Empire in Asia

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In the early seventeenth century Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) successfully established a Jesuit presence in the Forbidden City, while European merchants were still stuck at the border. Ricci and colleagues utilized mathematical, geographical, and especially astronomical knowledge to interact on an intellectual level with the educated elite and forge personal relations. Posing as literati, as the Jesuits did, then allowed them to discuss religious and moral matters as well.

Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) heard of Ricci’s world map and in the spring of 1600 the two men briefly met in Najing. Three years later Xu returned to Nanjing. There he studied with the Jesuit Joao da Rocha, and within ten days he was baptized as Paolo. He passed the metropolitan exams in the following year and started his official career at the Hanlin Academy in Beijing, which allowed him to spend his leisure time in the company of Matteo Ricci. In 1606-07 Ricci and Xu worked on translating Euclid’s Geometry.

The Jesuit mission suffered a serious setback in 1615, five years after Ricci passed away. Valentim Carvalho (1559-1630) moved from Japan to Macao and instructed the Jesuit missionaries in China to stop teaching mathematics and to cease involvement in the official reform of the Ming calendar. In the same year Shen Que (d. 1624) became vice-minister of rites at Nanjing. He submitted a series of memorials to the throne in which he proposed expulsion of all Jesuit missionaries, suppression of their teachings, and punishment of Chinese converts. According to Shen Jesuit terminology, such as the ‘Teaching of the Lord of Heaven’ (Tianzhu jiao) or the ‘Great West Ocean’ (da Xiyang), challenged the imperial order of the Great Ming (da Ming) under the leadership of the Son of Heaven (tianzi). Furthermore, the Jesuits drew crowds of common people and their teachings even attracted literate men. Shen suspected rebellious intent behind the Jesuit organization.

In 1617 Xu responded to the accusations of Shen Que, even though Shen had not mentioned Chinese converts by name. In a memorial to the throne Xu asked for a fair investigation. He argued that he was skeptical at first, but after thorough investigation he came to believe in the advantages of European mathematics and astronomy, and the purity of the Jesuit missionaries. A fair investigation would prove them innocent of all accusations, but Xu feared, correctly, that the Jesuits would not receive a fair trial. In his memorial Xu claims that the Jesuits came to China because they heard that ancient Chinese philosophers served Heaven by practicing self-cultivation, just as the Jesuits served the Lord of Heaven through the cultivation of personal virtue. Xu justified the presence of Jesuits on the basis of ‘corresponding principles’ between the worldviews of Jesuits and late Ming intellectuals. He also accused Buddhists and Daoists of spreading deceptive and unreasonable doctrines. In close to two millennia they had failed to bring order and stability to China. European countries, however, had been kind to each other for well over a millennium. Not only did these countries lack revolt and anarchy, but even these terms were non-existent.

Xu needed to tread carefully in this confrontation with vice-minister Shen. Rather than subversive elements from abroad, the Jesuits could be useful tools in the cultivation of peaceful and morally upright imperial subjects, more useful at least than established religious and philosophical traditions. Xu tried to draw the emperor’s attention to the witch-hunt Shen proposed, but his memorial failed to achieve this result and the Jesuits were ordered to leave China. Some Jesuits moved to Macao, others sheltered with Chinese converts, until the political climate changed. Xu Guangqi resigned on a plea of illness, but returned to office in the Ministry of Rites in 1628, one year after the Chongzhen emperor (r. 1627-1644) ascended the throne. In 1629 Xu submitted an eclipse prediction that was more accurate than that of the Directorate of Astronomy. This led to the establishment of an office for calendar reform, which allowed Xu to bring the Jesuits back into the Forbidden City where they stayed even after the Manchus conquered the Ming capital.

Hsu Kuang-chi's memorial to the Wanli Emperor (1617)

Su Kwangki, guardian and tutor of the sons of the Imperial house, and Chancellor of the National Institute, respectfully presents this memorial:

Knowing full well that the arts and sciences of the foreigners are in a high degree correct, your majesty's humble servant earnestly begs of his sacred Intelligence, the illustrious honor of issuing a manifesto in their behalf, so as to render his own felicity eternal, and give great tranquility to ten thousand generations. Your majesty's servant has seen, in the Governmental Gazette, the report of the Board of Rites, impeaching Pantoya and others, your majesty's European courtiers. In that Report it is said, "Their doctrines are penetrating deep, and spreading wide, so that even men of eminence are believing in them;" and, "although their discourses about astronomy are absurd, yet even scholars are falling into their cloudy visions." By thus specifying "men of eminence" and "scholars," ministers of the Board seem to fear that trunk and branches are being alike involved. Still they have failed to give the names of individuals. Now your servant is one of the ministers of the Imperial Court, who has been accustomed to discourse with your majesty's courtiers on religious subjects; and he is one who believes in the many books they have published. With them also he has been accustomed to investigate the laws of mathematics; his earlier and later reports thereon have all been laid before the Imperial presence; and thus also your servant is among those who have "discoursed about astronomy." If, therefore, your majesty's courtiers are to be found guilty, how can your servant hope to be so fortunate as to escape uncondemned by the ministers of the Board?


As your servant for years past has been thus accustomed to engage in discussions and investigations with these courtiers, he has become well acquainted with them, and knows that they are not only in deportment and in heart wholly free from aught which can excite suspicion, but that they are indeed worthies and sages; that their doctrines are most correct; their regimen most strict; their learning most extensive; their knowledge most refined; their hearts most true; their views most steady; and that among the people of their own nations, there is not one in a thousand so accomplished, or one in ten thousand so talented as these men. Now the reason of their coming thousands of miles eastward, is because hearing that the teachers, the sages and worthies of China, served Heaven by the cultivation of personal virtue, just as the teachers in their respective nations by the cultivation of personal virtue, served the Lord of Heaven, and knowing that there was this correspondence in principles, they desired, notwithstanding the difficulties and dangers by land and by sea, to give their seal to the truth, in order that men might become good, and so realize high Heaven's love to man.

According to their sayings, the service of the High Ruler is a prime duty; the protection of the body and the salvation of the soul are grand essentials; fidelity, filial piety, compassion, and love are to be universally exercised; the reformation of errors and the practice of virtue are initiatory steps; repentance and purification are the requisites for personal improvement; the true fecilicity of life celestial is the glorious reward of doing good; and the eternal misery of earth's prison is the bitter recompense of doing evil. All their commands and injunctions are in the highest degree compatible with the principles of Heaven and the feelings of men. Their laws can cause men to do good most truly, and to depart from evil most completely, for that which they say of the favor of the Lord of heaven's producing, nourishing and saving, and of his principles of rewarding the good and punishing the evil, is perfectly plain and most strictly true; sufficient to move the hearts of men and to excite in them the love and confidence, the fear and dread, which naturally spring from internal rectitude.


Your majesty's servant has always been accustomed to consider the rewards and punishments ordained by the ancient rulers and kings, and the distinctions hetween right and wrong laid down by our sages and worthies, as most luminous and most perfectly adapted to guide men to what is good, and deter them from evil. All these, however, can reach only his external conduct, and cannot touch his inward feelings. An example in point are the words of Sz'-ma Tsien, "Yen-hwui's untimely death, and Tau-chih's long life," which have led men to suspect that there is no future recompense of good and evil. Hence deceit and guile have increased in proportion as the restraints laid thereon have been multiplied. Where one law has been enacted, a hundred evil practices have sprung up, disappointing the heart's desire for stable government, and exciting deep regret on account of the inadequacy of means to secure that end. With a view of supplying this deficiency, recourse was had to the sayings of the Buddhists, which declare that there will be a recompense of good and evil after the body dies; and that for their conduct and feelings both Yenhwui and Tau-chih might seem to have had a recompense, which, it was supposed, would cause other men without delay to depart from evil and do good. Why then is it that during the eighteen hundred years since the Buddhistic religion came to the East, the ways of the world and the hearts of men have not been reformed, except it be because, though seeming to be true, that religion is false? The doctrine of Lau and Chwang, as they are set forth by the Contemplatists, are dark, farfetched, and unreliable. All the schemes and legerdemain practiced by the doctors of the black art, are strangely deceptive and unreasonable. Moreover, they wish to elevate Buddha above the high Ruler, and thus do they act in opposition to the doctrines of the rulers and kings, the sages and worthies of antiquity. When all this is done, on whom then shall men depend? Whom shall they follow?

If there be an absolute desire to have men do good in perfection, then the knowledge of serving Heaven, communicated by your majesty's courtiers, is truly competent to repair and augment the royal Institutes, to strengthen and maintain the arts of the literati, and to restore and correct the laws of Buddha. The proof of this is, that the nations of Europe which are contiguous to each other, and more than thirty in number, receiving and practicing this religion, during a thousand and some hundreds of years up to the present time, whether great or small, have alike been kind to each other; whether high or low, have alike enjoyed repose; their prescribed boundaries have required no guard; nor has their sovereignty been hereditary; throughout their whole domain, there have been no deceivers nor liars; the vices of lewdness and theft from of old have never existed; no one would venture to take up an article dropped upon the highway; and even gates and doors of cities and houses it was not necessary to have closed by night. As to revolt and anarchy, rebels and insurgents, not only were there no such things and no such persons, but even such terms and such names had no existence. Thus for a long time, have these nations enjoyed tranquillity, and their governments have been well regulated.All their inhabitants have been thus intensely watchful only lest they should, by falling into error, become guilty of sinning against the Lord of Heaven. Accordingly it is most clear and most manifest that their laws assuredly can cause men to do well.

Such is the religion and such are the manners and customs set forth by your majesty's courtiers; and having repeatedly, and in the most thorough manner, examined their discourses and investigated their books, your majesty's servant knows that they are all perfectly free from error.

Your majesty's servant has heard of Yu Yu, the ancient minister of Sijung, who gave support to the Tsin dynasty in its rise to greatness; and of Kinjihshin, the heir of Siyih, who became an illustrious statesman of the Han dynasty. If these men could be of essential service to the state, it was of no moment whether they came from far or not.

Moreover the temples and pagodas of the Buddhists are to be seen in all parts of the empire, and the lama priests are continually coming to China. The Mohammedans also, whose sacred books have never yet been translated, so as to be adduced as testimonies of their faith, dynasty after dynasty have been freely tolerated with all their errors, and everywhere they have been allowed to build their own places of worship. Our high Emperor commanded two of his ministers Li Chung and Wu Pehtsung, members of the Imperial Academy, with two of the principal leaders of the Mohammedans, to translate their astronomical books. The result was that they prepared the work called Kien Yuen Sien Shing. The doing of all this brings out to view the sacred purposes of the first monarch of our dynasty, their profound desire to renovate the people and perfect their customs. Hence we see why it was that they sought out and commended [worthy men], not excepting those of countries far remote.

Now with regard to all the writers of these two sects, the Buddhist and Rationalists, so imperfect are their doctrines and so incomplete their laws of instruction, that, during this long period of two hundred and fifty years (since the rise of our dynasty), they have not been able to realize the designs of our august sovereign in giving them his special countenance. Were the High Ruler worshiped as reverently as Buddha and Lao Zi, and were your majesty's courtiers received as indulgently as the priests of those two sects, their royal instruction would rise and flourish, and the principles of rectitude be carried to such a degree of perfection, as to transcend all that was witnessed in the times of Lao and Shun and their immediate successors.

During the seventeen years these courtiers have enjoyed your majesty's support, no course has been opened by which they could requite the favors so generously bestowed upon them. Though they have earnestly and heartily desired it, yet they have found no means by which they could display before your majesty the virtues they cherish, and the constancy they have maintained. But knowing these, as your majesty's servant has done, should he keep silence, he would be indeed guilty of an act of criminal concealment. Hence he has been so rash and so presumptuous as to come forward as their intercessor.

If his sacred Intelligence would deign graciously to receive our apology, grant a manifesto, and for a short space of time, and on perfect equality with the disciples of Buddha and doctors of the Tao sect, allow these courtiers to remain [in the empire] to promulgate their doctrines and urge on their reformation, it is humbly conceived that, ere many years have elapsed, the hearts of men and the ways of the world, will be seen to have undergone a steady and gradual change, progressing till at length there shall be one grand reformation, and perfect virtue become universal. Then every law enacted shall go into effect, and no command given shall be opposed. No unfaithful minister will then be in the capital or in the provinces. The manners of all the people without exception will be such as to render them worthy of being employed in the imperial service. The glorious felicity enjoyed by your majesty's sacred person will be infinite, and the peace of your blessed empire perpetuated to a myriad generations!

Now since it might be difficult to secure full confidence were your majesty's servant allowed a hearing, or suspicions might be entertained by those who are spectators, and thus cause much debate, your majesty's servant, therefore, would respectfully suggest three modes of examination to ascertain the truth regarding said these courtiers, and also three modes of surveillance, all which herewith he begs to submit for your majesty's consideration. The three modes of examination are:

1st. Let all the courtiers, whose names have been included in the memorials, be called to the capital; and let a selection be made of your majesty's ministers both in and out of the capital; let all these jointly translate the standard works that have been brought from the West; let subjects be taken up in detail--what is said on serving Heaven and loving man, what relates to natural and moral philosophy, to the systems of civil government, to astronomy, to mathematics, to physic and medicine, to agriculture and irrigation, to political economy, &c.; and let a distinct treatise be prepared on each of these; and then let his majesty command the ministers of his own palace, in general assembly, to decide whether they are correct or erroneous. And if indeed they be subversive of the cardinal virtues and opposed to the classics, involving wicked doctrines and sinister means, then let the said courtiers be immediately dismissed and expelled; and your majesty's servant will willingly abide the punishment appointed for those who aid and abet the deceivers of his majesty.

2d. The words of the courtiers agreeing with those of the literati, but being at variance with those of the Buddhists and Taoists; therefore all who are of those two sects, hate and detest them, and spread abroad slanderous reports, greatly to their injury. Needful it is, then, to decide which is right and which is wrong and to beg your majesty will please command that these courtiers and the most notable of the Buddhists and Taoists write in discussion, make the most thorough investigation, and strive and seek to come to an agreement. Then, as before, let his majesty direct that statesmen from among the literati, in general council, decide on the merits of the case; and if the courtiers are not preferred for what they have said, or if they have reasoned fallaciously, or have been non-plussed; then let them be immediately dismissed and expelled, and let your majesty's servant be punished with them.

3d. As it would be difficult in the translation of their books to know where to stop, and as the Buddhists and Taoists may perhaps not have the men [competent to take part in this], let your majesty's courtiers be instructed to draw up a compendium of their religion, in detail, stating its prohibitions and injunctions, with its requisitions and rewards. Let this, with some thirty of the volumes that have been already translated, and ten or more of the original volumes, be together submitted for your majesty's inspection, and if these be found contradictory, and opposed to the principles of reason, incompetent to urge men to do good, and to guard them from evil, to change and improve their manners and customs; then immediately let these courtiers be dismissed and expelled, and let your majestey's servant be punished with them.

These are the three modes of examination [which are here suggested in order] to ascertain the truth concerning said courtiers. The three modes of surveillance are these:

1st. Regarding the item of expenditure — which has specially subjected your majesty's courtiers to suspicion — both those who suspect they make silver and gold, and those who suspect they are supported by the barbarian merchants at Canton, are in error. Having voluntarily left their homes, and not engaging in any lucrative occupation, they are of course the recipients of what has been contributed. At present, however, their entire provision for food and clothing comes from contributors in Europe; and in its transmission, by exposure to winds and waves, to robbers and pirates, much fails to reach its destination, thus causing them great distress. Yet during these twenty years since their arrival, they have not received from the people a single thing, a single cash; and yet they fear that some, not being observant, will suspect they received it for nought, or had obtained it by deceit or fraud, thus adding iniquity to transgression, especially as large demands were made on them by their extensive and varied intercourse. By the present scheme, besides allowing to them a stipend as heretofore, from your majesty's Court of Banquets, let orders be given that these courtiers may receive a measured amount of contributions from the Chinese for food and clothing, and let them be allowed to follow their own convenience, since, in their dis-interestedness, they will never consent to receive aught beyond what is sufficient for their personal use. A sufficient support being thus provided, orders may be given that the barbarian merchants at Canton forward no more presents, and that the money, which is sent on from Europe, on its reaching the custom-house, may be intercepted and remanded. In this way all communication with Europe will be cut off, and every suspicion removed.

2d. As your majesty's courtiers, in whatever place they may reside, are competent in the most faithful manner to instruct both the scholars and the people, whether they be poor and mean, or rich and honorable henceforth, therefore, in whatever place they choose to reside, let them be allowed the exercise of their appropriate functions; and let the magistrate treat them with becoming courtesy, allowing them to influence and guide whomsoever they please. Should the magistrate, in any case, be unable to repose confidence in them, then let them command the scholars and people — selecting such as have character and property — to unite in companies of ten or twenty families, and give bonds of security to the magistrate for them. Should it indeed happen that any of the teachers, losing their virtue, conduct themselves in an irregular manner, harboring vain purposes, uttering wicked words, and displaying a want of principle, then let them, according to what has been proposed, be expelled and banished; and let those who gave bonds for them, share in their guilt. Such as are without any bonds for their security must not be allowed to remain in the country. Should any of the people, hearing rumors of their behaving in an irregular manner, bring accusations against them, then let the magistrates be required to investigate the facts, and search out the true circumstances of the case. Thus the practice of deceit will be impossible; and those who are true, and those who are hypocritical, will be brought out to view in their own characters.

3d. If the native securities unite to conceal and hide offenders so as to make it difficult to repose confidence, then again, let the magistrates be instructed at any time they please to make careful investigation. After having former offenders at once exposed, then let all such native scholars and people, as have maintained a pure and elevated course of conduct, be allowed to choose their own teachers; and let these teachers, each being furnished from the magistracy with a stamped and duly authenticated register in duplicate, be required, by means of these to make, at the magistrate's office, a continued report. At the year's end, let each magistrate carefully examine all those who have followed these teachers, and afterwards transfer into a separate register, the names of all such as either have not been accused, or if accused have not been found guilty. Once in three years let there be a general examination; and let the magistrates and teachers freely commend all those who, having followed this religion, are not only free from all error and crime, but have made many and commendable advances in well doing; let them also ascertain the number, and determine the degree of criminality of such as are guilty of wicked conduct; and let those who gave bonds for the same, in like manner receive due punishment. If there be those who have purposely offended, and who after having been warned and admonished by their associates and teachers, will not reform, then let these be reported to the magistrates that their names may be removed from the register. Should any be informed against by their own associates before their names are removed from the registers; or should the offenses of any one, committed before entering this religion be subsequently discovered; in all such cases, let the criminality be restricted to the offenders themselves, and let their associates be in no way implicated. By this means, officers of government will have reliable registers for reference, and all the people can clearly see that due examination has been made; and though the number of disciples be small, each in his own sphere will be useful. Moreover, if the Buddhists and Taoists should ever succeed in raising religious discussions, there will be no further necessity for any scheme that can produce excitement; since it will only be needful, carefully distinguishing between the people and the teachers, to have all cases examined, and rewards and punishments meted out by the methods now proposed: in no very long lapse of time it will be abundantly evident who is right and who wrong, which is useful and which injurious.

Your majesty's servant, with profoundest reverence, begs to lay the foregoing clauses before his sacred Intelligence, to scan and to select, and to cause to be carried into effect such as shall be deemed desirable. Being younger than the ministers of the Board of Rites, he would not presume to place himself in collision with them nor oppose their words. This only he does: after the most thorough and careful investigation he clearly sees, and testifies, that for perfecting the administration of the empire, and securing peace and good government, nothing can surpass this that is taught by your majesty's courtiers. If now the recommendation of the Board be granted, these men must at once return to their own countries. Knowing so much and having said so little in their behalf, your majesty's servant is filled with the deepest regret, and therefore, after having fasted and performed the requisite ablutions, he does not shrink from the responsibility of laying their case before the Throne.

As to the things which ministers of the Board say they have heard, they are only such as your servant himself heard in former days, and which then filled him with suspicion. But after years of careful examination and inquiry — when he had a sincere mind to see the truth in them, and was able to understand them most thoroughly — then his confidence became strong and undoubting. Were there indeed the smallest reason for entertaining suspicion regarding these men, then there might be some shadow of doubt in your servant's mind; and although free from the smallest fault, yet if these men were not truly sages and worthies, then too, they might not be of great advantage; and it would be to your servant of little moment, whether they were sent away or were retained.

As it regards the improvement of the imperial Calendar, that is also a matter of little importance. Being as he is, however, one of those ministers who are appointed to attend on his majesty, how can your servant dare rashly to plead in their behalf, insult and deceive his princely Father, and expose himself to condign punishment! If ministers of the Board would but examine and inquire thoroughly, as your servant has done, then he apprehends that they would not be behind him in advocating their cause.

Your servant in rashly presuming to approach the Heavenly Majesty, is overwhelmed with infinite fear and dread, while he earnestly awaits the imperial mandate in reply to this memorial.

The Chinese Repository, Vol. 19 (March 1850), pp. 118-126.

Annotated by Sander M. Molenaar