreign faith. Given the long tradition of asceticism in India, his own vow of poverty and simple dress was also impressive to them. After about three years in the south of India, he decided to extend his mission to the lands further to the east, first Japan, and then China. He found Japan to be a more difficult land to convert. In a foreshadowing of later Jesuit missionary efforts in China, he found that the Japanese were not at all impressed by asceticism or poverty. As he traveled to different parts of Japan, he found that he had much more success if he presented himself with as much pomp and circumstance as he could muster. So, he and the other missionaries and as many other people as he could wrangle, would all dress in their finest liturgical clothes and would show off the many fine gifts he had been given during his travels by rulers of far away lands.

Well, even so, after a few years Francis Xavier had had less success at converting people to Christianity in Japan than he had had in India, though he was optimistic that there was a lot of potential in the Japanese nation. Nevertheless, he decided to go back to India for a time, but soon in his travels he was blown off course by a storm and ended up at an island off the coast of China. Seeing as he was already there, he decided he might as well try his hand at converting the residents of this land as well. But the year was 1552, and as I talked about earlier, at this time, although relations between China and Portugal were thawing, the permanent colony in Macau still hadn’t been established. It took about half a year for him to get permission to visit the mainland, but in the intervening time he died of a fever.

So although Francis Xavier had worked wonders in India, the initial Jesuit mission to China was not a great success. After Francis Xavier’s death the Jesuits paid no further attention to China. That same year, however, marked the birth of a future, somewhat more successful missionary to China, Matteo Ricci. When Matteo Ricci came of age he entered the Jesuit order and went to university at the Roman College and took the standard course of study for a Jesuit priest: theology, philosophy, and the so-called quadrivium, which included mathematics and astronomy. In 1577, at the age of 25, he volunteered to go on an overseas mission and he was assigned to revive the aborted mission to China. By this point the Macau outpost had been operating off the coast of China for about two decades more or less uneventfully. Ricci managed to make it to Portugal’s colony in India in about a year, but getting from India to Macau took another four years. Finally, though in 1582, Ricci settled in Macau and began his missionary work.

When Ricci arrived in Macau, he met with another Jesuit named Michele Ruggieri. The Jesuit leadership had been laying the groundwork for a significant mission in China for quite some time now, and sending Ruggieri ahead of time had been a part of this grand plan. Ruggieri had a reputation for being able to quickly acquire new languages. When he had been stationed in India, Ruggieri had become fluent enough in Tamil that he could hear confessions within six months. Ruggieri had, too, another advantage, namely that at the age of thirty-five, he was the oldest of the missionaries in the area, and the Jesuits felt that an older man would get more respect from the Chinese than a younger one. Now, by this point, the Jesuits understood enough about Chinese culture to know that there was no single language. The dialect spoken by the locals in Macau and its environs was Cantonese, but the officials from the central government spoke a different language, Mandarin. Ruggieri was ordered by his superior, Alessandro Valignano, to learn Mandarin rather than the local Cantonese. Valignano analogized the use of Mandarin in China to the use of Latin in Europe at the time. It was evidently a lingua franca and could be used to communicate with the country’s elites. Given how Chinese officials had entirely closed off access for foreigners to the mainland for centuries, it was clear that they had to gain the favor of the Chinese officials first if they were to have any hope at evangelizing to the common people. Ruggieri was ordered to focus his exclusive efforts on learning the Mandarin language as quickly as possible, and to this end, Valignano built him a dwelling far away from the rest of the Portuguese community in Macau to minimize any distractions.

Ruggieri found Mandarin significantly more difficult to learn than Tamil, in part because there were hardly any people around who spoke it, but after three years had progressed to the point that he could write religious documents in the language. In the early 1580s, Ruggieri was fluent enough that he asked the local officials permission in Mandarin to travel the short ways up the river and stay in the main city of Canton, today known as Guangzhou. The officials were impressed, or at least amused, enough by the ability of a European to speak their language as well as he did, that they gave him permission to stay in a small house on the mainland. There he became something of a curiosity to the locals and apparently had a continual stream of visitors who came to marvel at him. He wrote in a letter, “there were people all day long at my doorstep until midnight simply to see me, with nothing I could do to make them go away.” Not all of the attention was positive — one visitor ran into his home and hit him on the forehead with a stone. But he had good relations with the local elites and had many conversations on intellectual topics — philosophy, mathematics, music, and so on. But, Ruggieri made a point of not bringing up religious topics until he had established a rapport and gained the respect of his guests, primarily because he feared that if he was too aggressive with his evangelization, he would be kicked out of mainland China just as quickly as he had been invited in.

Well, in 1582, Matteo Ricci had at long last arrived in Macau and could take advantage of the toehold on the mainland that Ruggieri had established. Ruggieri had piqued the interest of the local Chinese scholars with Euclidean geometry, but Ruggieri was not much of a mathematician. Ricci, however, had more of a background in mathematics, and it was on the strength of this reputation that he, too, was invited to the mainland with Ruggieri.

Ricci also had a talent for cartography, and one of his strategies in capturing the curiosity of the learned in Canton was to create a world map and hang it prominently in his visiting room so that it could not be missed. Ricci’s map showed the entire world as it was known to Europeans at the time, and included Europe, the coast of Africa, and the Americas. He also included a land called “terra australis” which was a large continent that was generally believed by Europeans of the time to exist at the south of the globe in order to balance out the landmass in the north. But Ricci did more than simply copy a European world map. He tailored his map to Chinese cultural sensitivities. He put China right in the center, of course, and also mixed in elements of the Chinese classical tradition such as a land of the one-eyed people and the land of the dwarfs. On this map, he included a caption in Mandarin that read:

The earth and sea are both spherical. Together they form a single globe situated at the center of the celestial spheres, like the yolk in a hen’s egg that is surrounded by the white. Those who said the earth is square were referring to the earth’s fixed and immobile nature and not its physical form.

If the reference to the yolk in a hen’s egg rings a bell, that’s because we saw it before in Episode 38 and it was an analogy that the astronomer Cheng Heng had used in the Hun I Chu in the later Han Dynasty. Wherever he could, Ricci would try to incorporate Confucian or other classical Chinese references into his claims. We can also see how Ricci tried to bend over backwards to accommodate prior Chinese beliefs. He did not just say that their classical belief that the Earth was square was wrong, he said that it simply needed to be interpreted differently, it was a statement about the Earth’s nature rather than a literal statement about its shape.

Well, in terms of the conversion of souls, Ruggieri and Ricci made relatively little progress in these early days. This was not their immediate priority — their explicit strategy was first “to become well known and recognized” in Chinese society. Nevertheless, they incidentally did make a few converts. The first person that they baptized in China was a man who was dying of an illness who had been abandoned by his family in a field. When he had been discovered by the Jesuits, they took him into their home and there he agreed to learn of their religion and be baptised. Although this was not really part of their strategy in converting the country, it was not wholly unexpected either. Ricci and the Jesuits more broadly understood that as a general rule the earliest converts they would win would come from the “very lowest rank of people,” those on the margins of society who had the least to lose and most to gain by converting to this foreign unfamiliar religion. This had also been the case in the mission in India where the upper caste brahmins had wholly rejected the missionaries, whereas the missionaries had found the most success among the lowest castes. And, of course, this pattern goes back to the very earliest days of the Church, when it spread throughout the Roman Empire chiefly among the lower classes and only later was adopted by the aristocracy. So most of the very earliest converts were similarly from destitute or dying peasants. Here, the Jesuits strategy somewhat backfired. Because they had focused on learning Mandarin rather than the vernacular Cantonese they had difficulty communicating with the commoners and rumors started to swirl about the nefarious purposes of these foreigners on their land. After the first baptism of the dying man they had found in a field the locals began murmuring that the reason the Jesuits had taken the man in was because he had had a jewel inside his head and the Jesuits were planning to remove after he had died.

Now, although Ruggieri and Ricci had gone in with pretty low expectations as to the number of souls they would convert, at least in the near term, it does seem that they were a little defensive about the low number of conversions they reported to their superiors. After some five years on the mainland they had managed to convert a handful of people. Meanwhile, over in Japan, the missions were going gangbusters. By this point in time more than 100,000 of the Japanese had converted to Christianity, and within a couple of decades these numbers would more than double. Granted, despite the slow start that Francis Xavier had, the Japanese missions had by this point had the benefit of a more or less continuous presence of nearly 40 years, but the numbers in China were rather embarrassing by comparison and it’s not much of a surprise that when the Jesuit leadership had extra missionaries to send out to Asia, they invariably sent them to Japan, not China. But, Ricci argued to his superiors that this was simply because they were still in the process of gaining the trust of the country’s elite, and once they had this, they could move about the country more freely and evangelize far more successfully. And on this front they were making progress. One of their few converts was unusual in that he was a young, literate man who was preparing to take the Imperial examination.

But Ruggieri and Ricci had two big challenges in Canton. The first was that it was a longstanding policy of Chinese administration to frequently rotate officials from the central government to different provinces. This would prevent the officials from developing too strong an affiliation with the locals so that their primary loyalty would always be to the emperor. In fact, this strategy continues to be pursued in the modern day by the Chinese Communist Party. This meant that even if they did develop a good rapport with an official, they might suddenly be recalled back to the capital or assigned to some other province and their replacement might not be so receptive. The second was that in Canton, right next to the trading hub of Macau, they were closely associated with the Portuguese traders. So anytime the Portuguese merchants went and did some damn fool thing, it reflected poorly on them.

Their solution to these two challenges was to try to move north with the goal of setting up shop in the capital. There they could distance themselves from the reputations of the Portuguese merchants, and the officials would be there on a more permanent basis. Now, around this time, before he could head north, Ruggieri went back to Rome in an effort to persuade the pope to send more missionaries to China. For more than a decade, the entire missionary effort in China had been a shoestring affair. Ruggieri and Ricci were really the only real, permanent Jesuits involved with this mission. They managed to get help from a number of Catholics from Macau, by and large half-Chinese half-Portuguese children who had been brought up in the faith. But, several of the priests that had been sent to them had died on the long voyage, and two who had made it died only a few years after arriving, when they had barely begun to learn the language. So Ricci ended up traveling north alone, or at least without any other Jesuits.

During this journey, Ricci took a bold step. He changed his outfit. Now, fairly early on in the Chinese mission, Ruggieri and Ricci had adapted their outfits to local conditions. Being in the south of the country where Buddhism was more prevalent, they had adapted the garments of a Buddhist monk. This kind of thing was by no means unprecedented in the Jesuit missions. Francis Xavier had also adopted his dress when he was in India to be similar to that of a Hindu guru, and then changed it up when he arrived in Japan and found that the Indian dress did not resonate there. Nevertheless, when the Jesuits did something like this, they’d have to explain themselves to their superiors and it was always a somewhat controversial strategy. On the one hand, it allowed the Jesuits to better integrate into the new culture — locals could take one look at them and know that they were holy men. On the other hand, if they imitated the local religious attire too closely, it would not be so obvious that they were confessing an entirely new religion.

At any rate, as Ricci moved northward Buddhism had far less influence, especially among the intellectual elites. In fact, if anything, the elites there were actively hostile to Buddhism. So during this journey Ricci adopted the style of dress of a Confucian scholar. Now this was something of a risk on his part. Strictly speaking, one had to have passed the Imperial examination in order to have the right to dress as a Confucian scholar. But Ricci hoped that the various alterations he had made, along with his own exoticism, would be a sufficient defense against anyone who objected to the clothing he was wearing.

To make his journey, he piggybacked on the journey to the capital that an official he had befriended was making. This official, whose identity has been lost to history, was heading to the Forbidden City to receive a promotion. The official was happy to have Ricci tag along northwards for a portion of the journey, but he warned Ricci against going all the way to Beijing without the government’s invitation and told him not to tell others that they were traveling together. Nevertheless, Ricci strongly believed that the only strategy that would work for the mission was to establish a presence in the capital, so he felt that the entire success of the mission was riding on him making it to Beijing and so he ignored the official’s exhortation. When the official had reached the gates of Beijing, Ricci said his goodbyes, waited for the man to disappear into the city, and then immediately went in himself and told anyone who would listen that he had traveled there with that particular official.

Well, within a day of having arrived in Beijing he was kicked out, and so Ricci did the next best thing, which was to travel to the city of Nanchang quite a ways south. This particular city happened to be where the emperor had sent much of his family to live. Since they were potential claimants to the throne, and therefore political rivals, the emperor thought it was safest for them to be far from the capital. So Nanchang ended up having very deep connections to the Imperial family. Supposedly at this time around a quarter of the city’s residents were related to the Emperor in one way or another. Sadly for Ricci, however, the members of the Imperial family, no matter how distant, did not seem to be receptive to his message.

From there he moved on to the city of Nanjing. Nanjing was the former capital of the Ming Dynasty, and as such, it retained deep connections to the imperial bureaucracy. Here, at last, in 1597, 15 years after arriving in China, Ricci’s efforts finally started paying off. He had written a few tracts which had gotten some attention among the literate. One was a compilation of wisdom from various Western wise men like Cicero and Seneca. Around this time, too, his superiors sent him a package of various European artifacts that he could use to impress visitors: oil paintings, globes, prisms, books, and so on. Like the initial settlement in Canton, he had a steady stream of curious visitors that he could have long conversations with about poetry and philosophy and mathematics, and, by the end of the conversation, a little bit of religion, too. And he started to see some converts as well. Now, generally, these converts were not scholar officials. Convincing a scholar official to convert to Christianity was a huge undertaking. While many of them may have been receptive to the ideas of Christianity at least intellectually, the lifestyle changes that Christianity demanded of them were formidable. At the time it was very common for officials to have concubines. This was both a way to ensure that he would have an heir and it was also a status symbol — the more concubines he could support, the more highly perceived he would be. But Ricci, along with later Jesuit missionaries were insistent that if they wanted to convert, the concubines had to go. And not too many wanted to sacrifice their concubines, or, more to the point, their social status, for this new religion. So the converts that Ricci did manage to convince tended to be either older, retired officials who had no real use for their concubines at this point in their life and who were now finding themselves thinking more frequently of their own mortality, and the wives of the officials, who probably never cared much for the system of concubinage anyway.

Well, after two years in Nanjing, Ricci felt that he had built enough of a reputation for himself among the literate class that he could attempt a journey to the capital once again. So, in 1600, he left Nanjing and once more traveled to Beijing.

Well, I hate to leave you on a cliffhanger, but there is no way I will be able to finish telling the story of the Jesuits in China in a single episode. When I originally planned to tell this story, I thought it could make a nice coda to the last episode on Chinese astronomy, but as I started researching it I realized that the story was intricate enough that it would merit an entire standalone episode. But now that I’ve gotten around to actually writing it, it looks like it will have to stretch to a second episode. This episode only touched on astronomy somewhat tangentially, but I promise you that more astronomy is coming. Ricci and other Jesuits will discover in Beijing that their knowledge of Western astronomy is key to securing a permanent presence for the Jesuit mission in China. But that will all be a story for next month. I hope you’ll join me then. Until the next full moon, good night and clear skies.

Additional references

  • Udias, Searching the Heavens and the Earth: The History of Jesuit Observatories
  • Brockey, Journey to the East