Jesuit Missionaries

The Jesuits were not the first Catholic order to establish missions in China. What set them apart from other orders, however, and what makes their work especially relevant in this context, was their particular approach to evangelization.

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the most influential of the founding generation of Jesuit missionaries in China, undertook a detailed study of the Chinese language and engaged with Chinese culture at a deep level (which, at times, involved dressing in the manner of the Chinese literati). Ricci's many accomplishments include the first European-style world map produced in China, the first Chinese-Portuguese dictionary, compiled a treatise on mnemonics in Chinese, and he became advisor to Emperor Wanli, chiefly in recognition of his work as an astronomer and mathematician.

Rather than actively proselytizing, the Jesuits hoped to convert the Chinese by setting a good example and leading an exemplary contemplative life. This hands-off approach at times confused the Chinese, as letters from the time testify, but it proved surprisingly effective. The Jesuits' approach focused primarily on the educated classes, the literati, and began from the position that certain tenets of Chinese traditional beliefs, Confucianism and ancestry veneration, were compatible with Catholic doctrine and could be continued even by converts. This accommodating doctrinal position did not always endear the Jesuits to the Vatican or to other missionary orders.

The Jesuits were appreciated at the Imperial Court for their learning and their thorough understanding of science, especially astronomy, cartography, and calendar making, and at times served as special scientific advisers to the Emperor. It was through them that aspects of European culture and technology were introduced to China. At the same time, the Jesuits were also in the habit of writing detailed reports about Chinese culture that they would send back to Europe. It was in this way that Confucianism first became known in the west, which attracted significant attention from European thinkers.

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