The Magnificence of the Qing – European Art on the Jesuit Mission in China


  • Friederike Biebl



Cross-cultural encounters between China and the West date back to the first centuries A.D., when merchants, missionaries and travelers from numerous nations undertook the journey via the Eurasian land route known as the Silk Road. However, the most productive interaction that would profoundly and permanently affect both China and Europe was stimulated by the members of a religious order founded in 1534, namely the Society of Jesus. In the following years the highly intellectual Jesuits would slowly but steadily work their way into the vast realm of Chinese life with the help of an insistent albeit accommodative propagation introducing first and foremost Catholicism, Western sciences like mathematics, astronomy and medicine, philosophy, culture as well as the arts. This policy of accommodation was introduced by the Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano (1539- 1606) - responsible father in command of the China mission - and cunningly implemented by celebrated Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). Rather little attention has been paid to the subject of the arts, regarding their development and changes throughout the time of the Jesuit China missions. Remarkably, even Jean-Baptiste Du Halde (1674-1743), French Jesuit, geologist and sinologist, who is nowadays seen as the greatest author of the age on China and composer of Description de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise – which includes detailed information on the geography, culture, history, and politics of China, Chinese Central Asia, Tibet and Korea - did only briefly mention the arts in this context (Volume III, p. 1510). Even though his work is the largest and most comprehensive work on China produced by a Jesuit, he was among the Sinologists who never visited China himself. Interestingly, well-known figures such as Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume and Goldsmith relied on and referred to Du Halde as their principle source of knowledge (Mackerras, 1989). We can therefore view his work as a fundamental element of how China was represented in the West – very positive, charming and slightly propagandistic.


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