Missionaries and mandarins

The Jesuits in China

Rome not only collected the books from many foreign cultures; in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became the center of missionary enterprises that spanned the world. In China, Jesuits like Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall von Bell performed an incredible task of translation and interpretation. They learned the language; they made converts, some of high rank; and, in order to impress the cultivated Chinese elite with western forms of knowledge, they translated into Chinese the classical western science of cartography and the radically improved astronomy of Galileo. They also argued to their western superiors that Chinese classics--like the Greek and Egyptian ones so prized by some Roman scholars--had a core of values and tenets that matched those of Christianity. Eventually the Jesuits' openness to China led them into trouble; but for the first century and more of their mission, they did a remarkable job of bringing western forms of knowledge to China and Chinese forms of thought to the West. The Vatican preserves remarkable materials from both sides of this cultural exchange.

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