Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724 
by Liam Matthew Brockey.
Harvard, 496 pp., £22.95, March 2007, 978 0 674 02448 9
Show More
Show More

In the autumn of 1609, the Chinese diarist Li Rihua recorded the talk at a dinner party attended by a number of ‘old coastal hands’ who had served as officials in the south-eastern provinces of the Ming empire. Conversation turned to the geopolitics of this sensitive frontier region, its trading enclaves and the various peoples who came to them. He heard about the most famous of these visitors, a man from the north-western extremity of the world: ‘Li Madou was sent by the rulers of Macau to spy on the imperial court, which has caused recent consideration being given to clearing Macau out. There is a temple in Macau, in which Li Madou was once a monk.’ Li Madou was the Chinese name of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), one of the first people to be globally famous in his own lifetime, talked about in Nanjing as in Rome and Lima. As ‘The Wise Man from the West’, he was the subject of Vincent Cronin’s laudatory 1955 biography, still in print today. He was also at the centre of Jonathan Spence’s 1984 study, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, which focused on Ricci’s use of the classical ars memoriae as a way of gaining access to members of China’s educated elite, whose interest in techniques that might help them memorise the classic texts tested by the imperial examination system made them at the very least curious about his methods. One of the ‘Generation of Giants’ that gave its name to George Dunne’s classic study of the first Jesuit missionaries in China, Ricci remains a figure of enduring fascination both in China and in Europe, often used as a model of how mutual respect can be shown between intellectuals from different cultures.

Ricci is certainly a presence in Liam Matthew Brockey’s new account of the Jesuit mission, from its first tentative appearance in the Ming empire until its dissolution by imperial command in the early 18th century. But Brockey is determined to keep him in his place, in the belief that too much attention has been given to Ricci and a few famous successors, to their policy of ‘accommodation’ with elite Chinese society through mastering its literature and culture, and to their presence at the imperial court, as astronomers and scientific consultants. The book’s central aim is to restore a focus on the enterprise of religious conversion, and to dispel what Brockey sees as a misconception, that the Jesuits sought only elite converts, and were not interested in ordinary people.

This case is convincingly made, but dully made, too, so keen is Brockey on avoiding any hagiographic talk of a generation of giants. This is particularly true of the first half of the book, a chronological account of the mission heavy on organisational detail. It is followed by rather more sprightly thematic chapters on topics such as the training of missionaries within the Society of Jesus, their engagement with the Chinese language, and their strategies of conversion and church-building. Throughout, Brockey relies on Jesuit archival sources, mostly material preserved in Portugal and Italy, so that the tale is always told from the Jesuit point of view.

The book does not claim to give a full account of the Jesuit presence in China but rather a history of the vice-province of China, founded in 1619 and always organisationally a dependency of the (then flourishing, but ultimately abortive) province of Japan. Dominated by Portuguese personnel, and dependent logistically on the Portuguese crown and its enclave of Macau, the vice-province saw itself as competing even with other Jesuit missions. With other elements of the Catholic Church, the relationship was positively hostile, and Brockey is never unsure whose side he is on. He writes, for example, that ‘a tide of rivals from Manila, Rome and France gathered on Chinese shores; soon it would crash against the vice-province.’

Language, and issues of language, are central to much of the discussion, and the question of naming is particularly fascinating. It is quite possible to use Chinese characters to create a phonetic version of a foreign name. Most people could guess, for example, which boy wizard is represented by a set of characters read as Hali Pote, or which Portuguese football manager has his surname rendered Mulini’ao. When I went to China as a student in the 1970s I was given a transcription of my name, Keliege Kelunasi. This was then manipulated into the usual format of a single-character family name and a two-character personal name, Ke Liege, which almost looks like a ‘real’ name. A further adjustment, at the hands of a scholarly Chinese friend, changed one character to give Ke Lüge, quirky but just about acceptable.

The possession of a ‘real’ Chinese name (rather than a transcription painful to the ear), is a crucial stage in learning Chinese – foreigners who possess one, like Li Yuese (Joseph Needham), author of Science and Civilisation in China, have a quite different status from those who do not, like George Bush or Alex Ferguson. Only an educated Chinese could have decided that Matteo Ricci would be Li Madou, that Nicolas Trigault would be Jin Nige, or Ferdinand Verbiest Nan Huairen. These ‘Chinese’ names do not appear very prominently in the Jesuit sources, but the same is not true of the ‘Christian’ names converts received at baptism, like Candida Xu, the grande dame of Shanghai converts, who supported the mission lavishly and paid for the decoration of churches as far away as Mechelen.

However, the giving not just of Christian baptismal names, but also of European (almost invariably Portuguese) surnames to that tiny number of Chinese who were allowed to be ordained as priests, says something equally powerful about the confusion surrounding the question whether religious conversion was also a form of cultural transition. On his ordination in 1688, the poet and painter Wu Yushan (better known as Wu Li) became Simão Xavier da Cunha Wu Yushan, while another of his cohort became Paulo Banhes Wan Qiyuan. Who knows whether this double naming was one of the reasons why, the following year, Father Wan escaped over the wall of the Jesuit house in Shanghai, only to turn up months later hundreds of miles away in Fujian, asking the Jesuits there to take him in? Brockey doesn’t seem very interested in such matters.

Brockey discusses why the Jesuits held out for so long against the creation of a native clergy, but dismisses racism as an explanation. This may be an anachronistic notion: early modern Iberian sources define the Chinese as ‘white’, but the chores through which Jesuit novices were supposed to learn humility were described in one early 18th-century account of college life in Portugal as being ‘things repugnant to nature, such as making the beds of the college’s blacks’ (they were more likely to be slaves than fellow students, making this account class-based as well as racist). The plain fact was that Chinese converts were not trusted, hardly surprising when a series of scandals in 1717 and 1718 showed them making things up as they went along, and claiming to be new incarnations of the Lord of Heaven, or even of the Holy Spirit.

Another intriguing episode, and one with the argument about language at its root, is the suicide in 1628 of Nicolas Trigault. The affair was hushed up, and indeed goes unmentioned in Trigault’s entry in a standard collection of biographies of figures active in Ming China. The archives used by Brockey maintain that his death was a result of depression brought on by being on the losing side of an argument over the use of the Chinese term Shangdi as a translation of the name of God. In the beautiful drawing of Trigault that Rubens made in Antwerp in 1617, the Chinese clothes and body language accompany a thin face into which it is all too tempting to read severe melancholia, one of the four paradigms of temperament on which Jesuits were rated in the triennial reports made by their superiors. Trigault was one of very few China Jesuits who made the return to Europe, deputed to raise material support for the mission, and it is easy to wonder whether his mental health was undermined by the culture shock of going ‘home’. Dressed in Chinese clothing, as an eye-catching fund-raising device, he was forced, as few of his fellow Jesuits were, to address the psychological as well as the geographical distance involved in moving between ‘here’ and ‘there’.

Equally contemporary-seeming, though in the sources they are sketchy presences at best, are the non-European cadres of the Jesuit order, who were essential to the mission’s accomplishments. Manuel Gomes had a Javanese father and a Chinese mother, was raised in Macau speaking Portuguese, and was literate in classical Chinese, which he taught to the Sicilian Francesco Brancati from 1636. Transnational figures like Gomes immediately call into question the categories ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ that the Jesuits worked to construct, yet they were central to their enterprise. Brancati’s classroom copy of the Confucian Four Books is preserved in Rome, every space between the printed Chinese characters filled with annotations and comments in Latin, Chinese written in the Roman alphabet, Italian and Portuguese, which was probably the shared language in which Gomes and Brancati actually talked. This bricolage is highly attractive, and reminiscent of some of the experiments with language made by artists in China since the 1990s.

We know little of Manuel Gomes, or of the army of Chinese catechists who sustained the Christian network in the 17th century, and even less about the way ‘the teachings of the Lord of Heaven’ were received among those Chinese who heard them and were either converted or (in presumably the vast majority of cases) showed no interest. In a lengthy letter by Rodrigo de Figueiredo, who travelled through Zhejiang province in 1627, we catch a glimpse of children imitating the missionary’s sacramental formulae and gestures, ‘some out of mockery, some because they found those unknown words to be amusing’, and of Figueiredo debating with a peasant about who created Heaven and Earth, an exchange that degenerates into a dispute about who has the biggest books to back up their claims.

The rules drawn up for the confraternities which were an important part of Jesuit devotional organisation can be revealing: if Buddhist or Daoist monks were present at the deathbed of someone requesting extreme unction, caution was to be exercised, since this suggested that the dying person saw the Lord of Heaven as just one numinous power among many. This was what infuriated the Jesuits, the idea that, as Jacques Motel wrote in the 1670s, ‘in China, all live as they please, entering or changing their religious profession at will.’ And yet the problem may have lain precisely in the Jesuit (and other orders’) belief in religion as a transcultural norm. Much recent scholarship casts doubt on the extent to which the idea of a ‘religion’ as a bounded entity of beliefs and practices can help us to understand how people behaved and believed in Ming and Qing China.

The Jesuits created a European set of tools for understanding China. The very idea of China as ‘over there’ is rooted in the Jesuit origins of Sinology, with its concomitant notion that a small cadre of specialists called Sinologists (often slightly weird people, as in the fictions of Borges or Canetti) take care of it, that ordinary educated people do not need to know about it, and hence that books and websites can go on dealing with the ‘History of Philosophy’ without the provincialising subtitle ‘in Europe’. The Jesuits were very good at giving the impression they had China cracked, even though they manifestly didn’t realise how much of China there is, textually and practically, as well as geographically. Because their main blind spot was actually existing Chinese spiritual and devotional practice (by definition worthless), they could not tell how close to or distant from it they themselves were. Hence the confusion about whether Buddhist monks were held in low esteem by the Chinese elite (Ricci’s reason for distancing himself from them by the way he dressed), or whether the late Ming was a time of strong Buddhist revival. One minor but telling example is the Chinese attitude to penitential practices and mortification of the body. Brockey believes, because his Jesuit sources say so, that practices like flagellation were utterly abhorrent to Chinese sensibilities, and therefore that carrying them out (or conversely, giving up the vegetarian diet thought to indicate Buddhist allegiance) was proof of Christian commitment. But is that really so? Certainly, bloody practices of penance were abhorrent to the elite, but village parades in which censers were suspended from hooks in the flesh were certainly held under the Qing dynasty.

China manifestly did not become a Christian country. But the worries over allegiance to a ‘foreign’ spiritual power which led to the proscription of Christianity in 1724 remain current today, as China’s Catholics attempt to negotiate the claims of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and a shadowy underground church loyal to Rome (one of the cardinals named secretly in pectore by Pope John Paul II is thought by many observers to be a prelate of that body). Perhaps an even longer-term result of the Portuguese dominance of the early Jesuit mission is the pinyin system for rendering Chinese characters in the Roman alphabet, with its superscript tonal marks, and its initial consonants of x and q, so off-putting to the anglophone reader. When pressure of work forced a decline in Jesuit language-training in the 17th century, Jose Monteiro produced a guide to speaking Chinese without reading it, ensuring that Jesuits could still complain to their servants that ‘These greens have no taste’ or ‘This tea was made a while ago.’ An expression like ‘Fàn yeù xe teû’ (‘The rice has stones in it’) is still easily recognisable to a Chinese speaker, its phrase-book terseness a far cry from the erudition of Ricci or the piety of Candida Xu, but perhaps more enduring than either.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 30 No. 4 · 21 February 2008

Craig Clunas doesn’t mention – it doesn’t necessarily come into his purview – the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci’s attempt, the first, it seems, to Romanise the Chinese language (LRB, 7 February). There have been many since. At the end of the 1950s in Hong Kong, the system commonly used to teach Cantonese to expatriate government officers was invented by Father Thomas O’Melia, and contained such edifying sentences as ‘It is better to build churches than houses.’ O’Melia’s system, like the older Wade-Giles and the more modern Yale systems, used a mixture of consonants and superscripts to denote the tones. However, in the mid-1960s the Barnett-Chao system attempted to simplify the denoting of tones by doing away with superscripts altogether and relying on consonants. This resulted in something that had no phonetic relation to the language at all: simple sentences such as ‘How are you?’ were Romanised as ‘Nree xroo ma?’ rather than the more phonetic ‘Ne ho ma?’ The system didn’t last long.

With the advent of the telegraph and the opening up of trade with China, there was a need to be able to transcribe Chinese characters into a telegraphic form. Thus the Chinese Commercial/Telegraphic Code came into being in both Cantonese and Mandarin Romanisation. The code was numerical and based on the number of strokes that made up a given Chinese character. The book, which became invaluable to government and business alike, was, oddly, issued by the Special Branch of the Royal Hong Kong Police.

Things would have been much easier had Matteo Ricci and his successors succeeded in Christianising China. In Vietnam, Father Alexandre de Rhodes’s Romanisation, coupled with the Vietnamese antagonism towards the Chinese, replaced Han Chinese writing completely and became the country’s national writing system.

Robert Steele
Dunblane, Perthshire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences