An excerpt from, “Confucius Meets Christ: The Jesuits in Imperial China” By Greg Pasciuto, The Collector, May 22, 2023:
Countless actors played a role in the Jesuits’ Chinese endeavors. Local converts, European missionaries, popes, and emperors all sought to exert their agency in a changing cultural landscape. Religious conflict arose not only between the Chinese Confucian and European Catholic traditions but also within the Catholic Church itself. The Jesuits’ foray into Chinese territory would ultimately mark the last major instance of religious dialogue between China and Europe until the nineteenth century.
In the 17th Century the Jesuit order had succeeded in gaining the favour of the Chinese emperor, starting a long tradition of cultural exchange between the West and China. Possessing knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, The Chinese entrusted Jesuits with important missions, among which was the establishment of a more precise calendar. The German Jesuit Adam Schall (1592-1666) was put in charge of the imperial observatory of Beijing, as was Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688), a Flemish missionary.
Jesuits created engines to calculate the movements of the stars and telescopes to observe them. They also used their knowledge of geography to create intricate maps.
To respond to the Chinese interest in western technology, Jesuit scholars wrote books concerning science, physics and mechanics, and translated works by important historic mathematicians such as Euclid and Pythagoras into Chinese.
Another important contribution of the Jesuits is to be situated in the field of the arts, including painting, architecture, gardening and music. They combined European artistic practices, such as oil painting and portrait art, with Chinese techniques such as ink painting on silk.
The Jesuits saw China as equally sophisticated and generally treated China as equals with Europeans in both theory and practice. This Jesuit perspective influenced Leibniz in his cosmopolitan view of China as an equal civilisation with whom scientific exchanges was desirable.
Just as Ricci spent his life in China, others of his followers did the same. This level of commitment was necessitated by logistical reasons: Travel from Europe to China took many months, sometimes years; and learning the country’s language and culture was even more time-consuming. When a Jesuit from China did travel back to Europe, he typically did it as a representative (“procurator”) of the China Mission, entrusted with the task of recruiting more Jesuit priests to come to China, ensuring continued support for the Mission from the Church’s central authorities, and creating favorable publicity for the Mission and its policies by publishing both scholarly and popular literature about China and Jesuits. One time the Chongzhen Emperor was nearly converted to Christianity and broke his idols.
Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1 May 1591 – 15 August 1666) was a German Jesuit, astronomer and instrument-maker. He spent most of his life as a missionary in China (where he is remembered as “Tang Ruowang”) and became an adviser to the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing dynasty.
In 1992, Taiwan issued a commemorative stamp for the 400th anniversary of the birth of Schall von Bell, noting “with all his accomplishments his place in Chinese history is secure”.
In 2013, Chinese CCTV published a documentary on Schall von Bell, as part of its series Biographies. At the very end of the film, the commentator noted that the Chongzhen calendar edited by Schall von Bell is still in use today. China International Communication Center’s major biographical series of six Westerners in premodern China also featured Schall von Bell. He is also visible in Chinese soap operas, partly because he was close to Shunzhi Emperor and palace drama is the most popular genre on Chinese TV.
Video Title: The Jesuits in China: Models of Intercultural Dialogue. Source: Global Georgetown. Date Published: December 5, 2019. Description:
October 17, 2019 | Since the time of the missionary Matteo Ricci, S.J. (1552-1610), the Society of Jesus has actively engaged with Chinese culture and society. The Jesuits’ historical appreciation of Chinese language, philosophy, and customs has informed a model of intercultural encounter with many variations and different levels of success over time. On October 17, 2019, under the auspices of the China Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, the Beijing Center organized a public seminar to explore the historical trajectory of Jesuit engagement in China and its relevance for today’s world.
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