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The French Jesuits: a Bridge Between the Two Monarchs

Many Christian missionaries came to China during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Among these the French Jesuits had a relatively prominent presence. They were large in number, self-reliant, active, and adaptable, penetrating deeply into all strata of Chinese society. They therefore had a comparatively pronounced impact on the transmission of Christianity and Sino-Franco interaction in culture and arts during this period.

We know of as many as fifty French Jesuits who came to China during the reign of Emperor Kangxi. Most prominent among the missionaries were Jean de Fontaney, Joachim Bouvet, Louis le Comte, Jean-François Gerbillon, and Claude de Visdelou, all of whom were sent by the Sun King Louis XIV and arrived in China in 1687. In order to avoid conflict over Portugal's protectorate of missions, they came as "Mathématiciens du Roy" and were favorably received by Kangxi. Joachim Bouvet and Jean-François Gerbillon were retained at the court, and as such exerted the greatest influence upon the Emperor.

Joachim Bouvet served as Kangxi's instructor in geometry, and wrote his Jihexue Gailun (Introduction to Geometry) in both Manchu and Chinese. He also co-wrote some 20 lectures on Western medicine with Jean-François Gerbillon. Bouvet later became Kangxi's envoy to France in 1697, with instructions from the emperor to obtain more well-educated missionaries. Upon returning to his home country, he presented to Louis XIV a report of 100,000 words on Kangxi, later published as Portrait historique de l'empereur de la Chine présenté au roi. Moreover, he authored a volume, with illustrations, on the upper stratum of Chinese society of the time, entitled L'Estat present de la Chine en figures dedié à Monseigneur le Duc de Bourgougne. The two books had a profound impact on French society at large. Dominique Parrenin was the most well known of the other missionaries who, in 1698, boarded the trading ship the Amphitrite alongside Bouvet on his return to China. Working on the foundation laid by Bouvet's lectures on Western medicine, Parrenin completed in Manchu a set of works on anatomy, as a single volume entitled Qinding geti quanlu (Imperially Commissioned Treatise of Human Anatomy).

Apart from tutoring Kangxi on Western methods of geometry and arithmetic, Jean-François Gerbillon was appointed by the emperor in 1689 to assist in China's negotiations with Russia, which led to the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, an achievement greatly appreciated by Emperor Kangxi.

When the eldest of the "Mathématiciens du Roy" Jean de Fontaney first settled in China he began preaching in Nanjing. In 1693 Kangxi summoned him to serve at the capital as he had been rejected by the Portuguese missionaries. At the time the emperor was suffering from malaria. Fontaney offered his personal supply of quinine powder, which completely cured Emperor Kangxi's sickness and greatly reinforced his faith in Western medicine.

The eminent sinologist Claude de Visdelou was a diligent researcher of Chinese history. At one point he was ordered by Emperor Kangxi to assist in the collation of the history of the Uighurs. The numerous documents on the histories of the Tartars and the Han Chinese that he organized and assembled eventually became source materials in French understanding of the chronicle of China.

An accomplished expert in astronomy, Louis le Comte spent five years in China, and was known for his study in constellations. He travelled extensively between the Yellow River basin in the north and the Yangtze River region in the south. On returning to France in 1692 he published Nouveau mémoire sur l'état présent de la Chine, which is still a precise work for contemporary understanding of China at that time.

It is indeed the hard work of these French Jesuits that created an intangible yet firm bridge between Emperor Kangxi and the Sun King Louis XIV, even though the two never did meet in person.

Lettre de Louis XIV à l'Empereur de Chine. Marly, 7 août 1688 Manuscrit sur papier (fac-similé). (New window)

Lettre de Louis XIV à l'Empereur de Chine. Marly, 7 août 1688 Manuscrit sur papier (fac-similé).
Archives du ministère français des Affaires étrangères
Mémoires et documents, Asie, vol. 2, fol. 111-112

Chaoxie de xiyangtang nei Kangxi sanshiyi nian beiwen (New window)

Chaoxie de xiyangtang nei Kangxi sanshiyi nian beiwen
Transcription of a stone inscription from the 31st Kangxi year from a Catholic church
Bureau of Ritual
1692 CE
National Palace Museum

Kunyu Quantu (New window)

Kunyu Quantu
Great Universal Map
Ferdinand Verbiest
1674 CE
National Palace Museum

The Present State of China in images (New window)

The Present State of China in images
Joachim Bouvet (1656-1730)
Paris, 1697
Height: 37 cm; Width: 26; Depth: 4 cm
RES-O2N-31
Bibliothèque Nationale de France