A Wider World, II

How Rome Went to China

By the later sixteenth century, the horizons of Rome's intellectuals had widened enormously. They now included not only Rome, Greece, and Egypt but a Far Eastern culture that westerners had hardly known since the days of Marco Polo, long before -- China.

From the 1540s, Jesuit missionaries in East Asia tried to convert the Chinese and Japanese to Christianity, as part of the Counter-Reformation drive to win the world back to Rome. The Japanese mission failed quickly, but the Chinese one seemed immensely promising. Jesuits like Matteo Ricci learned Chinese, mastered the canon of classic Confucian texts, dressed as mandarins, and joined the imperial court. They showed the Chinese intellectuals that the west had superior skills in some areas that the Chinese recognized as vital, like cartography and astronomy, and they translated accounts of western ideas and Christian doctrine into Chinese for their converts. For a time their mission prospered.

Meanwhile the Vatican, which controlled and managed the missionary enterprise, became a great repository both of the works the Jesuits produced in Eastern languages and of texts and works of art that they sent back. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the famous Roman Jesuit Athanasius Kircher could try to study Chinese in Rome. He insisted that the Chinese tradition was as old and profound as that of the Egyptians (indeed, he saw Chinese ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphs as deriving from the same roots). Some argued that Chinese culture was actually more moral and pious than European.

Like earlier humanist efforts to find pagan sages who could teach Christians basic truths, the Jesuits' Chinese enterprise, too, eventually failed. But the Vatican's holdings wonderfully exemplify the fragile, fascinating bridge of texts and images which the Jesuits built in order to reach, understand--and convert--the most foreign of cultures.

Continue the exhibit with Jesuits in China or go back to the main hall.