Although Europe and China were connected via overland routes from the first century CE, records of interactions between their inhabitants are few. Many Europeans learned about China from Marco Polo’s accounts of his time spent in “Cathay” (an alternate name for “China”) in the late 1200s. In the 1400s, after China ended its great journeys of maritime exploration and abandoned trade via the Silk Road, the country’s contacts with the West became very limited and continued to be so for almost two centuries.
In the early years of Western sea exploration, traders and missionaries began returning to Europe with stories and goods from their visits to China. Information about China was spread through books, prints, and export items, such as porcelain and textiles. Reports compiled by Jesuit missionaries fueled the curiosity of the public and inspired chinoiserie, the evocation of Chinese motifs in art, furniture, architecture, and gardens. Just as Jesuits translated important authors such as Euclid into Chinese, they also translated Confucian works into Latin.
Jesuits and their Mission in China
The objective of the Jesuits in China was to spread Christianity. But when missionaries arrived in the late sixteenth century, they encountered a people who believed in the superiority of Chinese civilization and felt the “barbarians” outside their borders had little to offer. Chinese scholars, however, soon became deeply interested in European sciences, especially astronomy. And it was through astronomy that the Jesuits (many of whom were highly skilled scientists) began to gain the trust of the Chinese elite and eventually became advisers to the imperial courts. The priests accommodated themselves to Chinese culture by learning the language, wearing local clothing, and trying to find connections between Confucian beliefs and Christianity.
In Chinese society the emperor was the mediator between earth and heaven, and much of the scheduling of public life was predicated on the calendars issued in his name. These calendars were calibrated by precise observations of the sun, moon, and stars. By demonstrating the advantages of European astronomical predictions (of eclipses, for example), the Jesuits were able to convince the Chinese that European ideas could be valuable. Astronomy and geography are deeply linked; it was through astronomical observations, for example, that longitude and latitude were measured.
The clocks, prisms, world maps, and other products the Jesuits brought with them were a source of fascination and gave the Jesuits entrée into Chinese spheres of influence. In discussing the scientific ideas introduced to China, one Jesuit scholar said, “This bait undoubtedly drew many Chinese into the net of the Church.” Chinese rulers used the knowledge and services provided by the Jesuits to further their own imperial interests, especially in the mapping of their territories.
Surprisingly, there is little discussion of Christianity in the blocks of text on Matteo Ricci’s 1602 map. Some of the map’s few references to the “Lord of Heaven” (God), the seals of the Society of Jesus, and instances of Ricci’s name were carefully erased from this copy. Despite the Jesuits’ significant tenure in China, Christianity was never adopted there on a large scale. But the long association between scholars from East and West led to the transmission of knowledge in both directions and sparked cross-cultural curiosity that continues today.