In 1684, a man entered Louis XIV’s palace uninvited to present the king a few simple items that changed the course of history.The man was Shen Fuzong, a Jesuit priest originally from China living in Europe. He gave Louis XIV Latin translations of three classical Confucian texts. He demonstrated Chinese calligraphy and painting, described the meaning behind Chinese characters, and asked Louis XIV to send an envoy of missionaries to China. So inspired by the calligraphy, art and philosophy, the Sun King dispatched a ship to China with five missionaries. It was the beginning of a course-altering chapter in history.
When the ship arrived, the travellers met another supreme monarch, Emperor Kangxi. Like Louis XIV, he had been crowned king as a boy and benefitted his subjects immensely during an especially long reign. He collected Tang poetry, cultivated innovative strains of rice and advanced the field of natural science. He excelled at martial arts, archery, music and many other subjects.
These unexpected visitors so intrigued him that he sat them in chairs beside his in the Imperial Palace. These missionaries taught him geometry, astronomy and Western music theory. On top of this, they gave him Western scientific apparatuses and told him tales of Louis XIV. Imagine the intense pleasure of the tireless scholar, Emperor Kangxi, suddenly gaining access to another continent worth of knowledge. A new era in Chinese culture was sparked.
Emperor Kangxi ordered schools built similar to France’s academies, had Western medical texts translated into Chinese and endeavoured to completely map China with their help. Excited to continue the exchange, he sent a European missionary back to France with gifts for Louis XIV. One can only imagine the stir that ship’s arrival caused. When the lids were removed from boxes containing ancient Chinese texts, art, clothing, furniture, inventions and other Oriental treasures, Europe stepped into a new era. Cultural treasures like Eastern philosophy, porcelain, tea, and silk became a centuries-long fascination and source of inspiration for the French.
Like a mirror image, during this blossoming of Chinese culture in France, the Europeans steadily educated the Chinese with tools and techniques that brought about incredible advancements: perspective representation in visual art, glass working, medical discoveries and more.
At the age of 40, Emperor Kangxi had malaria and no Chinese medicine could cure him. Two missionaries shared their quinine cured his illness. After his recovery, he rewarded them with two houses in Xi’An Gate.
Though they never met, both Emperor and King affected the other’s leadership style and both societies enjoyed improvements. Europeans were touched by the mercy with which the emperor re-evaluated prisoners on death row. The European tradition of political posts handed down to family members through generations was reconsidered in light of the Chinese civil-service examination system.
The instruments, ceramics, books and maps born in this era of cross-continent discovery appear in museum shows around the world. The immaterial consequences – new paradigms of governance, aesthetics and scientific inquiry – are treasures buried in the ways we design our modern lives.
Despite the thousands of miles separating them and the vast differences in their peoples, two monarchs in 17th century Europe and China nevertheless oversaw a grand transfer of cultural knowledge whose impact resonates today.
The men were the Kangxi Emperor of the Great Ming Dynasty of China, and King Louis XIV, the powerful monarch of France. The latest scientific advancements traveled to and dazzled the Middle Kingdom, while the profound philosophy of the East penetrated the minds of thinkers across the Old Continent.
From West to East
A symbolic image from the period captures the exchange: Jesuit missionaries dressed in the robes of Qing officials, standing beside an Armillary sphere in the court of Chinese Emperor Kangxi. The astronomy, mathematics, physics, and chemistry they brought fascinated the young emperor.
As a youth, Kangxi was particularly interested in the heavenly bodies. Ferdinand Verbiest, a Flemish Jesuit that became close friends with the emperor, mentions in a private letter how he would tour cities with him. “Under the limpid night sky, the emperor would observe the semicircular universe and ask me to use Chinese and my language to tell him the major constellations.”
Verbiest added: “I think this shows he has been interested in natural science for a long time.”
Kangxi made missionaries his personal teachers, and under their careful tutelage he gained a rich knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. He used a quadrant to calculate the sun’s meridian, and astronomical rings to measure the altitude of stars. On one visit to southern China he used a spirit level to measure the water, and found a mistake in how his ministers were controlling the water in the Hongze lake.
It was startling to many in China that a Chinese emperor gained such consummate knowledge of Western technologies, but Kangxi’s interests extended beyond just the hard sciences: He sought to understand the Western monarchical system, and began organizing information about these foreign lands and disseminating it to the public.
He ordered European volumes like The Science of Fathoming Patterns, Euclid’s Elements, and many others, translated into the Manchurian tongue. He asked his third prince, Yinzhi, to establish a museum of mathematics where talented Manchus and Han Chinese would work side-by-side, engaging in research and observation of mathematical laws and the universe. In court speeches Kangxi would hold forth on the natural sciences from Europe, teaching young princes, and even the Nine Ministers, about astronomy, calendar systems, arithmetic, and tuning. Outstanding students were sent to the bureau of astronomy, or else sent to inspect the kingdom and make maps using the newfound techniques.
Kangxi’s embrace of Western scientific ideas meant that in the Chinese court Western missionaries were allowed, swathed in Chinese imperial robes, to hang the symbol of the Christian cross. Their assiduous teaching of the emperor (often lessons would be every day, well into the night) paid off when in 1692 Catholicism was made legal. Given the religious strife in Europe, this was seen as a magnanimous concession by the Chinese emperor, though it was not without strong detractors.
While missionaries came to the East first and foremost to convert the masses of orientals to Christ, when they arrived in that ancient kingdom they found its people already had their own knowledge and explanation of the world. Alongside Western geography, arithmetic, and its complement of apparatus, the profundity and mystery of traditional Chinese spiritual teachings remained. There was the Golden Mean of Confucius, and the unknowable Tao of Lao Tzu. These left a deep impression on the traveling missionaries.
And East to West
Chinese teachings also flowed back to Europe, sometimes powerfully. The first Latin translation of The Analects, the teachings of Confucius, contained these words in the introduction: “Without revelation from God, the human mind’s power of rationality and reasoning has never before been on such perfect display, has never before had such magnificent power.” Religious warfare had rent Europe through the 16th and 17th centuries, but this peaceful, humanistic philosophy from an Eastern Empire was received with great esteem and admiration.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German and foremost philosopher of the Rationalist school, became the progenitor of Chinese thought in Europe. He once wrote: “In view of the inordinate lengths to which the corruption of morals have advanced, I almost think it necessary that Chinese missionaries should be sent us to teach the aim and practice of natural theology, as we send missionaries to them to instruct them in revealed theology.”
As Leibniz saw it, an increased understanding of the philosophy of China would benefit all. So, in a systematic fashion, he transmitted a deep knowledge of the Confucian tradition to Europe.
The sublime thought of the Chinese also captured the attention of French writer Voltaire, who once announced that China’s moral philosophy was “the most important science.” He said that China was “The wisest and most civilized nation in the universe,” and once waxed lyrical with the remark that: “If, as a philosopher, one wishes to instruct oneself about what has taken place on the globe, one must first of all turn one’s eyes towards the East, the cradle of all arts, to which the West owes everything.”
Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary, was the first to begin unlocking the secrets of China’s moral culture, and began the long process of bringing it to the attention of Europeans. Paris became the capital for the study of Chinoiserie, with a wealth of translated material. In 1814 the Academy of Science in France held a course of lectures on China studies, and the study of China for the first time became a formal part of Western academic curriculum.
There is no doubt, looking back, that many of the beginners misapprehended what they encountered of Chinese culture. But men like Leibniz were engaged in a sincere and thorough attempt to understand the Chinese philosophical tradition, with its respect for the will of heaven and nature. They hoped this could lead humankind to a better and more perfect path.
The vast exchange between these cultures makes it almost seem a miraculous age; never before had the great civilizations of East and West been so close. Did fate ordain that the great Kangxi Emperor and King Louis XIV would, in their wisdom, give the peoples of both countries the brilliant chance to improve and perfect themselves through the deep exploration of one another’s cultures? We will leave that for our readers to decide.