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The Educational Blog (q/theeducationalblog)European travelers into China and the Far East like Marco Polo are well-documented. Were there ever Chinese explorers that traveled as far as Europe?

Yes, and more often than not, they were Chinese Christians.

You have a Turkic monk for instance, Rabban Bar Sauma (拉賓掃務瑪) who operated under the jurisdiction of the Mongol Empire (1206–1368). Frequently regarded as the “Marco Polo of the East” (fitting as they were contemporaries), Sauma was tasked foremostly with the mission of making contact with the European kingdoms and principalities of Western Eurasia, so as to form an anti-Mamluk coalition.

To cite additional examples, look no further than four Roman Catholic converts in particular: “Andrew” Zheng (鄭安德勒), “Michael” Shen (沈福宗), “Arcadio” Huang (黃嘉略) and “Louis” Fan (樊守義), who likewise made subsequent visits to Europe during the reign of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) sometime in the mid 17th and early 18th centuries. Much unlike the former, the latter and their Turkic predecessor however, Shen and Huang ultimately conducted their journeys for religious and academic purposes, as opposed to mostly political.

The Chinese Convert” (1687), a portrait of Michael Alphonsius Shen Fuzong by artist Sir Godfrey Kneller:

Now with that said, the question still remains however: were there any earlier non-Christian Chinese visitors to Europe (or visitors in general, for that matter)?

And to that, I would be inclined to say no, at least not officially anyway. Some will perhaps be quick to affirm a contrarian stance whereby a particular Han (206 BC-220 AD) ambassador to the Roman Empire (27 BC-1453 AD), one Gan Ying (甘英) is selected as evidence to the contrary, but alas, I do maintain that this is a flawed contention. Why? Because the crucial difference between Gan Ying and say, Michael Shen is that the former never actually reached the borders of Europe in person. The latter on the other hand did.

To that extent, under the command of Ban Chao (班超) an Eastern Han (25–220 AD) general, Gan Ying was ordered to depart for the borders of the Roman Empire come the year of 97 AD. Alas, this was to ultimately prove futile however, a fact duly noted by the “History of the Later Han” (後漢書) which so recounted the circumstances behind his failure as so:

“In the ninth Yongyuan year [97 CE], during the reign of the Emperor He, Protector General Ban Chao sent Gan Ying to Da Qin (the Roman Empire). He reached Tiaozhi (Characene – Χαρακηνή) and Sibin (Elam – Susiana) next to a large sea. He wanted to cross it, but the sailors of the western frontier of Anxi (Parthia) said to him:

“The ocean is huge. Those making the round trip can do it in three months if the winds are favourable. However, if you encounter winds that delay you, it can take two years. That is why all the men who go by sea take stores for three years. The vast ocean urges men to think of their country, and get homesick, and some of them die.”

When Gan Ying heard this, he discontinued his trip.”

-History of the Later Han

This was of course a complete lie, but it deceived an unacquainted Gan Ying in the end regardless. And so in this way, the first potential Chinese visitor to Europe was wholly thwarted in his efforts, and on purpose too at that.

For the implications of direct contact between Rome and Han, would have only proven to be a net negative for the Parthian Empire (247 BC-224 AD) should it have come to pass. Parthia was strategically situated along the Silk Road after all, being firmly entrenched into the Middle-East between two regional hegemons, a fact which allowed them to profit greatly per their role as economic “middleman”, whenever Roman glass travelled East, or Chinese silk West.

They understood therefore, that the Chinese emissary to Rome could never be allowed to know the whole truth. And it was so.

An artist’s impression of an official Han embassy (possibly headed by Gan Ying) to the Parthian Empire:

With that said however, alternatively there is also grounds to believe that even Gan Ying, may not have been the first Chinese national to attempt an intercontinental trip to Europe.

Rather picture an image of the following: an unofficial, but successful Chinese first contact with Europe, predating the Gan embassy to Rome by several years if not decades. At least, that is what one Roman historian in service to the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (27 BC-68 AD), Publius Annius Florus would have us believe:

“Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome.

Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours.”

-Publius Florus, Historian of the Roman Empire under Imperator Augustus

Within the accounts of Florus then as such, he makes mention of the term, “Seres”. Traditionally, Seres in addition to “Seria”, “Sinae” and “Sinica” were terms that people tended to associate with China. Be that as it may, the labels are a source of controversy amongst academics today however, who have not yet come to a consensus, as to exactly how justified one would be in using such names when referencing the Chinese Mainland.

Seres then it has been argued, was not just a term which exclusively referred to China, but rather included the entirety of both East and Central Asia. This does make sense somewhat since Roman geographical knowledge, being limited as it was (strictly relative to today) was merely just enough to understand that the precious commodity that was Silk, did indeed come from Seres. But in reality, even this is a somewhat limited view, since Silk was actually made and traded all over Asia by that time and not just within the Han Empire.

A “reference” to Seres then by Florus, could have in reality been merely acknowledging an embassy from the Turks of Central Asia instead, and so if true, would for sure make Gan Ying the first would be Chinese visitor to Europe. Alternatively, when we consider that the reverse was able to occur, whereby Roman merchants successfully reached the Far East, having docked in what at the time was Jiaozhi Province (交趾) of the Han Empire – today’s Northern Vietnam – it would not be so hard to imagine that the opposite could have occurred too, all things considered equal.

The Roman map of the known world per Ptolemy’s “Geography” (150 AD), redrawn according to his first projection by Christian monks at Constantinople headed under Maximus Planudes (Μάξιμος Πλανούδης) around 1300 (to be noted are the whereabouts of “Sinae” on the chart’s far right hand side in addition to what appears to be Indochina, the Han Empire’s coastline as well as the East and South China Seas):

The reality remains however, that since Gan Ying did not reach Europe in person, he could not therefore be counted as China’s first visitor to the continent, nor then can any who came before him either as claimed by Publius Florus until such time as historians and sinologists, are able to come to a clear consensus as to whether Seres was truly a term in reference to China or not.

Aside from that, there are also whispers of a Tang Dynasty (618–907) led Chinese embassy to the Eastern Roman Empire (330–1453) in addition, none of which have been confirmed likewise. Though in saying that, it should be noted that if ever there were only one Chinese polity (aside from the Han), upon which it could be counted to be suspect of far reaching diplomatic efforts, it would have to be Tang.

The Tang Dynasty to that extent, differed from all previous Chinese polities in the thousands of years hitherto its existence, precisely because it placed a premium on openness towards the international community. And it is perhaps with this attitude, that we see resulting evidence of Chinese traders and expatriates operating en masse within the “Horn of Africa”, already by the early 9th century. Tang merchants at their furthest however, were recorded by Abbasid (750–1258) counterparts as even travelling up and down the Euphrates River, taking them suspiciously close, to the borders of the Byzantine Empire.

A map of Europe in the year 800 (again, note how close the borders of the Eastern Empire were to the Euphrates, a river that Tang Chinese merchants were known to have regularly traversed the length of):

It thus may not be unreasonable then to suggest, that a Chinese trading party on any particular year, could have indeed gone further West, so as to even reach Constantinople itself (not that we have evidence to support this yet however). And in any case, whilst the Eastern Empire was itself a European polity, it is not as easy to make a case for Anatolia being purely within the confines of “Europe”.

A captured Tang soldier, Du Huan (杜環) was brought as far as Jerusalem likewise, which whilst not a part of neither Europe nor the Eastern Roman Empire, did bring him into contact with Byzantine physicians who at the time (mid-8th century) were operating in the city with Abbasid permission. Aside from all these “close calls” however, we do not have any further evidence which would suggest, that the Chinese made it to Europe during the Tang Dynasty either.

And looking forward even to the Song Dynasty (960–1279) which came to power thereafter, the trend is the same: Europe comes to China, and not the other way around. If anything, at the unofficial level with regards to the ventures of Chinese merchants and individuals, the Song was only a more intense version of its Tang predecessor, with Chinese citizens again travelling to Africa and the Middle-East en masse via the Maritime Silk Road, both to live and to trade, but notably aside from that go no further.

In light of the conduct of Tang and Song thus, I would go so far as to claim that should they have desired so, a Chinese party could have easily reached even Western Europe. Therein lies the issue I would suspect however: “if”. In reality, the brutal truth of the matter was, that aside from a few notable polities foremostly amongst which were the Byzantines, Carolingians (800–888) and Holy Roman Empire (962–1806), the European centers of trade themselves, would have had very little to offer any visiting Chinese.

After all, the Chinese coast to Constantinople was already 8,000 kilometers in distance, if therefore Tang and Song citizens were to risk their lives in search of wealth, why would the sharp merchant then travel a relatively further distance, for comparatively lesser wealth? The truth of the matter is that they would of course not, especially when considering the golden rule of financing: “risk requires a reward”. By that logic then as such, the greater the risk was, the greater the reward required. No promise of further reward in this case therefore, meant no incentive for the Chinese to ever reach the European continent in the first place. And so thus it was.

A pair of 10th century Chinese cargo ships with stern-mounted rudders – a frequent sight along the Maritime Silk Road at the peak of the Song Empire (a polity especially famous for transforming China into a maritime power, which allowed it to stand in stark contrast to all other dynasties which had come before):

Perhaps then, that is why it was Rabban Bar Sauma and not any who had come before, that was the first true Chinese visitor to Europe: because he had the incentive to do so. Gan Ying, the Han ambassador to Rome had likewise set out from China with a mission also, but the crucial difference between he and Sauma, was that Gan lost this original incentive after being falsely informed that the journey to Rome would take a supposed two additional years.

Sauma on the other hand did not, thus allowing him to accomplish his mission, thereby becoming the first Chinese national, to successfully reach the European continent. His “successors” likewise, who also had impetus in the form of an incentive be it religious, academic or political in nature, were able to likewise execute their respective missions without trouble also, thereby allowing them to reach Europe as well.

And so in the end, it was not China’s merchants, nor its soldiers nor even its diplomats which managed to journey unto the ends of the Earth, but rather a group of nobodies with nothing but their belongings, a keen fighting spirit and a sense of unyielding and ardent faith, which finally allowed them to bring pride to their civilization in historical hindsight, as the first confirmed Chinese visitors to the “Far West”.

Thus because this was so, it would then be a real shame; a dishonour really to not elaborate further on the details of the five individuals involved, who contributed to this great international cultural exchange. It is therefore only natural then, that I should dedicate the rest of this answer to doing just that, individual by individual so any interested can fully appreciate the exploits of the first Chinese visitors to Europe.

Note: The remainder of this response will be split into five equal parts (with each part detailing a particular Chinese visitor to Europe), which are listed as follows:

  • Part I: Rabban Bar Sauma
  • Part II: Andrew Zheng
  • Part III: Michael Shen
  • Part IV: Arcadio Huang
  • Part V: Louis Fan
  • Conclusion (and TL;DR)
  • Sources

Part I: Rabban Bar Sauma

Rabban Bar Sauma was born into a wealthy Uighur family, sometime in the year of 1220 AD outside of what was then Zhongdu (中都), capital of the sinicized Jin Empire (1115–1234), today’s Beijing (北京). Early on, claiming to have felt a calling to forsake all desires of a material life, he instead took on the path of the ascetic, becoming a monk for the Nestorian Christian cause. That the House of Bar Sauma were themselves all Christian, was presumably an influence which contributed greatly towards this matter also.

For the first several years of Bar Sauma’s life, he remained a monk, opting for prayer, fasting and worship as opposed to money, fame and glory. Retreating from society to dwell in a cave, he rarely interacted with others save but to proselytize and spread the Christian faith, and was in turn seldom interacted with. This continued on uninterrupted for several decades more, until the monk was already middle aged, and only then, did a diversion from the norm take place, in the form of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Taking the Silk Road, Bar Sauma and one of his younger students, Rabban Markos begun their journey to the West. They headed first to what is today Xinjiang Province (新疆), then from there trekked down south to Afghanistan, then further West to Anatolia, where they were forced to stop on its Eastern edges at Ani, due to rumours claiming that a perilous journey awaited all who dared to take the road to southern Syria. Discouraged, instead of reaching Jerusalem, the pair were forced to travel rather to Baghdad (بغداد), where they were received by Patriarch Denha I of the Church of the East (大秦景教).

Historical spread of Nestorianism in Eurasia, allotted by date (in red):

Despite being forced to surrender their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, fortune smiled on the hardships of the two pilgrims, who before long were able to impress the Patriarch to such a degree with their dedication to the Church, that Denha I resolved to make both individuals his personal messengers to China. Unfortunately for Bar Sauma, his student was able to “one up” him to that extent when he was also made the Nestorian bishop of Northern China, and Rabban was somehow not, despite his additional years of experience relative to his pupil.

However, good things come to those who wait and this was certainly true for Bar Sauma also. For in light of the Mongol Conquests (1206–1405) which had then been ongoing for quite some time, the Khans of Mongol occupied Persia – the Ilkhanate (1256–1353) – had been toying with the idea of conquering the Levant. After all, the Mongols had already subjugated virtually all of Asia by this point, even China North and South alike, who then could dare still to stand in their way? Conquest of the Levant by that logic, should not have been so difficult.

And yet in reality, this was far from the truth. For the issue with the Levant was not so much a question of whether it was occupied or not (it was), rather exactly who occupied it. And the answer to that? The impervious Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517), one of the few polities on Earth which had ever stood up to the Mongols, and emerged victorious in doing so. Mongolia’s recent defeat at the Battle of Ain Jalut (1260) to that extent, had even seen the Mamluks take back the entirety of the Levant region from the Mongols.

Naturally, they were quite keen to take it back. Business may only be business, but defeat made all things personal. Thus under the leadership of a newly crowned sovereign, Arghun Ilkhan (reigned 1284–91), plans were made for a revenge campaign against the Mamluks, except this time, they were not going to leave anything to chance. Arghun had had a plan to that extent, which involved creating a pact with the kingdoms of Europe, so as to attack the Sultunate from both sides, thereby maximizing the chances of a coalition led victory. All he needed now, was a messenger to represent he and the Ilkhanate in Europe.

The borders of the Mongol Empire at its heights in 1294, with a land area of 24 million km^2:

And so that was where Bar Sauma came into the equation.

It just so happened, that in the years prior to the Khan’s coronation, Bishop Markos formerly student to Bar Sauma had himself come across a stroke of luck, seizing the title of Patriarch for himself when Denha I passed in 1281. But since by Imperial decree all religious officials had to first be confirmed by the secular authorities, Mar Yaballaha III (as he was now known) had to first travel to Maragheh in northwestern Persia, to meet with the ruling Khan who inconveniently passed before he was able to make the journey.

Instead, his successor Arghun ascended to the throne, and that was who eventually appointed Yaballaha III to his post, on the stipulation however that the Patriarch was to also serve the State whensoever the Khan required his services. The decision to send an envoy to Europe, being one such service. And in response, the Patriarch knowing that there was no better an individual than his former teacher and colleague, requested that Rabban Bar Sauma be selected as the Il-Khan’s official envoy to Europe. And so thus it was.

Empowered with the authority of the Il-Khan himself, Rabban Bar Sauma left Baghdad in 1287 with a group of fellow Christians and foreigners in addition to 30 riding animals, and bearing gifts and letters from Arghun, departed first for the Byzantine port city of Trebizond via Armenia. From there, he sailed West to Constantinople where he was granted a personal audience with Andronikos II Palaiologos (Ἀνδρόνικος Β′ Παλαιολόγος), who conversed with him in Persian, a language with which both men were fluent.

He also had the fortune of visiting the majestic Hagia Sophia (Αγία Σοφία), then a Greek Orthodox cathedral during his stay, taking great care to describe it in detail per his memoirs. But as for the missionary’s primary objective, the Emperor made clear, that an alliance with Mongolia was not an idea he could endorse especially since the Romans were more and more merely a shadow of their former self, and so most regretfully urged that Bar Sauma move on to greener pastures.

Next on the itinerary was Italy. Taking the maritime route past Sicily, Bar Sauma was able to witness and record the eruption of Mount Etna on June 18, 1287, before also bearing witness to a great unnamed naval battle in the Bay of Sorrento come June 24th, which took place during the Sicilian Vespers (March-April, 1282), a rebellion on the eponymous island against French born monarch, Charles of Anjou.

Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine cathedral that Rabban Bar Sauma had the privilege to visit during his travels to Europe:

Per the testimonies of Bar Sauma, the naval battle itself was between Charles II of Naples on the one hand who had previously extended his welcome to the monk, and James II of Aragon on the other. According to the Nestorian ambassador, the latter emerged victorious having decimated 12,000 of the former’s forces.

Then having finally arrived in Rome to meet the most powerful man in Europe, Bar Sauma was left unfulfilled when it became clear that the Catholic Church was then undergoing a period of “Sede Vacante”, courtesy of the recent passing of Honorius IV. Bar Sauma was forced to converse instead with the College of the Cardinals, who requested that he return to Rome after they had elected a new pope. Which as it turned out, was completely fine with him who was uncomfortable to say the least with the idea of being amongst men, who were in service to a religious institution which had long denounced his own as heresy.

And so to that extent, he went out of his way often to redirect the topic of conversation to more secular prompts, whensoever his Catholic counterparts brought up religious matters. Debating with the “enemy” on their own home turf was after all not wise, and so when quizzed on the tenets of the Nestorian faith by the cardinals, the monk was forced to remain purely objective and superficial in his answers. Aside from this, his stay in Rome was of no consequence, and Bar Sauma was able to enjoy his trip to the “Eternal City” as a mere tourist.

With a final stop for Paris intended, Rabban then made his way further West, stopping at Tuscany and the Republic of Genoa (1005–1797) on the way. The eponymous capital of the latter’s, a city then famous for its banking industry of which, he spent the winter of 1287–88 in. Then moving on to France, he spent a month with the House of Capet (987–1328)’s King Phillip IV, better known as Phillip the Fair. Perhaps more so than all who had preceded him, it was the French monarch who responded most positively to the arrival of the Mongol embassy.

A tomb effigy of Phillip the Fair in the Basilica of Saint-Denis:

And yet like the Byzantine Emperor who had come before, was forced to turn down an alliance with Mongolia, citing practical concerns with distance and French capabilities to remain in the Levant, especially at a time when the Crusades were coming to a close, and Christian forces were returning home. It was thus by this logic, simply not possible for France, to assist the Mongols in their campaigns against the Mamluks. Out of good will however, he expressed a desire to assist in other forms, albeit in purely symbolic ways.

To that extent, Phillip proceeded to gift the Uighur ambassador a plethora of presents, in addition to commanding one of his own subjects, the nobleman Gobert de Helleville to accompany Bar Sauma back to the Mongol Empire. And on February 2nd, 1288, the nobleman departed France alongside Bar Sauma, attached with a retinue which included two clerics, Robert de Senlis and Guillaume de Bruyeres, as well as crossbowman Audin de Bourges. They joined Bar Sauma when he later returned through Rome, and ultimately as promised, did accompany him back to Persia.

Post these turn of events, Bar Sauma travelled to Gascony in Southern France which was at the time under English control. After this, he reached Bordeaux in Western France, where he met with the relevant English monarch at the time, Edward “Longshanks”. Though enthusiastic as Andronikos II and Phillip IV had been, Edward I was also forced to turn down the offers of a Mongol alliance with England, for much the same reasons as France had offered up: lack of practicality.

In addition, the monarch was also preoccupied with internal turmoil amongst the Welsh and Scottish populace, the latter in particular of whom were lead by the famous William Wallace, a formidable foe and thus as such, could certainly not send military aid to the Middle-East, had he even desired to do so in the first place.

A portrait from Westminister Abbey, thought to be that of Edward I:

Afterwards, the ambassador made good on his promise to return to Rome, now that a new Supreme Pontiff had been elected. He was warmly received by the newly elected Nicholas IV, who then proceeded to celebrate Mass with the ambassador on Palm Sunday of 1288, going so far as to even allow the missionary, to receive the Holy Eucharist, despite being a heretic.

In addition, to further solidify their relationship as one which was based on ecumenism as opposed to schism, His Holiness even went so far as to personally commission Bar Sauma to be his representative to the Church of the East.

And to that extent, entrusted to him a precious tiara which he instructed was to be presented to his Nestorian counterpart, Patriarch Mar Yaballaha III, who of course, being his former student Bar Sauma was already familiar with. In 1288, the Ambassador of the Ilkhanate finally returned to Baghdad carrying messages and many other gifts from the various European leaders. Arghun in turn responded to all such letters promptly in 1289, which were then forwarded by the Genoese merchant Buscarello de Ghizolfi en masse.

In one particular letter to his French counterpart, Phillip IV, Arghun writes the following:

“Under the power of the eternal sky, the message of the great king, Arghun, to the king of France…, said: I have accepted the word that you forwarded by the messengers under Rabban Bar Sauma, saying that if the warriors of Il Khan invade Egypt you would support them. We would also lend our support by going there at the end of the Tiger year’s winter (1290), worshiping the sky, and settle in Damascus in the early spring (1291).

If you send your warriors as promised and conquer Egypt, worshiping the sky, then I shall give you Jerusalem. If any of our warriors arrive later than arranged, all will be futile and no one will benefit. If you care to please give me your impressions, and I would also be very willing to accept any samples of French opulence that you care to burden your messengers with.

I send this to you by Myckeril and say: All will be known by the power of the sky and the greatness of kings. This letter was scribed on the sixth of the early summer in the year of the Ox at Ho’ndlon.”

-Arghun Ilkhan to Phillip IV

Extract of the letter in question written by the Ilkhan to the French monarch:

Despite the efforts of Rabban Bar Sauma, attempts as a Mongol-European alliance never came to fruition. Nay, this was even in spite of a continent wide rumour, that the Mongols were actually Europe’s long awaited saviors, there to assist them towards the crushing of Islam.

According to the claims of several historians to that extent, there appeared to have been a belief amongst some Europeans at the time, that the Mongol Empire was really the home of the long awaited “Prester John”, a legendary “King of the East” which as popular belief would have it, lorded over a vast Christian kingdom, and would thus one day in an hour of their greatest need (ie. the Crusades) come in to save the day when all seemed lost.

Presumably, this was why Rabban Bar Sauma was thus received warmly wheresoever he travelled to: because the Europeans believed that he belonged to a sort of Christian “superpower”, an earthly messiah of sorts. Anyways, though the Mongol Empire was far from a Christian nation, this may have been lost in translation somewhat when Rabban proclaimed the following to the kingdoms of Europe, on the status of Christianity in the Far East:

“Know ye, O our Fathers, that many of our Fathers (Nestorian missionaries since the 7th century) have gone into the countries of the Mongols, and Turks, and Chinese and have taught them the Gospel, and at the present time there are many Mongols who are Christians.

For many of the sons of the Mongol kings and queens have been baptized and confess Christ. And they have established churches in their military camps, and they pay honour to the Christians, and there are among them many who are believers.”

-Rabban Bar Sauma, Monk and Ambassador

The journey of Rabban Bar Sauma from 1280–94, inclusive to his original attempted pilgrimage to Jerusalem in addition to his embassies to the European continent:

Regardless, whilst an alliance between Europe and Mongolia never formed, the journeys of Rabban Bar Sauma set in motion a chain of events, which did alter the course of history however. The Mongol embassies to that extent further encouraged communication and trade between the East and West, at a time when Marco Polo was doing in Asia, roughly what Bar Sauma was doing in Europe.

In response to the travels of Rabban Bar Sauma, Phillip IV eventually sent an embassy to the Mongols, securing a fruitful relationship between the two powers, whilst the Catholic Church tasked an Italian, Giovanni de Montecorvino, OFM, with travelling to China, so as to introduce then continually proselytize Latin Christianity to the peoples of the Orient. Nestorianism after all was a heresy in the eyes of the Holy See, and so thus its monopoly on religious influence in China, could not be left unchallenged by that logic.

In this way, Roman Catholicism was able to reach the borders of the Middle Kingdom. A few major hiccups saw it brought to the edge of extinction, but the Church was able to stand strong, and persist throughout the centuries regardless thanks to the efforts of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. And it is with this particular Christian denomination, that we find our next four successive Chinese visitors to Europe, starting with one Andrew Zheng.

Part II: Andrew Zheng

Now unfortunately, not much is actually known about Andrew Zheng himself, aside from the fact that he was an Official of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), which came to power after ending the decades long Mongol occupation of the Middle Kingdom, in addition to being one of its earlier converts to Roman Catholicism. Otherwise, the details of Zheng’s life are largely unclear for the most part.

However, what little we do know would suggest that by way of association with the Jesuit Order, Zheng was to ultimately make history as one of China’s first visitors to Europe. The Jesuit in question jointly responsible for this feat, was Polish born Michał Boym, who had come to China at a time when the ruling dynasty was being torn apart, at first from within by internal rebellion, but eventually from without also, by foreign conquest.

A peoples long thought dormant, and a threat long thought vanished, lo, the Manchurians had come. They swept in down from the North, having bypassed the 8,850 km long, 100,000 men strong Great Wall of China (萬裡長城), thanks in no small part due to the actions of Wu Sangui (吳三桂), a misguided opportunist, who had foolishly placed all faith in the concept of foreign intervention, hoping it would be enough for the Ming loyalists, to finally overpower the Rebellion. And to that extent, he was not wrong. It was what came next however, that was of fatal consequence.

For the plan ultimately backfired, and despite a gentleman’s deal which had seeked to prohibit otherwise, the invaders refused to leave China in the end. Why should they after all? If they were welcomed onto foreign soil with open arms, then this could only mean one thing: their patrons themselves lacked strength. And if they lacked strength, how could they then hope to enforce said agreement? Obviously, they couldn’t. Thus, after pacifying the Rebellion, the Manchurians instead occupied Northern China, claiming it for themselves. The defeated rebels meanwhile headed West, whilst the last remnants of the former government retreated South, adopting the title of the Southern Ming (1644–83).

The Chinese political status-quo as of November 1644 (note the three relevant factions which existed: the Manchurians in the North (Qing), the Rebels to the West (Shun), and the Loyalists of the South (Ming)):

In the end it seemed, power and therefore greed having taken precedence above all else, saw to it that none of the original two Chinese parties were to emerge victorious. Rather now that both sides were weakened, it seemed as though China was doomed to a life of subservience under foreign rule instead. And within the midst of all this chaos, here is where our story begins. But first, some context is in need per the history of Chinese Papism, so as to prevent the reader from being confused further on as the answer continues.

Now Catholicism as previously stated, had already been introduced to China since the 13th century. The Franciscan, Giovanni de Montecorvino, chief proselytizer of Western Christianity to that extent, was able to rapidly achieve some measure of success early on in the Church’s history, post his arrival in 1294. Having won over the approval of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), China’s first Catholic church was constructed by 1299, which itself was followed up in 1305 with a nationwide membership of 30,000 converts, inclusive to both Han and non-Han Chinese alike.

Thus how Catholicism eventually supplanted Nestorianism then, as the most dominant form of Christianity in China. By this logic, all then was well.

The Black Death which extinguished 25 million souls worldwide in the 1340s however, quickly acted to disrupt the Catholic missions in China. It decimated the Franciscans – successors of Montecorvino – who operated in the country for one, whilst also wiping out a significant portion of those who remained back home in Europe. Without a leader to guide them, and without the promise of reinforcements and supplies, the Catholic missions stagnated. Ultimately, this was not to get better. For the Mongols, patrons of the Catholic faith originally, were then overthrown, and replaced instead by none other than the supremely xenophobic Ming Dynasty, courtesy of its founder.

Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), First Emperor of Ming by that logic was a Han supremacist – and this may even be selling it short. In accordance with his vision for a more “pure” China (ie. a “Chinese” China), one which was free of foreign influences much unlike its cosmopolitan Han and Tang predecessors, he eventually gave all religions within the Celestial Empire a grand ultimatum: accept, recognize and conform to the authority of the Chinese government, or else face imminent retaliation.

Refusing to submit to Imperial authority as it would have meant forsaking the fundamental tenets of their faith, the Catholics resisted and were as such punished accordingly. Either expelled from the country or put to death, regardless, within a few months, there was no longer a single practicing papist left within the Middle Kingdom. 80 years of Sino Catholicism in this way, were made wholly nought in less than one.

A portrait of Zhu Yuanzhang, aptly titled the Emperor of “Overwhelming Force” per his imperial title: Hongwu (洪武帝):

But of course, this could not last forever and come nearly 200 years later, the Catholics were back, stronger, wiser and more determined than ever before. The renowned Jesuit Order, at that time merely in its infancy spearheaded the conversion campaigns of the Far East, and were determined to succeed thus, where their Franciscan predecessors had failed. Led in particular by Matteo Ricci, SJ, there appeared to have been an understanding on part of the Christians, that Chinese opposition to Catholicism came foremostly from its ruling class, who like all governments of the time and in the world then, were deeply conservative and thus, “culturally protectionistic”.

Christianity by that logic then, was seen as a threat to Chinese culture, precisely because it was perceived to have contradicted it. And an ideology which could not be assimilated, like how Buddhism and even Judaism and Islam were, was a dangerous one. The Jesuits realizing that Asia was much different to say the New World where they had previously operated, decided to make a few changes in the way they conducted their operations therefore. It was about presenting the faith as a complementary teaching to Chinese culture, one which not only did not conflict with it, but would also enrich it greatly. And to that extent, the Jesuits had had a few ideas.

Prior to the arrival of Matteo Ricci, another Jesuit, the Italian Alessandro Valignano, had already made some headways. He studied Japan, which was similar to China in its opposition to Christianity (ie. on the basis of culture), and was able to innovate a new strategy for proselytization: accommodation. This meant conforming to Chinese norms, living up to Chinese ideals, submitting to the Chinese authorities (so long as it did not contradict their faith), winning the hearts of the Chinese peoples, and most importantly, learning the Chinese vernacular to the point of absolute fluency – essentially, voluntary assimilation.

Ricci who worked in collaboration with Valignano agreed, and thus was conceived the concept known as the, “Valignano-Ricci Doctrine of Accommodation”. One would do well to remember this concept by the way, as it is a repeating theme in the history of the Catholic Church in China (important for later chapters in the answer).

Anyways, said strategy is briefly described as follows, by academic Zhang Xiping:

“From the very beginning they realised that in recruiting in the name of God they had to be very flexible, to ‘become all things to all,’ to use the words of St. Loyola himself.”

-Zhang Xiping (张西平) Ph.D, Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU)

An artist’s impression of several Ming era Mandarins, the Confucian “Ruling Class” of China to whom, the Jesuits would have to convince (that and the Emperor of course) before Christianity was allowed to freely operate within the borders of the Celestial Empire:

Matteo Ricci even more so than Alessandro Valignano to that extent, was especially in favour of Catholic accommodation, and this he reaffirmed:

“The work of evangelization, of making Christians, should be carried on both in Peking and in the provinces … following the methods of pacific penetration and cultural adaptation. Europeanism is to be shunned. Contact with Europeans, specifically with the Portuguese in Macao, should be reduced to a minimum.

Strive to make good Christians rather than multitudes of indifferent Christians … Eventually when we have a goodly number of Christians, then perhaps it would not be impossible to present some memorial to the Emperor asking that the right of Christians to practice their religion be accorded, inasmuch as is not contrary to the laws of China. Our Lord will make known and discover to us little by little the appropriate means for bringing about in this matter His holy will.”

-Matteo Ricci, Head of the Jesuit Order in Ming China

Ultimately, the authorities of the Court must have been appeased somewhat, because Ricci was finally allowed into the country come the year of 1586. He spent the next 15 years converting, mentoring and administering at Guangzhou (廣州) and Nanchang (南昌) in Southern China, before his reputation had spread such, that even the ruling Wanli Emperor (萬曆) eventually agreed to meet with him, not only in Beijing, the highly restricted capital that was most certainly off limits to all non-Chinese, but inside the infamous “Forbidden City” (紫禁城) too, which was strictly prohibited to all non-essential persons, on pain of death.

That Matteo Ricci, a foreigner, a Christian, and a person of apparent unimportance was allowed inside even the Forbidden City, was a testament to the effectiveness of the Jesuit plan. The Ricci-Valignano Doctrine of Accommodation was working. And after centuries of failure, the Catholic Church was “winning” at long last.

For a culture which also strongly prized education, knowledge and cunning, the well educated Jesuits had caught the attention of the Ming Court for another reason: their cognitive abilities. Every Jesuit priest was either a part time scientist, historian, cartographer or linguist after all, why then should China not take advantage of this great gift the emperor reasoned? And it was so. Before long, he had already placed the Jesuits in key positions within the Ministry of Rites (禮部), which allowed them to instruct and assist their mandarin counterparts in the area that the Jesuits were most learned: Astronomy. And there they remained for the duration of their stay in China.

An artist’s impression of Matteo Ricci (left – note his Chinese style garments in keeping with the Accommodation Doctrine), transferring to the mandarin officials of Ming, knowledge of Western Science and Technology (here in this painting, probably Astronomy and Cartography specifically to be precise):

Ultimately, Matteo Ricci’s successes in China was to set the standard, for all future Catholic missionaries who operated within the country thence. No Jesuit from then on would ever travel to Middle Kingdom with the intention to proselytize, without first making themselves known to the Chinese authorities, who would only be happy to sanction their operations now that they realized that Christianity was not after all, a threat to Chinese civilization. This was how it came to be such then, that Jesuit survival was intertwined with the existence of Imperial patronage.

As such when the Manchu conquests came in the mid-17th century, the Jesuits were conflicted. To whom did they owe their allegiance to? To the Manchurians who had in their possession, the Imperial capital, all of Northern China and a claim to the title of New Regime? Or to a government which whilst deposed of, was still alive and therefore technically the legitimate God sanctioned power, to whom they were obligated to serve? There was of course no easy answer to this moral quandary, and it ultimately came to divide the Jesuits also.

Those in service to the new Qing Court, resided at Beijing where they continued their missionary and scientific operations uninterrupted, as they did prior to Manchu takeover. In stark contrast, those few who resided in Portuguese Macao (澳門) came to align themselves with the Southern Ming regime, where they came to take on the role of military strategists and ambassadors foremostly, given the desperate circumstances of the time, which had threatened to completely engulf the loyalists. This was far from being an even fight after all, and both sides knew it.

For even in light of Manchu takeover, the loyalists were still divided amongst themselves, unsure of what to do, and undecided as where to go. There was not even a “Plan B” to that extent, and had no one else formulated a series of contingency schemes otherwise, the loyalists would have been doomed. But the Christians in service to the Southern Ming were good, and within the midst of those dark days, they had conceived of a strategy which they hoped would save their patrons from a most gruesome end. An Austrian, Andreas Wolfgang Koffler, SJ, reasoned to that extent, that China’s last hope for earthly salvation, came not from within, but rather from without via Europe.

A European interpretation of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (left), alongside a newly converted Mandarin, Xu Guangqi (徐光啓); “Paul” Xu (right) for the cover of “Elements”, a translation in 1607 of the original mathematical treatise by Euclid of Alexandria (300 BC):

This made sense as the Jesuits, having nearly 50 years of experience operating in the Middle Kingdom by that time were able to make several important observations regarding their patrons. China in their eyes for one, was still the single greatest power of its time, far eclipsing all others in terms of wealth, administration and cultural sophistication. Where they fell short however, was with regards to technology and more importantly, the military. And this, was where Koffler believed, Europe could assist. In order for the loyalist regime to survive, it needed immediate Western intervention, and Koffler believed he had just the incentive needed to bring this about.

Koffler’s incentive in question, was the conversion of the entire Imperial Family to Roman Catholicism. And this was where Michał Boym, SJ, in addition to several others, came into relevance. Boym’s mission to that extent, was fairly straightforward: convince the House of Zhu to convert, or else risk the end of all which was dear to them by Manchu hands. We cannot say for sure whether it was by free will or by pragmatism (though likely the latter), but a certain Empress Dowager Wang, wife to the late Wanli Emperor was one of first amongst many to convert, adopting the Christian name of “Helena” at her baptism.

One of Wanli’s many sons Zhu Youlang (朱由榔), then Emperor, whilst more hesitant was eventually also converted by the efforts of Boym, thereby becoming Chinese civilization’s first and last ever Catholic sovereign. With his exemplar as impetus, the entire Imperial Family was ultimately converted to the Latin faith also. And just like that, China was now Catholic enough a country, for the Jesuits to formally request military intervention, from the European powers.

They begun to that extent by writing letters to the Holy See, with the intention to formally request reinforcements from His Holiness, but soon decided that it was best to send an embassy to Europe also, in order to place added emphasis on the fact that this was indeed an urgent matter. Michal Boym, having volunteered for such an undertaking, promptly assembled a team, and was in this way joined by Andrew Zheng, China’s second official visitor to Europe. And together, they made preparations for the long journey ahead.

A letter written in Latin on November 1650 by Michal Boym on behalf of Empress Wang, intended to be sent to Pope Innocent X with the intention of requesting formal military assistance (note the name of “Helena” within the midst – the Christened name of the Empress):

And with the blessings of the Emperor Yongli (永曆) himself, Boym and Zheng set sail for Rome with the intention to meet with Innocent X, who was head of Jesuit order, departing China from the Mainland’s Southwest, where the Southern Ming were then on their last legs, having been surrounded on all sides by the hated enemy. Making good speed, by 1651 the following year, the Catholics arrived in Portuguese controlled Goa, where they received their first wave of bad news.

For by that time, the Portuguese monarch, João IV of the House of Braganza (1640–1910), had received a copy of Empress Wang’s letters and he was quick to give his response. His Majesty’s answer? A definite “no”. Citing the futility of intervening in a war in which he claimed the victor was already self-evident, John IV expressed regret to Boym and Zheng alike, that the Portuguese Empire (1415–1999) could not enter the war on the side of the loyalists.

This made sense, as no one in their right mind would want to upset the future Manchu victors, if they truly believed that said party would eventually emerge victorious, in a war which had little immediate relevance to their own interests. Furthermore, Portugal was already at war with the Dutch Republic (1581–1795) another European superpower. Thus even if they had wanted to, what help could Portugal really offer China, so as to save them from their fate? More and more, it seemed none. The Resistance were not even capable of helping themselves, a Portuguese intervention thus would have done little.

And so Boym and his mandarin counterpart, were left disappointed in the end. If this rejection were not bad enough by itself however, in order to prevent the pair from further taking matters into their own hands (thus interfering with Portuguese interests), the two were then also placed under house arrest, with the blessings of the State and of the new local superior of the Jesuits alike, both of whom believed that Europe should not interfere with Chinese affairs, lest they be affected by Eastern misfortunes. Destiny smiled on Boym and Zheng though, and they were eventually able to escape imprisonment, continuing on to Rome by foot.

A map of Portuguese India, where Boym and Zheng were at the time of their house arrest in 1651:

In the aftermath of the escape, Zheng and Boym were able to make their way to what is today Hyderabad, before continuing onwards to the Indian city of Surat, then from there to Bander Abbas, Shiraz and Isfahan in Safavid Persia (1501–1722). And by August 1652, having traversed across the Ottoman (1299–1922) settlements of Erzurum, Trabzon, and İzmir, the two finally reached the borders of Eastern Europe. Travelling to the Venetian Court sometime soon thereafter in December, 1652, the pair proceeded to request a meeting with Francesco Da Molin, ruler of the Venetian Republic (697–1797).

Molin citing a similar stance to John IV, was rather reluctant to meet with the Chinese embassy. And to that extent, had wished to maintain a neutral stance on the matter of the Chinese “civil war”. It was only after the visiting French ambassador persuaded him otherwise (having been spurred on by Boym), that Molin finally reconsidered and gave the pair permission, to consider the case with him in person. Be that as it may, opposition to the Chinese cause was not over though, as yet another nay-sayer, one Gosvinus Nickel, the newly elected General of the Jesuits, argued that da Molin should ignore Sino pleas, on the basis that it would endanger Jesuit activities in China, and it was so.

The French ambassador similarly, who was for a moment sympathetic to the Chinese cause, quickly recanted when Innocent X himself, strongly voiced his opposition to a French intervention, fearing that it would only further empower one of Catholic Europe’s most mighty, yet also more rebellious powers. By that time, there totalled already three polities, France, Venice and Portugal which could no longer be of any assistance to the Southern Ming.

A bust of Francesco Da Molin (reigned 1646–55), 99th Doge of Venice to whom the Chinese embassy delivered their letter, on behalf of the Empress Helena Wang:

Three years quickly went by, as Michal Boym and Andrew Zheng pleaded with the European powers, but alas to no avail. There would be no help from the Catholic Empires, they simply had too many problems of their own to deal with. The Protestant Reformation (1517–1648) to that extent, which had precipitated in the European Wars of Religion (16th-18th centuries), was one such problem, and whilst it lasted, the Western powers could not come to the aid of China, even if Ming were apparently no longer a heathen nation. It was simply too much to ask.

The election of a new Supreme pontiff, Alexander VII only acted to confirm Boym and Zheng’s worst fears as such, when the pope merely offered spiritual comfort via the promise of prayers, as opposed to practical help. This was only all the more painful to Boym in particular, as he knew full well that His Holiness was actually quite sympathetic to the struggles of the Southern Ming.

Yet despite his feelings, no help ever came from the Pope. Where Alexander VII was able to contribute somewhat to the Chinese cause however, was with the drafting of a personal letter to all Catholic monarchs of Europe, urging them to take up the good fight, and defend a fellow Christian nation from imminent death.

This worked to some degree, as John IV of Portugal though had previously rejected the pair’s pleas for military assistance, now urged on by papal request, reconsidered and summoned the Chinese embassy to Lisbon, where he met with the two in person.

By the time the meeting had concluded, the monarch had promised to intervene militarily in the Far East, by sending the weight of the entire Portuguese Empire down on the heathen Manchurians. At long last, the struggle was over. Aid would finally be sent Eastwards, and it appeared as though the Ming Dynasty was after all, going to live on to fight another day. With their mission concluded, Boym and Zheng departed once more for Chinese shores, the latter especially desperate to return home after being away from it for nearly 5 years by that time.

A portrait of João IV of the House of Braganza, the man who though initially denied military assistance to China, also ultimately agreed to intervene on the side of the Southern Ming, against the newly established Qing Dynasty:

But of course, as with all things on their needlessly long journey, there was a catch, and it was to come yet again from Portuguese Goa. When Zheng and Boym returned to Western India, they were yet again obstructed in their efforts by the local Portuguese administration, who as before prohibited them both in word, and in action, from travelling to China fearing economic repercussions from the Qing Dynasty.

And to that extent, whilst they had even received John IV’s orders, both to give free and safe passage to the returning Chinese embassy, and to redirect several contingents and armadas towards the Southern Ming, both edicts were promptly ignored by the treacherous Goa administration, who loved gold more than they did country. With the status quo of the loyalist regime reported to be several magnitudes worse off than even when they had left it, Boym and Zheng were then desperate to return to China as quickly as possible, their trip of 5 years having been all in vain.

As before, they managed to escape on foot, and take an uncharted continental route to the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1350–1767) instead. Arriving in 1658, the pair then hired a ship from nearby pirates, using it to sail to the Le Dynasty of Vietnam (1428–1788) near what is today the city of Hanoi. Then failing to secure a guide to lead them to what is today, Yunnan Province (云南) of China, tragedy strikes and Michal Boym finally passes at Guangxi Province (广西) due to natural causes. This then leaves Andrew Zheng all alone, to whom we know little of what exactly occurs next.

What is clear though is this: the entire 5 year long journey of Jesuit Michal Boym and mandarin Andrew Zheng, was in the end completely in vain. The mission achieved nothing for one, and no help was ever sent to China two. And because no military intervention from the Western powers was ever carried through as intended, or worse: as promised, the Southern Ming regime was eventually wholly pacified by 1683 on the island of Taiwan (臺灣), and the Qing Empire came to emerge victorious, their dominion post, extending throughout the entirety of the former Ming Dynasty.

That China’s first visitor to Europe in nearly over 400 years was able to visit the continent, was perhaps, the only positive legacy of the Boym-Zheng Embassy. And even this however, wasn’t that special when considering that Michael Shen, China’s next visitor to Europe, came barely two decades later.

Part III: Michael Shen

Shen Fuzong, or Michael Alphonsius as he was better known as by his Christian contemporaries, hailed from the ancient Chinese capital of Nanjing (南京). Born into a family which encapsulated the concept of “Disparitas Cultus”, this meant early on that Shen had the privilege of partaking in the “practice” of two parallel cultures at once: Chinese on the one hand, but Christian and really, Western on the other hand.

And at a time prior to the Globalized world of today where dual cultured families were seldom a sight, this was something rather special, giving him an advantage where it mattered. Shen to that extent was not only as fluent in Classical Chinese as many of his fellow mandarin officials were, but was also well versed in both written and spoken Latin, courtesy of it being the official approved language that the Roman Mass was celebrated in.

This, in addition to both his education, and high standing amongst the Chinese bureaucracy was what eventually convinced an enamored Flemish Jesuit, Phillipe Couplet, a noted scholar of Confucian philosophy and Procurator of the China Jesuit Missions, to in 1681, personally select him as part of a pro-Catholic conversions campaign, which he and a fellow papist, James II, the King of England then had together conceived of.

Couplet had also had his own agenda however, and thus had selected Shen Fuzong as prime candidate for another reason unbeknownst to everyone else. A great admirer of Chinese civilization, and one of the first Jesuits to see the best in the peoples whom he was converting, Couplet’s end game was the Pope’s own blessing towards the possibility of a Chinese as opposed to Western led clergy, in addition to His Holiness’ permission to celebrate Mass in Chinese as opposed to Latin, as well as the incorporation of certain Chinese rites into Jesuit teachings.

With the presenting of Shen Fuzong; China’s best to Rome therefore, he had hoped to bridge the gap between the two cultures, and create a win-win situation. The Catholic Church would have a stronger presence and influence in China, courtesy of a rapidly expanding membership, whilst new Chinese converts would find their new faith more familiar to them than unfamiliar, thus allowing them to adapt to Christianity with ease. In addition to Shen, Couplet also intended to present a myriad of China’s greatest texts, amongst which were a plethora of Confucian publications, which he hoped would impress the Holy See.

The title page for “Confucius Sinarum Philosophus” (1687), a work produced by a team of Jesuits led personally by Phillipe Couplet, SJ, intended for dissemination back into Europe where Western academics, quickly dissected it with great intrigue as intended:

There was at first another Jesuit, a Han Chinese this time by the name of Wu Li (吳歷), who was supposed to travel with Couplet and Michael Shen to Europe. When inquired, he cited a quest for spiritual excellence, in addition to a fascination with Catholic art and architecture (as he was also a painter) as his prime motivation, for desiring to join the Jesuits in Macao in pursuit of “heavenly learning”. But alas, by the time they had reached the Portuguese controlled city, his health was already failing (as he was 50), and thus Shen and Couplet were forced to depart without him.

Which was exactly what happened come December 4th, 1681, when Michael Shen, Phillipe Couplet and an unnamed third Han Chinese companion, left the port city by ship. Misfortune set in early for the trio however, who quickly became victims to a shipwreck in Banta, a port West of Batavia (Jakarta). For reasons unknown, the three Catholics were forced to stay within the Indonesian islands for over an entire year, in which time the unnamed companion returned to China in frustration, leaving only Shen and Couplet left out of the original four.

Fortune eventually turned in their favour however, and before long, the remaining two were on board a ship by February 3rd, 1683, headed for Enkhuysen, a city of the Dutch Republic where they arrived after a relatively uneventful journey, come October nearly 10 months later. Now in Europe, they first visited the city of Mechelen, Flanders where Couplet was born, before promptly moving onto Versailles, to meet with the famous “Sun-King” (Roi Solei) of France: “Louis the Great”, better known as Louis XIV.

Adorned with a green set of silk robes in addition to a deep blue brocade vest, which was decorated with figures of Chinese dragons, Michael Shen thus appeared before Louis XIV, on September 15, 1684, where he was able to make a good first impression by performing the distinctive Manchurian reverential act of the “kowtow” (叩頭), which was reserved only for persons of great stature, per the values of the Qing Dyansty. In addition to these acts of flattery, Shen was able to make a further impression on the monarch come dinner, when he even demonstrated the delicacy of using chopsticks to eat, in addition to the beauty of traditional Chinese characters.

Impressed with the conduct of both Shen and Couplet alike, Louis XIV even went so far as to give the order, for all fountains at the Versailles Palace to be switched on in their honour. This was important, as such a feat was usually reserved only for royal visitors and ambassadors. That he was willing to do this for but a pair of humble missionaries, was a testament to their worth in his eyes. Much to the relief of Couplet in addition, the monarch also agreed to sponsor a French Jesuit mission of scientists and mathematicians to reinforce present Chinese operations.

A portrait of Louis the Great, the Sun-King of Bourbon France (1272–1861), a man with whom both Shen Fuzong and Phillipe Couplet had the fortune of meeting and dining with in person:

There was a hidden agenda here though, as Couplet did not want the Jesuit missions to be monopolized by the Portuguese (ie. the “Padroado” – a Papal approved mandate, whereby the Portuguese monarchs were to be recognized as Royal Patrons over all churches and religious communities established in lands opened to trade by their own hand) as they were up until that point, which Couplet claimed was counter-productive, as it gave the Portuguese an unreasonably puffed up sense of self-importance, which in the long term would have conflicted with both Papal and Chinese interests.

Sometime after dinner with the king, had concluded, Shen and Couplet visited a boarding school for girls, the Maison royale de Saint-Louis, where they set up a display of Chinese silk portraits, as a gift to France. In return for both his presence and his gifts, the French Court ensured that Shen was in turn presented with a uniform of the Captain of the French Guards, which was gifted to him by one Count Enghien. In addition to this, the French also had a copper engraving of the mandarin commissioned, a copy of which can still be seen in the National Library of Vienna today.

After France, came Rome in the June of 1685. Here, Couplet intended to follow through on his plan as originally intended, whereby he would seek permission from His Holiness, then Innocent XI for the use of the Chinese vernacular in place of Latin, in addition to native Chinese priests as a substitute for their European counterparts, whensoever Mass was being celebrated. The Pope however was reluctant to grant either of these two requests, disappointing Couplet who did not believe that he was asking for much.

Hoping for a settlement, he informed Shen instead of his plans to extend their stay in Europe for an additional 8 years. Reluctantly, Shen agreed and there the pair waited in patience, for a deal which may or may never have come. Two years into their wait come March 1687, Shen had had enough, and decided to depart for the Kingdom of England (927–1707) instead, hoping to meet with its monarch, who at the time was not just Catholic, but an especially avid supporter of the Jesuits in China, James II of House Stuart (1105–1807).

Arriving in London as China’s first ever visitor to the British Isles, he bore witness to the installation of the Catholic Archbishop Ferdinando d’Adda, before meeting with James II himself. The English monarch, much like his French counterpart before him was intrigued with the persistence and demeanour of this foreign visitor, and thus arranged for his own painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller to construct Shen’s portrait (the painting at the start of this answer) so that the king could hang it in his bedchamber.

In Kneller’s own words, it was supposedly his, “best work”, one which was so accurate and lifelike, that according to James Yonge, a naval surgeon who glimpsed Shen at Windsor Castle in July 1687, claimed that the painting bore a striking resemblance to the Qing mandarin. The portrait known as “The Chinese Convert”, was perhaps one of James II’s greater legacies, given his ultimately short reign. And it represented merely a small part of a much larger trend that had come to dominate Europe then: a continuing fascination with all things Chinese and Eastern.

A portrait of James II, King of England and Ireland; James VII, King of Scotland, the country’s last Catholic monarch:

In 1687, a renowned orientalist by the name of Thomas Hyde who worked at Oxford University, extended an invitation to the visiting mandarin, urging him to accept it for the sake of knowledge. Subsequently, Shen heeded his pleas and spent the year’s summer working in collaboration with Oxford’s chief librarian at the Bodleian Library. The two communicated in Latin, as Shen had hitherto that point been doing elsewhere in Europe, which particularly intrigued Hyde who noted that his visitor was completely fluent in the said language.

Anyways, there he catalogued the library’s Chinese collection of 70 books which had been acquired over a period of 100 years, a feat unprecedented as none who had come before were as familiar with the Sino texts as was he, and to that extent made clear what had previously been incomprehensible to translators, whilst assisting in other areas inclusive to the transliteration of book titles, as well as helping Hyde with several of his projects relating to Chinese measurement and calendrical practices. In addition, Shen was notably also able to produce samples of Chinese writing for copperplate engravings.

Aside from that, Shen also taught Hyde the correct way to hold a Chinese text, starting with which way was up, and in the six weeks which he spent with the Englishman, was able to enlighten him somewhat on the basics of spoken and written Chinese, so Hyde could continue his good work long after the Chinese Catholic had departed from English soil.

The Bodleian Library of Oxford University (where Michael Shen once visited upon his invitation), as can still be seen today:

Which Shen eventually did, setting sail for Lisbon with Couplet who by that time had rejoined him, in the April of 1688 just before the overthrowing of James II. And it was in Portugal, that Shen was to dedicate his life in service to the Christian God, by joining the Jesuit novitiate. His first vows were eventually undertaken to that extent come 1690 after two years of study, prayer, dedication and preparation, and here upon his ordination was where the title of “Alphonsius” was bestowed on the now former mandarin, who forsaked a prosperous material life in favour of a richly spiritual one in Jesus Christ.

Eventually, the Society of Jesus saw it fit to send both priests, Couplet and Shen alike back to China so as to bolster the Church’s conversion efforts in the Far East. Thus in 1691, the pair once more embarked on a journey across Eurasia, with a final destination for the Qing Empire. Only this time, neither of the pair were ever successful, with both meeting their ends on board the ship. Shen passed first, the cause being an unnamed epidemic which struck him down on September 2, 1691, merely two days before reaching Mozambique in East Africa.

Couplet on the other hand, perished at Portuguese Goa come May 16, 1693, when a storm caused a chest to hit him on the head. Thus ended the great journey of Phillipe Couplet and Michael Alphonsius Shen Fuzong in this way, both of whom were loyal to the Catholic Church as well as the Celestial Empire, even to the end.

And whilst their tour was only partially successful in its objectives, the arrival of the Chinese embassy in Europe, played a crucial role in the romanticizing of the Middle Kingdom within the continent, for the entirety of the next century. In Britain especially, Shen Fuzong’s work at the Bodleian Library was so successful, that it went on to set the foundations for what would later become the academic discipline of Sinology.

Part IV: Arcadio Huang

From the beginning, one thing was clear: Arcadio Huang was never supposed to have been born.

His father, Paul, a Christian convert to that extent had had an original plan which involved staying celibate. Unfortunately, it soon became clear to him however that this could never be, when his own parents, citing thousands of years of Chinese traditions and values via the national ideology of Neo-Confucianism (宋明理學), gave him their final ultimatum: marry and produce an heir, or else risk dishonoring them with his “selfishness”.

Alas, but his parents did have somewhat of a valid point: Paul was their only son, and so if he died therefore, and childless at that, then the entire Huang Family’s legacy would be all in vain. This was unacceptable and so they intervened, denouncing his hopes and desires as mere folly. And in response, Paul reacted not, for he knew full well that there was nothing he could do about it, in a society where the notion of “Filial Piety” () – nominally reverence, de facto absolute obedience – reigned supreme.

Your parents by that logic, whilst they were not always right, were also never wrong. Paul thus felt “obligated” to adhere to them first, even before the Christian God whom he served despite knowing full well the errors in doing so, per Catholic doctrine. And so in the end, he surrendered to the will of the Huang Family, and most unwillingly entered into an arranged marriage with a random woman that they had chosen for him. Once wedded, they quickly went to work on the production of an heir.

A Song era illustration of the philosophical treatise, “Classic of Filial Piety” (孝經), which depicts an act of Filial Piety (one of Confucianism and therefore Imperial China’s most prized values) here whereby a son kneels before his parents, in order to display the proper respect owed to them:

At first, they were unsuccessful. Four children were born in due succession, all of whom were female – unacceptable in a patrilineal society, in which only men continued the family line, whilst women were “married off”. Only on the fifth pregnancy, was a male heir finally conceived. And this was our hero Arcadio Huang, who was brought into the world based on a promise made between Paul and his wife, that if their next child was male, he would be dedicated to the Christian God.

When their prayers were answered therefore, the couple knew they had to uphold their end of the “deal”. Paul however never lived to see this realized, and instead gave up the ghost whilst Arcadio was only 7. In the end, it was his widow come 1686, who fulfills the holy promise and delivers the boy over to the charge of a French missionary, Philibert Le Blanc of the Paris Foreign Missions Society, who had then just arrived in Fujian Province, where the Huang Family resided.

After meeting with the youth and assessing his capabilities, Le Blanc agrees to educate the boy and prepare him for a life in service to the “Universal” Church. He pursued legal adoption thusly in accordance with Chinese law, and before long Huang had already left his family, to live with Le Blanc instead. And so in this way, begun a series of events which would eventually culminate, with him becoming China’s next visitor to the Far West.

The “Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception” (聖母無染原罪堂), China’s first Catholic building of its kind, constructed in Beijing, 1605 by the Jesuits under the leadership of Matteo Ricci (to be noted is the statue of St. Francis Xavier, who co-founded the Jesuit Order, and died on Shangchuan Island (上川島) in Southeastern China, before he could re-introduce Catholicism back into the Celestial Empire):

Le Blanc, quickly went to work thereafter. He devised a rigorous curriculum and made sure Huang was eventually competent in a variety of subjects, foremostly amongst which were of course Latin and Catholic theology. After three years under his tutelage, he passed the boy onto another Frenchman, Artus de Lionne, the Bishop of Rosalie (in Turkey) who continued to personally mentor the boy, in the same range of subjects.

A diligent student, Huang showed a keen interest in the subjects that he was introduced to. Aside from this, early on he also displayed a longing for travel and adventure, which was made clear in 1695 at the mere age of 16, when he had already self conducted a series of travels taking him all around Central and Southern China. There he acquainted himself with the local customs of each province, in addition to meeting with members of his extended family for the first time. But, it was not enough for Huang who had wanted more.

And to that extent he was to be wholly satisfied in the not too distant future. For the Bishop of Rosalie had had a secret agenda to which end, included taking his young student back to the Far West with the intention to present him to Rome. The rationale here was simple, de Lionne had had a vision for the conversion of all China to Christianity based on the leadership and participation of Chinese Catholic clergyman and laypersons, and not foreign missionaries who struggled in regards to their understanding of Chinese culture.

Hardly an original plan of course, but as with Phillipe Couplet who had come before, de Lionne desired Papal approval in addition to direct funding. The reality of an educated and bilingual Chinese Christian such as Huang therefore, was of immense value to the Church. If only they had had an army of Arcadio Huangs, their missionary work would be accomplished in mere generations. It was simply too good of an opportunity to pass up, and so de Lionne requested that Huang travel to Europe with him, a plea which the now fully matured man, only accepted too graciously.

A portrait of Artus de Lionne, the Bishop of Rosalie (in partibus infidelium):

And so thus it was that on February 17, 1702, the pair departed for Europe aboard a vessel belonging to the British East India Company. They arrived at their destination in London staying only for a brief moment, before moving onto Paris and subsequently Rome. There, as with all Chinese visitors who had travelled to Europe hitherto, Huang was introduced to the Holy Father, then Clement XI by de Lionne, who was pleased to present a man on the verge of ordination to the priesthood.

Alas, little did he know however, that in reality Arcadio Huang had little intention of conforming to the life prepared for him by first his parents, and now the Church. And so when he not only rejected, but then also renounced any intention of following through with life as a member of the clergy, de Lionne was greatly disappointed to say the least. All those years spent in steadfast study. Wasted. Trashed. Gone. Furious, the bishop attempted to salvage the situation by insisting that Huang was merely “confused”, and instead offered to further his education at Paris, where he intended to wait for a better answer.

The two reached a compromise, and before long both Huang and de Lionne had returned to France. According to his memoirs, Huang arrived in Paris around 1705 where he stayed at the headquarters of the Missions étrangères de Paris. There he passed time by upholding his end of the compromise, and continued to study under the French with the final end goal of ordination in mind. This was something which continued to trouble Huang as the years went by, and his adventurous and free spirited self meant that commitment was definitely not on the agenda. He thought that there was more to life than just being a priest, and so before long, had already made plans to evade the fate which awaited him.

With his talent in Classical Chinese, all such efforts proved to be quite fruitful when he was quickly granted an audience with Louis XIV, who still remembering Shen Fuzong who had come before, was “desperate” to meet with another Chinese citizen. Impressing the French monarch with details of his entire life hitherto, Louis the Great soon hearkened to his cries and decided to intervene in Huang’s favour against de Lionne, forcing the Bishop to recant his end of the compromise, which had pressured his former student towards the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Thus in this way, Huang was now at last free to pursue a secular life instead.

The Palace of Versailles, where Louis XIV lived at the time of Arcadio Huang’s visit:

The possibility of a secular life to that extent, was only made further possible by Louis XIV himself, who offered Huang a position as his personal interpreter in the Chinese language, which of course he hesitated little before accepting. He quickly went to work thereafter, operating under the guidance and protection of a French abbot, Jean-Paul Bignon. As time went on, his diligence was such that Huang was eventually even promoted to the Sun king’s chief librarian, whose job it was to take charge of cataloging Chinese books in the Royal library.

By that point in time, Arcadio Huang had become somewhat of a celebrity. This was of course easy, considering that being the only ethnic East Asian in a European society, already tended to make one stand out, but even more so because he was both “Westernized” and in a high profile position, as an indispensable member of the Bourbon Court. Naturally, everyone who was anyone then, had desired to be associated with Huang, especially at a time in Europe, whereby the fascination with all things Chinese had reached its zenith.

And Huang in return did have much to teach his European counterparts, foremostly amongst whom was Charles-Louis de Secondat, better known as the Baron de Montesquieu. Between the two, Huang and Montesquieu shared many a discussions on the matter of Chinese customs, which seemed to greatly intrigue the latter. It has even been claimed in fact, that Arcadio Huang served as Montesquieu’s primary inspiration for the narrative device of his masterpiece, the “Persian Letters”, a satire whereby two imaginary West Asian visitors to Paris, criticized the absurdities of contemporary French society, as opined by its author.

Huang’s reputation spread rapidly amongst the famous French Salons (cultural hubs which claimed to be bastions of “manners” and “sociability”, but were actually meeting points for intellectuals to discuss their ideas) in light of his meeting with Montesquieu. And in this way, his renown was only further strengthened.

A portrait of Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron of Montesquieu with whom Arcadio Huang met:

This was how Huang eventually attracted the attention of another young French scholar, Nicolas Fréret who was also keen to work with Huang. In the succeeding years, Huang collaborated thus with Freret towards the completion of a Sino-French lexicon, which when finished would make it the first of its kind. They also worked to pioneer a text on Chinese grammar, in addition to the diffusion in the country of the Kangxi Emperor (then the reigning Chinese monarch)’s system of 214 radicals (character keys).

This was difficult work to say the least, but they were abetted in their efforts by a friend of Freret, Nicholas Joseph Delisle who contributed to the project by giving a more cultural and geographical tone to their work and discussions. Further assistance eventually came from Nicholas’ brother, Guillaume who was then already a famous geographer.

To get him more acquainted with Sino-European relations, Delisle suggested that Huang read a series of Western texts on China, which he then proceeded to do. This was a regretful action as it turned out though, as Huang was unpleasantly surprised by the ethnocentric approach that the texts took, whereby the civilizing role of Europe was emphasized on the one hand, whilst the merits of Chinese civilization were immensely downplayed on the other. Still, up until that point in time, the team was able to function fine for the most part without issue.

A portrait of the French geographer Guillaume Delisle:

It was the imposed arrival of an additional party however, that of the French orientalist Étienne Fourmont, which came to have a negative impact on the efforts of the team. Fourmont’s anti-social and unethical tendencies, had disturbed Freret, the Delisles and Huang greatly upon arrival, but alas they had no choice but to continue on with their work, as he was under the protection of the abbot Jean-Paul Bignon who had even placed him there originally. Not so long after his arrival, the team caught Fourmont in the act of plagiarizing Arcadio Huang’s work, word for word and thus had him reprimanded.

But his lack of ethics was still to continue long after regardless. For Fourmont did not have respect for anyone but himself, and sought at all costs to seize the work of others, in order to promote his own glory. That he was eventually given the responsibility of classifying the papers of the dead also, only empowered him more in light of Arcadio Huang’s inevitable death, against whom he did not hold back on whilst immensely criticizing both his life and work in a fit of jealous rage. He eventually also took full credit for Huang’s work, including all his efforts with Freret towards the pioneering of the Sino-French dictionary, the text on Chinese grammar, and even the entirety of the dissemination of the 214 radicals.

And never, not even once did he attribute any of “his” works to their rightful owner, Arcadio Huang who was essentially robbed of his legacy. To make matters worse, he continued to denigrate Huang in public even long after his death, making sure to tarnish his reputation in every way which mattered. The worst part was that Fourmont’s scheme worked to some degree, as up until very recently, many modern academics had assumed that the appropriator was a figure who contributed greatly to early sinology when in reality, he was little more than a fraud, who had mainly profited off the degradation of the work of others.

The text on Chinese grammar, as subsequently published by Etienne Fourmont in 1742, having ripped it off direct from its rightful owner, Arcadio Huang:

Not short of friends even in death however, Nicolas Freret attempted to defend his late teacher by publishing a thesis on the work and role of Huang, in the dissemination of knowledge regarding China in France. Similarly, Nicholas Joseph Delisle also assisted towards the negating of Fourmont’s criticism, by publicizing the true works and deeds of Arcadio Huang of which without, we would know little of his role in the development of early French sinology. And through their publications, modern scholars were able to finally ascertain a greater picture of the truth, after centuries of successful deception.

Prior to his death though, Arcadio Huang had also found happiness outside of his professional life with regards to love. His fame and reputation to that extent, whilst already widespread amongst scholars and salons alike, eventually spread to the ordinary peoples of Paris too. And from that crowd on a particular day, came a certain middle-class Parisian woman, one Marie-Claude Regnier who he eventually came to be smitten with, an affection which it turned out had been shared by Regnier also. And so thus it was that before long, the two were already making plans to wed.

Now in those days, cross cultural relationships were seldom a sight, both for France (and really Europe), and China alike. And what few interracial marriages which did exist especially from the 16th-19th centuries, were according to author David Emil Mungello, “…rare and regarded more in terms of exoticism; stark physical differences created an attraction which fired the sexual imagination.” Often therefore, such unions were accused of “fetishism” and thus not taken seriously, this made them unthinkable to the human ethos thus, with very few exceptions. Then, there was also the racism to consider given the additionally tribalistic nature of countries then, relative to today. By all counts of logic, an international partnering was not a favourable one.

And that is where Arcadio Huang and Marie-Claude Regnier stood out thus: they defied the respective cultural norms of their time, and put affection for each other first. And it ultimately paid off too, given that Regnier’s parents contrary to the ethnocentric nature of the 18th century, did not chastise their daughter for her choice in a to be husband, but rather gave Marie-Claude and Arcadio their full and unconditional blessings. With no obstacles left in their path, the two opted to undertake the Sacrament of Matrimony in keeping with Christian doctrine, and come the year of 1713 were already made man and wife before the Christian God.

The Place Royale in 1709, then a fashionable part of Paris for crowds to gather at:

Details are relatively sparse on what occurred next, but most scholars agree that the new couple were happy for the most part. Finance or rather the lack thereof was a recurring problem though, and even despite his position as chief librarian and interpreter to the French monarch, the newlyweds found themselves more often than not, broke. Winters by that logic, were especially rough on the couple, who barely made it through the first year in one piece.

Additional aspects of Huang’s personality, are also apparent via excerpts from his personal diary which reveal much about our fourth Chinese visitor to Europe. He was a careful man for instance, writing the diary in romanized Chinese so as to prevent his wife from being able to read his personal thoughts. Huang was also quite meticulous – no doubt an aspect of the culture within which he was raised – taking care to note every single last aspect of not only his own life, but that of his wife too.

From this, scholars noted a series of cryptic notes which were designed to track the days of the month in which his wife was menstruating, in addition to specific instances of their lovemaking, as well as other small notes on her moods and preferences. It is from his diary in fact, that know the two were happy as Huang noted that the only times they argued was come the winter of the first year, when a misplaced loaf of bread, and his spilling of oil onto Marie-Claude’s favourite dress devolved into a fierce shouting match between the two.

Aside from that, they lived a fairly amicable first year. The two took turns in cooking for the other for one, with Marie-Claude being sure to make either her special rice pudding for Huang, or his favourite fritters. Huang on the other hand, took note via his diary regarding what foods his wife liked and what she didn’t, and adjusted his cooking for her accordingly, which he did almost as frequently as she did despite the tiresome nature of his professional life. Huang appeared therefore, to have been a proactive husband for the most part. Which was not to take away the spotlight from Marie however, who he noted took care of him when he was sick thus doing her fair share.

The new French monarch, Louis XV making a grand exit from the Royal Palace on the Île de la Cité (1715):

As a foreigner living in a land far from home, Huang eventually decided in favour of full assimilation into French culture in whichever way that he could. Sometimes, this included small things such as compromising with his dearly beloved whensoever cultural conflicts came up, other times it meant refraining from criticism on the basis of differences in what was considered polite, and what was not. And yet still, on other occasions, this called for more serious measures such as the mastery of the French language, in addition to the donning of French clothing, both of which eventually became second nature to Huang come the couple’s second year of marriage in 1714.

By which times, the marriage was also incidentally taking a turn for the better having just made it out of the previous year in one piece. As noted in his diary, Huang had just stumbled onto a period of financial fortune, which allowed him to purchase several luxury items for his wife, inclusive to new dresses and other cosmetics. Such changes in happiness, were only further multiplied when in addition, Marie-Claude then announced her pregnancy to an elated Arcadio Huang, who much like his wife had shared her enthusiasm for the prospect of family.

It was an enthusiasm however, which would turn out to be fatal. For nine months post her pregnancy announcement, Marie-Claude would die in childbirth, bringing a healthy young girl into the world. This in turn traumatizes Huang, who in light of his wife’s untimely death begins to descend into a state of depression. Initially unwilling to surrender for the sake of his new daughter, Huang struggles with the evil inside for an entire one and a half years alone, before the pain becomes so great such, that seeing no way out of the darkness he finally puts a noose around his own head, and puts an end to the suffering.

Such tragedy was only further intensified however, when the couple’s own daughter also passed away shortly thereafter. In this way, the Huang Family line came to an end. In this way, the original fears of Arcadio’s grandparents, were finally realized even after all their efforts aimed at circumnavigating such a peril. In this way, did the story of Arcadio Huang conclude much as it had begun: in the midst of pain and desperation. For his, was a life filled with misfortune before, during and even after death. Perhaps that then, was the crucial difference between Huang and his predecessors, despite accomplishing much the same as they had.

Part V: Louis Fan

Similar to Andrew Zheng who preceded him, we do not actually know much about our last (in the range of this answer) visitor to Europe, save but for three things: the first being that he hailed from the city of Pingyao (平遙) in Northern China, the second being that he had been baptized early on in life, courtesy of being raised in a Catholic family, with a third point being that much like Huang who preceded him, Fan was also a victim of tragedy early on, having been orphaned at the young age of 10. Fortunately though, Fan’s maternal uncles took care of the vulnerable boy, and continued to raise him up in the Christian faith.

Still, it is regarding the events of his later life though, and really, only one in particular that we are foremostly concerned with. Discussing said event on its own would be worthless however, without first describing the drama that led up to it for the purposes of context. To that extent, we will first have to pick up where we last left off with regards to the history of Chinese Catholicism, before we can discuss Louis Fan’s journey to Europe without confusion as to just exactly what was happening.

Returning to the mid-1600s therefore, at this point in time one would do well to recall three crucial things about the socio-political status quo: one, the successful re-establishing of Catholicism in China by the Jesuits, courtesy of the Ricci-Valignano Doctrine of Accommodation, two, the then recent fall of the Ming Dynasty and its subsequent replacement by an ethnic Manchurian led Qing Empire, and three, the political divide between the Jesuits of the North who worked for the New Regime, and those of the South who allied themselves with the loyalists of the former Han Chinese led polity.

A progressive map of Manchurian expansion allotted by date:

Our story continues to that extent with the Jesuits of Great Qing, who whilst the “civil war” raged endlessly, continued onwards with their proselytization missions by swearing allegiance to the House of Aisin-Gioro (愛新覺羅). This worked as planned, and having gained the favour of their new patrons, the Jesuits were able to operate unimpeded as they had hitherto Manchu conquest. The message under the New Regime much like the old, was still quite clear to that extent: one of mutual assistance. The Jesuits would be free to do whatever they wanted, so long as they conformed to the expectations of the Chinese authorities.

And since it did them neither harm nor contradicted their Christian faith, the Order obliged and each individual Jesuit subsequently begun to assist the Qing Court in their respective fields of expertise, with the intention to convince the Imperial Government of their benevolence and usefulness to China, thereby winning them additional concessions to operate within the Empire.

The German, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, SJ, was merely one amongst many who contributed to Chinese science thus, when he worked in conjunction with Italian colleague Giacomo Rho, SJ, as well as convert Paul Xu to create Chinese civilization’s first lunisolar system for organizing days and events, the “Chongzhen Calendar” (崇禎暦), which was able to provide for more accurate predictions regarding lunar and solar eclipses. Similarly, Schall von Bell also propagated the idea amongst the Qing Court, that the Sun and Moon should be calculated using sinusoids as expressed in one of his latest scientific treatise, the “Book of Conformity on Time” (時憲書).

Elsewhere, fellow Jesuits were likewise achieving similar successes when a few of them also managed to reorganize the hitherto then outdated Beijing Ancient Observatory (北京古觀象台), in order to conform to the latest European developments in the astronomical sciences. Of course, it also didn’t hurt that the “Society of Jesus” (as they were formally called) had already had a pre-existing reputation for scientific prowess, which not only comprised of many a similar achievements, but also stretched back roughly 50 years to the previous Ming Dynasty. This acted to assist them greatly, by allowing the new ruling classes to judge the Order’s future potential, based on the merits of their past performance.

The Beijing Ancient Observatory, after it was modernized by the Jesuits:

The presiding Shunzhi Emperor (順治帝) by that logic, must have been impressed somewhat, because he then not only dished out free promotions to the Jesuits, placing them in charge of crucial positions within the Imperial Court (Schall von Bell for instance was made into a mandarin government official), but also removed the vast majority of regulations directed towards foreign missionary activities, thus allowing the Society of Jesus to operate henceforth, largely unimpeded for the most part. This was how it came to be then, that the Jesuit Missions grew rapidly in light of this Chinese Catholic “renaissance”, quickly reaching 114,000 adherents nationwide by the year 1662 thus.

Unfortunately, with great success however comes great attention as well, and soon, other orders of the Catholic Church independent to the Society of Jesus, but spurred on all the same by their many victories, had quickly made plans to expand to China also. In theory, it might be reasonable for one to believe that the Jesuits were elated upon hearing such news, as they were finally receiving reinforcements after 50 years of operating alone. But in reality, this was not only not the case, but even more so than that, the Jesuits were absolutely horrified at the prospect of additional orders coming to the Far East, for the purposes of converting the heathen.

And it had nothing to do with desiring all the “glory” for themselves either, insomuch as it was rather to do with fear. The Jesuits were afraid of the other orders to that extent, not because of what they were, but rather of the potential that they had to undo not only all of the previous 5 decades of Jesuit led proselytization, but of the entire future of the Chinese Church too. The Jesuits had understood to that extent, that along a hypothetical spectrum which listed all Catholic orders in terms of doctrinal inflexibility, they were the Church’s most “liberal”. For all those who were coming to China however, foremost amongst which were the Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans, well, they operated on the other end, as Church hardliners by stark contrast.

The frontispiece of the 1667 text, “China Illustrata” which early on, gave Europe a glimpse into Jesuit operations within the Middle Kingdom (to be noted are the founders of the Society of Jesus at the top: St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius of Loyola, in addition to the two most prominent Jesuit figures in Chinese Catholicism, Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Matteo Ricci):

To that extent, the Jesuits had feared that the legalistic Dominican Order in particular, rather than adhering to the wise policy of the Ricci-Valiganano Doctrine of Accommodation that the Jesuits themselves so carefully conformed to, would force a more extreme version of Christianity onto the Chinese nonbelievers, thereby resulting in a brutal state led counter-offensive, which would surely lead to not only their deaths, but the end of the Catholic Church in China.

Their worst fears, were only confirmed to that extent when shortly after the Dominican arrival in China, missionaries from the “Order of Preachers”, were already causing trouble within the Middle Kingdom, where none had previously existed.

To that extent, one incident in particular comes to mind whereby the leader of the Dominicans, a Spaniard called Domingo Fernández Navarrete, OP, was inquired by a particular Chinese national to whom he was preaching, as to whether or not their civilization’s beloved “Confucius was saved?” To which Navarrete responded, on the basis that since even the “superior” Western philosophers that were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were not in the end saved, naturally:

“How much the more Confucius, who was not worthy to kiss their feet?”

A pro-Chinese missionary however, the Portuguese, António de Gouveia, SJ, who was also incidentally present there on that day, was quick to come to the defence of the Qing Empire, and subsequently rebutted Navarrete’s comments, insisting that most certainly:

“Confucius had been saved… which is more than can be said for King Phillip IV of Spain.”

A portrait of St. Dominic, the patron saint of the astronomical sciences, after whom the Order of Preachers was named:

Unnecessary insults aside, the Jesuits had made their position on the matter of Chinese accommodation clear, particularly to the Dominican traditionalists as such. China, both as their patrons, and as a 5,000 year old culture was to be respected. It had laws, and the missionaries had to heed them. It had an emperor, and so long as there was one, he had to be obeyed foremostly and without question, so long as it of course did not contradict their own faith, which hitherto to that point in time, the Doctrine of Accommodation was most certainly not doing.

In this way, the Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans quickly found themselves on the losing side as such, when even the Holy Father himself, then Alexander VII had sided with the Chinese indirectly, upon the reception of the Sino embassy to Europe, which included Andrew Zheng in addition to Michal Boym (from Part II), who had then just recently arrived in Rome to petition the Holy See, for a more sinicized form of worship (in addition to of course military assistance from the Catholic Empires).

And to that extent, they were ultimately successful when the Roman pontiff, who had been greatly sympathetic to the Sino cause, even agreed to allow Chinese to be used in the place of Latin, as the language of worship whensoever Mass was being celebrated, a command which came in the form of a decree, given by the pope on March 23, 1656. The “Propaganda Fidei” only further reinforced the Supreme pontiff’s stance three years post, when it then mandated that all missionaries operating in Asia (not just the Jesuits), were to only proselytize on condition that they heeded the customs, laws and cultures of their respective nations first, except for where they clearly contradicted Christian teachings:

“Do not act with zeal, do not put forward any arguments to convince these peoples to change their rites, their customs or their usages, except if they are evidently contrary to the religion and morality.

What would be more absurd than to bring France, Spain, Italy or any other European country to the Chinese? Do not bring to them our countries, but instead bring to them the Faith, a Faith that does not reject or hurt the rites, nor the usages of any people, provided that these are not distasteful, but that instead keeps and protects them.”

-Extract from the “Sacred Propagation for the Congregation of the Faith” (1659)

A portrait of Alexander VII, 237th Pope of the Catholic Church, and the man who begun to officially endorse Matteo Ricci’s Accommodation Doctrine albeit indirectly (recall from Part II, that he was also the pontiff who sent out all those letters to the Catholic monarchs of Europe previously, urging them to intervene militarily on behalf of the Southern Ming regime):

The great Kangxi Emperor (康熙帝) who came to power in 1661, had especially taken to what he saw, was the great tolerance of the Christians who operated in China. Naturally as a consequence therefore, such mercy had to be repaid in full by the Chinese State, to show the Catholics that their efforts at respecting Chinese culture, was being wholly appreciated. And so to that extent, even more so than under the tenure of the Shunzhi Emperor who came before, Kangxi begun to grant even further concessions as well as promotions, to the Catholics who respected Chinese civilization.

And then at long last, after years of sustained efforts, and of toil and of sacrifice, finally, came the one decree which had long been sought after by the Western missionaries since time immemorial. The one decree, which when passed would be enough to grant them full, and unrestricted access to the entirety of China, for the purposes of conversion to Christianity. This was it, decades of effort had been building up to this moment, and whilst many had anticipated that it would eventually come one day though they did not know when, that it ultimately turned out to be now in their lifetime made reality, was a source of relief for many.

The aforementioned “alpha and omega” decree in question to that extent, was the “Edict of the Toleration of Christianity” (容教令), which was passed by the tolerant Kangxi Emperor come the year of 1692, with the intention to – as anticipated by the Jesuits – grant full, unprecedented and unrestricted authority to the Catholic Church, to operate in China with non-existent levels of regulation, duly expressed by the great Chinese monarch himself as follows:

“The Europeans are very quiet; they do not excite any disturbances in the provinces, they do no harm to anyone, they commit no crimes, and their doctrine has nothing in common with that of the false sects in the empire, nor has it any tendency to excite sedition

We decide therefore that all temples dedicated to the Lord of heaven, in whatever place they may be found, ought to be preserved, and that it may be permitted to all who wish to worship this God to enter these temples, offer him incense, and perform the ceremonies practiced according to ancient custom by the Christians. Therefore, let no one henceforth offer them any opposition.

-The Kangxi Emperor’s “Edict of the Toleration of Christianity” (1692)

This was important, because it also gave Catholicism by that logic legal parity with the national ideology of Qing China: Neo-Confucianism, which had hitherto that point in time, enjoyed a monopoly on authority. It also gave Christianity power over even the older, and traditionally favoured ideologies of Buddhism (佛教) and Taoism (道教), which at the time were being snubbed, in favour of a rigid adherence to Confucian ideals, after hundreds of years of protection by the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties.

The future of Catholicism in China thus, was by all counts very much a bright one therefore, especially since the Church had just recently reached an unprecedented 250,000 adherents by the year 1700 as well.

A portrait of the benevolent Kangxi Emperor, one of Chinese civilization’s greatest sovereigns, who also gave Christianity an unprecedented status within the Middle Kingdom, as a teaching which whilst not the Empire’s official ideology, was equally protected under the law relative to it (even more so than with Taoism and Buddhism, which had been denounced in the Edict of Toleration as “false sects”):

This was of course a false image however. False, because it presumed that the Catholic Church in China profited equally off of this turn of events when in reality, they did not. The conservative orders of the Church to that extent, the Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans, even after all this time, and even after the past mandates of Alexander VII and of the Propaganda Fidei, had not submitted to the consensus of the Holy See with regards to the Chinese “problem”.

The conservative orders to that extent, did not approve of what they thought was the Church “kowtowing” to Chinese values, in contravention of basic Christian beliefs. And this was especially directed towards the Empire’s national ideology itself: Neo-Confucianism. In stark contrast to Matteo Ricci who had come before as such, the Dominicans especially, did not believe that the Middle Kingdom’s Confucian rites were in any way “compatible” with the practice of Christianity. In particular, the conservatives argued that making “offerings” and “sacrifices” to the Emperor as well as one’s ancestors, was self-evidently in conflict with the First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

This only acted to confuse the three orders all the more then, when the Jesuits intervened and refuted their comments, citing Matteo Ricci’s earlier consensus that these particular Confucian “Rites”, were merely secular in nature. It was just a Chinese tradition after all and there was no need to panic. But alas, the traditionalists were not convinced, and they demanded a “retrial” of the case at hand here by no other than the Holy See itself. And so to that extent, they quickly departed for Rome to make their case. The Jesuits however, horrified that their worst fears were actually being realized, followed, sending their best to rebut any conservative arguments, which were made by the Dominicans.

A photograph depicting St. Peter’s Basilica, an Italian Renaissance Era (1300s-1600s) Church where the Jesuits, in addition to their Augustinian, Dominican and Franciscan rivals travelled to, in order to debate the compatibility of Chinese traditions, with the practice of the Christian faith:

Having arrived in Rome, each side then made their respective cases. The conservatives begun first, and they expressed their side of the story, in which they pleaded with the Holy Father to issue a papal bull, which would denounce the practice of Confucian rites by Chinese Catholics. The basis of their argument to that extent was a simple one: the Middle Kingdom’s new converts, were in direct contravention of the First Commandment, as they were worshiping an entity other than God, in this case their ancestors as well as the Chinese sovereign.

They proposed therefore, three contentions in particular as a solution to the Chinese Rites issue:

  1. Firstly, that Catholics of China should be prohibited henceforth from using the term, “Shangdi” (上帝) or “Emperor From Above” to refer to the Christian God, and were to only use the term, “Tianzhu” (天主) or “Lord of Heaven” instead.
  2. Secondly, any Chinese citizen who claimed to be Christian, should not be allowed to participate in the observance of seasonal Confucian rites also.
  3. Thirdly, worship was to be directed towards the Christian God alone, which meant that all Chinese Catholics should refrain from using tablets, which were marked with the forbidden inscription, “site of the soul”, in addition to any adherence to the “pagan” norms of “Ancestor Veneration”.

A contemporary example of Ancestor Veneration, as still practiced today by the ethnic Chinese – something that the Dominicans had once petitioned the Holy See to prohibit, amongst Catholics within the Middle Kingdom:

Despite knowing that their case was quickly slipping, the Jesuits attempted to rebut the Dominican led argument, on the basis of two points.

The first of these being the Dominican claim, that there was some kind of inherent conflict between the practice of Christianity on the one hand, and the observance of Neo-Confucian rites on the other. The Jesuits rejected the Dominican stance, and instead insisted again that these Chinese “rites” were merely social in nature and strictly not religious. Thus the Society of Jesus argued, the Catholics of the Celestial Empire should be permitted to participate in their observance of these traditions by this logic.

In addition to this, the Jesuits also insisted that it was the Dominicans who were in the wrong with regards to the idea, that Chinese Catholics were somehow in contravention of the First Commandment, by making offerings and sacrifices to the Emperor and to their beloved ancestors. As with before, these traditions also the Jesuits maintained, were merely civil in nature and thus not incompatible with the practice of Catholic Christianity.

The Dominicans however, perhaps more confident of their position than the Society of Jesus, quickly lashed back at their Jesuit counterparts, further doubling down on their belief that the Chinese rites were clearly idolatrous in nature, and thus, “…nothing less than the mere worship of demons.” On the basis of this logic, they reaffirmed their contention then that these kinds of worship were in reality, an expression of native Chinese religion dating back thousands of years, and were thus incompatible with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

At the end of the day however, the efforts of both were in vain since no one in the Vatican actually knew enough about the Chinese rites, or really, about Chinese civilization period, to actually come to a consensus as to the nature of their supposed validity or invalidity. His Holiness, Clement XI as such thereby informed both liberals and conservatives alike, that he would not issue any such proclamation yet either permitting or prohibiting the observance of the Chinese rites, until such time as the Holy See was more versed in the intricacies of Sino culture. Defeated, both parties returned to Qing China, wholly unfulfilled.

And that, was precisely where the beginning of the end, for all things good, then began.

A portrait of Clement XI, the Roman pontiff on the eve of what would soon be a time of great sorrow, for the Universal Church in China:

For most unwilling to accept defeat, the Jesuits ignored Papal protocol which had suggest that they await further instructions from the Holy See, and instead attempted to circumnavigate the troubles of bureaucracy by appealing direct to the great Kangxi Emperor himself, who at the time presided over a country which now played host to a Catholic “civil war”, in which the Jesuits and their more conservative counterparts, engaged publicly in verbal assaults against one another.

Their asking of him to favour one side over the other, confused him greatly as such, who begun to reason that he should just expel both parties alike, on the grounds alone that they were disrupting the much prized Confucian value of social harmony. Ultimately, this was not to be, and he eventually relented upon hearing of the Jesuit case for the preservation of Ricci’s Accommodation Doctrine, against the legalistic Dominican led conservatives. In fulfillment of his role as not just sovereign, but protector of Chinese civilization also, the Kangxi Emperor thus ruled in favour of the Jesuits, thereby declaring all opposed to them, as being in the wrong.

Alas not to be outdone, the Spanish Franciscans promptly responded to Imperial intervention by subsequently doubling down on their own appeals to the Holy See. They were ultimately successful to that extent, and before long Clement XI had ruled in favour of the conservative faction, albeit only in a minor way at first. Thereafter, an anti-Rites decree, “Cum Deus Optimus”, was propagated by Rome come November 20, 1704, which not only made law the original Dominican petition for the prohibition of “Shangdi” in favour of “Tianzhu” as a title for God, but also made it illegal for further discussions on the matter to be held.

The infamous “Chinese Rites Controversy” (1704–21) in this way, was finally begun much to the horror of the Jesuits, who had spent decades attempting to prevent exactly a tragedy like this from occurring. But in the end they failed, and now therefore had no choice but to pick a side, and join the war. Speaking of which, the Catholic Church in China was now split into two: those who were “pro-China” and those who were “pro-Rome”. Predictably, the Jesuits as well as the vast majority of Chinese Catholics took up arms in favour of the Qing Empire, whilst by stark contrast, the Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans sided with the Holy See against their Chinese patrons.

Subsequently, a Papal legate headed by one Charles-Thomas Maillard De Tournon arrived at the Qing Court in January 1707, having departed Europe two years prior, but was quickly met with swift resistance, upon his attempt to assert the authority of the Church, via the 1704 decree of Cum Deus Optimus. Infuriated, the Kangxi Emperor banished the Papal embassy to Macao, and begun making plans to counter the hated Papal States (755–1870) with his own approved embassy. And this, is where our last visitor to Europe, Louis Fan finally comes into the picture.

A portrait of Cardinal Charles-Thomas Maillard De Tournon, Apostolic Legate and then in 1707, the latest casualty in an ongoing socio-political and religious dispute between the Chinese Empire and the Catholic Church:

Spurred on by this turn of events, a team of four was quickly assembled in response. Their mission? To force the hand of Clement XI such, that he would then be compelled to eventually return the state of Chinese Catholicism, to its former glory. Our hero Fan Shouyi, was a part of this team. He was however also joined by three other Jesuit missionaries, one of which was the Piedmontese, Francesco Provana, in addition to a priest who had visited Rome previously to debate against the Dominicans in front of the Holy See, François Noël, as well as a third companion, José Ramón Arxó who we know little about.

And together come a full year post the arrival of the Papal embassy, the four set off on their journey to Europe from Macao aboard the Portuguese vessel, Bom Jesus de Mazagão das Brotas on January 14, 1708, with a final destination for Rome. We are not exactly sure what Louis Fan’s role was in the Chinese embassy, but according to documents from the archives of the Propaganda Fidei, the official post of Fan’s was as a “language secretary” in service to Francesco Provana, who had been chosen by the missionary both as a close friend of many years, in addition to the fact that he had also been a key witness to the Rites Controversy, during its initial outbreak.

Provana thus entrusted Fan with the safekeeping of a box, which contained a set of no less than sixty-nine imperial documents, which were to be delivered to His Holiness upon their arrival in Rome. Sailing on to to their destination, the Qing delegation took the Batavia route through the straits of Malacca (notably an unusual one at the time, but made possible in light of the end of Dutch-Portuguese hostilities), before subsequently reaching the Cape of Good Hope in what is today South Africa. Misfortune in the form of winds and storms however, was to ultimately force the Portuguese vessel, to diverge from its planned course.

And so instead of heading for Rome, the Chinese delegation soon found themselves halfway across the Atlantic rather, now en route to the city of Salvador de Bahia in Portuguese Brazil instead. Upon their imminent disembarking, Louis Fan came to make history in this way, thus becoming the first Chinese citizen to set foot on the South American continent, and by extension the “New World” as a whole. This was what really set him apart from the likes of Michael Shen or Arcadio Huang who came before as such, who whilst both had visited Europe in depth, had never made it outside of the “Old World” otherwise.

A photograph depicting Salvador, the Capital of the Brazillian State of Bahia, where Louis Fan and the Qing embassy were forced via a series of misfortunes to divert to, thus making Fan the first Chinese citizen to ever visit the Americas – period:

Stopping only momentarily for supplies, Fan and his Jesuit companions then set sail once more, finally reaching Lisbon on September 7, 1708, nearly eight months after they had initially departed Macao. Years later in his personal memoir, “A Record of What I Saw” (身見錄), Fan Shouyi would write the following passage, detailing the very first day of his arrival in Lisbon, and by extension the European continent:

“We entered the harbour. There were many forts built for defence; all sea traffic has to moor near them and the officials of the garrison have orders to inspect and report whether they are permitted to enter.

After sailing five li (2.5 km) we saw the City walls surrounded by a large river flowing from the interior into the sea, and there were three or four hundred Ocean-going vessels anchored there. That day we disembarked, and went to stay at the Jesuit College. Father Provana looked carefully about him, in his usual attentive way, and showed me around, pointing out the metalwork all in silver.”

This was then followed by a subsequent passage, in which Fan obligatorily gave an account of the Capital of the Portuguese Empire itself, in all its glory and splendour:

“We saw the sights, as magnificent as can be seen anywhere, an exceedingly rich city, lacking nothing one might need.

There are fountains in abundance; the buildings are of three or four storeys, not one, and the palaces of the nobility and the King are extremely beautiful, as are the Catholic churches, the churches dedicated to Mary and the Saints, completely constructed of stone and skillfully erected, with votive statues covered with gold and silver.

There are numerous religious colleges, and the students in each generally number a hundred. The schools are divided into the following classes: four classes for primary school, two for the middle school, and three for the highest. Furthermore there are several charitable institutions with many inmates, and many splendid gardens.”

A map outlining all areas of the world, which were once a part of the mighty Portuguese Empire:

According to Fan Shouyi’s memoirs however, even all this material extravagance – magnificent as it was – was ultimately overshadowed when not three days post, the Chinese Christian was even granted a meeting with the renowned “Sun King of Portugal” (o Rei-Sol Português) himself, João V the Magnanimous, an especially prized memory which he also proudly recounted several years later:

“On the third day the King called us to an audience. His palace is much more beautiful than any I had ever seen before. Outside there is a detachment of guards, and inside a multitude of servants. The King had his three younger brothers with him. He is nearly twenty years old, of an affable and modest demeanour.

Another day we saw the King again and he gave orders to permit us to wander around the palace. We saw the red curtains covering the walls, some of brocade, some embroidered, or painted with designs. In Summer they use porcelain shutters to keep out the light. There are glass windows, embroidered felt cushions, gold encrusted stools and crystal tables dazzling people’s eyes. Inside the palace there is also a church, and the King goes there frequently to worship, as do the high officials, to hear mass.

The next day, the King and Queen went to Church to thank the Lord. Their carriage was so beautifully decorated that it is beyond description. The King’s Court all came to pay their respects to him, and when the King stood up, the officials at the side all bowed to him three times and approaching him kissing his hand and either inquired of his health or retired, and so it went on to the end.”

A portrait of John V the Magnanimous by Italian painter Pompeo Batoni, the presiding monarch of Portugal then with whom Louis Fan had had the fortune of meeting:

Never losing sight of why he was even in Europe in the first place however, Fan most regrettably waved goodbye to his benevolent host, before continuing on with the rest of the Chinese embassy to Rome, where they arrived shortly after taking the route through the Italian city of Genoa, come February, 1709. Much like Lisbon where they had stayed previously, the Eternal City made a good first impression on Fan, who described it as follows:

“We came to the Pope’s Kingdom. His capital is called Rome, and has been a major capital city since ancient times. The circumference of its walls is one hundred li (50 km) and the Pope lives there. The city gates are not closed at night.”

Shortly after their arrival, they were received by Clement XI who then summoned them to St. Peter’s Basilica, in order to discuss the matter of the ongoing socio-political and religious tensions between Rome and Beijing. Whilst conducted with mutual respect on the part of both parties, the meeting between the two sides ultimately ended up achieving little. His Holiness to that extend reaffirmed to Francesco Provana, that the Papal legate whom had reached China in 1707, Cardinal Charles-Louis Tournon, was indeed there in the country with his full blessings.

Tournon’s ultimatum by that logic (prior to the legate’s expulsion to Macao), which had been to command the Jesuit missionaries in particular to proscribe their native converts, from observing traditional Chinese rites on pain of excommunication, was in fact a wholly legitimate one which the Pope himself had ordered that the cardinal convey, to the Kangxi Emperor and his allies.

Aside from this, not much more was accomplished as Clement XI made the case that given his lack of credentials, Provana could not be considered a “legitimate” representative of Chinese interests, despite the fact that Kangxi himself, had given the missionary his blessings, and thus refused to discuss the matter any further with the Jesuit priest. In addition to this, the Holy Father then also moved to prohibit Francesco Provana from returning to China, at least until such times as he was able to send a new Apostolic Legate to the Qing Court.

The failures of the Chinese embassy interestingly enough, were ignored by Fan in his memoirs however, who preferred to focus instead on the more positive aspects of their meeting with the Pope, which included being shown around to the many beautiful buildings which surrounded St. Peter’s Basilica:

Some two days after we arrived we had an audience with the Pope, and had an excellent reception. He permitted us to inspect all the buildings inside and outside the palace, many thousands of them, huge and extravagant, so it is difficult to adequately describe them.

An 18th century impression of the “Piazza del Populo” (The People’s Square) in Rome, by Dutch artist Caspar van Wittel (1718):

Now, despite having the opportunity to return home to Europe (especially in light of the failure of the Qing delegation to Rome), Fan Shouyi instead opted to stay behind in Europe, thus deferring his return journey home. And he did so on the basis of two reasons, the first of which involved a sense of unwavering loyalty to his dear friend of many years, Francesco Provana who of course had been prohibited himself from returning to China, at least for a while more. But in addition to this, Fan had also desired to stay behind in Europe, simply because of what he claimed was a calling to the ascetic life.

Having previously spent 15 years within the charge of the Jesuits, no doubt he was already familar with the Society of Jesus and thus ultimately resorted, to joining the said order. And it was so. Come December 15, 1709 therefore, at the age of 27, a young Fan Shouyi is inducted into the Jesuit novitiate, whereby he then begun to prepare for the long journey ahead with two years of initial study first in Rome. Then from 1712–14, he had the privilege of delving deep into the intricacies of the Latin language, as well as general philosophy at Milan. This was then followed up from 1715–17, with an addition two years of education in Catholic theology, taking place in Turin.

Fan was assisted in his studies to no small degree by Provana however, who perhaps seeking to return the favour, moved to wheresoever his friend was staying, solely so he could be of assistance to him. Provana proved to be quite useful to that extent both as a teacher, who explained difficult abstract concepts to Fan as they arose, as well as a guardian, providing Louis with much needed emotional support whensoever he required it, both of which eventually paid off come 1717, when he completed six years of study, and was now officially a priest of the Society of Jesus.

By this point in time, an Imperial edict direct from the Kangxi Emperor to Clement XI, the “Red Manifesto” had recently made its way to the Rome in the year of 1718, where upon being read by Vatican officials, only confirmed now what the Chinese embassy had known as truth as far back as their arrival in the Far West: that Provana was indeed the Qing Court’s official representative in Europe. The Manifesto also asserted the demands of Beijing, which urged for the missionary’s release, a request eventually accepted by Clement XI himself, who gave Provana permission to return to China after years of de facto imprisonment.

A map of Europe during 18th century, divided into major nations (1715):

But Provana never ultimately makes it back to China however, and instead passes away whilst en route come July 17, 1720, a full four months post his departure from Europe aboard an outbound vessel, the Francisco Xavier which had barely made it passed the Cape of Good Hope, by the time the aging missionary had died. In light of his tragic end, Fan, also on board the returning vessel since May 19, 1720 when it had left Lisbon, assumed official responsibility for the rest of the voyage, and oversaw what was left of the original Chinese embassy on their long journey home. It was whilst they were en route to Qing shores, that he would also write his memoir, recounting all events hitherto.

Here within his memoir, “A Record of What I Saw” (previously cited), he introduces himself to his audience, summarizing approximately 12 years worth of drama, using merely but a single paragraph:

“My family name is Fan, my personal name Shouyi, and I was born in Pingyang, to the West of Long Mountain, and brought up to revere the true Lord and serve him constantly. If I remember rightly it was the end of Winter, 1707, when the eminent Western scholar Provana was ordered on an Embassy to the West with me as his companion. We travelled across mountains and rivers, through Cities and regions, and moreover experienced difficulties and dangers from wind and wave, greater by far than I can enumerate. And how could one who has merely heard about it, but not seen it, understand?”

Upon returning to Macao, Fan was immediately plagued by customs officials, who meticulously interviewed him having previously known, that he had taken over from Francesco Provana, who was the original leader of the Chinese embassy to Europe. What else could Fan say, but the truth after all? He himself may not have been the one that the Emperor entrusted with such a crucial task (in fact, it was a miracle that he was even there at all period), but desperate circumstances called for him to takeover, this was the case he made to border patrol, who listened patiently to his side of the story.

Thus it was then that they officially recorded Fan as having, “been in the service of Provana from his youth and so accompanied him in 1707.” A follow up interview however was conducted whilst in Guangzhou, which forced Fan to reveal more to the civil authorities about his travels in Europe, to which he mentioned how the Pope had actually burst into tears upon their insistence, that his Papal Legate, Cardinal Tournon had mistreated the Jesuits whilst in China, thus prompting the Emperor to subsequently exile the Papal embassy, purportedly said:

When did I ever bid Tournon to go to China and say such things and do such deeds?

A 1734 map of China based on the research and contribution of the Jesuits during the early 18th century:

Eventually, the officials saw no reason to delay Fan Shouyi on his travels any longer, and thus allowed the Chinese Jesuit to return to the land of his ancestors, after an entire decade away from it. This was thus monumental as such, since he was one of the precious few, who managed to both visit Europe and return to the Far East alive, to tell the tale. This only made him stand out amongst his predecessors all the more than.

Proceeding to heard northwards post his arrival in Macao, Louis Fan finally reaches the Qing Court in Beijing, on October 11, 1720. Regrettably, we do not have any instances of a written account covering what occurred next, but we assumed that Kangxi was happy to see at least one of the members of the original four, alive and sound. As reward for his faithfulness to the service of the Imperial Court, Fan Shouyi was retained as interpreter, thus moving up in the world, where he then played an arguably pivotal role in the ultimate fate of the Catholic Church in China, by the time the next Apostolic Legate inevitably came around, which was headed by one Carlo Ambrogio Mezzabarba.

Mezzabarba arrived in China in December 1720, where he stayed until March the following year. Bearing bad news for China and for its Catholics, he communicated the final commands of Clement XI on the matter of the Chinese Rites Controversy, this time not in the form of a decree, but of an authoritative Papal bull by the title of “Ex Ila Die”, which had been proclaimed as far back as March 19, 1715, but was only now being conveyed to the Qing Court. And within the contents of the Papal bull, were the following commands to the Catholic faithful of China:

I. The West calls Deus [God] the creator of Heaven, Earth, and everything in the universe. Since the word Deus does not sound right in the Chinese language, the Westerners in China and Chinese converts to Catholicism have used the term “Heavenly Lord” (Tianzhu) for many years. From now on such terms as “Heaven” [Tian] and “Shangdi” should not be used: Deus should be addressed as the Lord of Heaven, Earth, and everything in the universe. The tablet that bears the Chinese words “Reverence for Heaven” should not be allowed to hang inside a Catholic church and should be immediately taken down if already there.

II. The spring and autumn worship of Confucius, together with the worship of ancestors, is not allowed among Catholic converts. It is not allowed even though the converts appear in the ritual as bystanders, because to be a bystander in this ritual is as pagan as to participate in it actively.

III. Chinese officials and successful candidates in the metropolitan, provincial, or prefectural examinations, if they have been converted to Roman Catholicism, are not allowed to worship in Confucian temples on the first and fifteenth days of each month. The same prohibition is applicable to all the Chinese Catholics who, as officials, have recently arrived at their posts or who, as students, have recently passed the metropolitan, provincial, or prefectural examinations.

IV. No Chinese Catholics are allowed to worship ancestors in their familial temples.

V. Whether at home, in the cemetery, or during the time of a funeral, a Chinese Catholic is not allowed to perform the ritual of ancestor worship. He is not allowed to do so even if he is in company with non-Christians. Such a ritual is heathen in nature regardless of the circumstances.

Despite the above decisions, I have made it clear that other Chinese customs and traditions that can in no way be interpreted as heathen in nature should be allowed to continue among Chinese converts. The way the Chinese manage their households or govern their country should by no means be interfered with. As to exactly what customs should or should not be allowed to continue, the papal legate in China will make the necessary decisions.

In the absence of the papal legate, the responsibility of making such decisions should rest with the head of the China mission and the Bishop of China. In short, customs and traditions that are not contradictory to Roman Catholicism will be allowed, while those that are clearly contradictory to it will not be tolerated under any circumstances.”

-The Condemnation of Sino-Confucian Rites by Clement IX, “Ex illa die” (1715)

A European interpretation of the great Kangxi Emperor discussing Astronomy with his Jesuit advisers:

This was in turn responded to by Louis Fan, who angrily remarked that, “…the Pope cannot even order the English or the Dutch, and yet pretends to give orders in China.

In this way, the Kangxi Emperor was thus introduced to the reality of Papal power or rather the lack thereof: one of non-existence. If therefore – as Kangxi’s logic went – Rome was not as powerful as I had previously thought, that what is to stop me from sending unto them, the full might of the Chinese Empire?

The answer was of course nothing, and so by 1721 the avoidable, quickly became the unavoidable when spurred on by Ex ila die, the Empire of the Great Qing courtesy of the resolve of the Chinese sovereign, in response to what he believed was the unchecked arrogance of the Church, delivered his equivalent of a Papal bull, the “Decree of Kangxi” (1721), which ultimately acted to seal the fate of Catholicism and by extension Christianity in China, for the next 120 years post:

“Reading this proclamation, I have concluded that the Westerners are petty indeed. It is impossible to reason with them because they do not understand larger issues as we understand them in China. There is not a single Westerner versed in Chinese works, and their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous.

To judge from this proclamation, their religion is no different from other small, bigoted sects of Buddhism or Taoism. I have never seen a document which contains so much nonsense. From now on, Westerners should not be allowed to preach in China, to avoid further trouble.”

-“The Decree of Kangxi”, the Kangxi Emperor of Great Qing (1721)

And so in this way, the failure of the Chinese embassy to Europe was made wholly complete at long last, when in light of the promulgation of the Emperor’s decree, the vast majority of Catholic (as well as Russion Orthodox) missionaries operating in China, were expelled on pain of death – never again to return (or so they thought).

Conclusion (and TL;DR)

Whilst the five Chinese visitors to China were all accomplished in their own way, still, each had visited the European continent for a different reason, each had conducted their travels much unlike the other, and each was met with varying success.

We have Rabban Bar Sauma for instance, a Turkic monk who had travelled to Europe in the name of the Ilkhanate, with the intention to seek allies for the Mongol Empire, so they could finally be rid of their hated Mamluk enemies. This ended up being a failure, forcing Bar Sauma thus to return empty handed.

Then there was Andrew Zheng who we know little of, other than that he accompanied his more renowned compatriot, the Polish Jesuit Michal Boym, whose travels took them all the way direct to Rome, similar to Bar Sauma before, seeking military assistance, but this time with more emphasis on an intervention rather than an equal, mutual effort as the Chinese side was severely weaker than the European potential allies, from whom they were seeking help. Zheng and Boym whilst more successful than Sauma before, were eventually betrayed by the Portuguese who had promised military intervention, thus making their mission in vain.

Michael Shen who arose 20 years post, was by far the most successful visitor to Europe yet, having successfully made contact with the monarchs of France and England, Louis XIV and James II respectively, and on both occasions impresses both to such a degree, that he was able to receive official Court gifts from both the House of Bourbon and Stuart alike, in addition to enjoying other luxuries which were worthy only of a hero’s welcome.

In addition to all aforementioned, was yet another, Arcadio Huang who most famously contributed much to French understanding of Chinese civilization, having met with the Baron of Montesquieu himself, and going so far as to even possibly serve as the inspiration behind one of his better known texts, the Persian Letters. Made an official of the Bourbon Court, Huang was also the first recorded Chinese national, to wed a European, whose life we have the likes of many details on courtesy of a diary that he had kept.

And last but not least, was Louis Fan who arrived in Europe at a time when tensions between the Chinese Empire and Catholic Church had reached its peak, resulting in a “civil war” which tore the Catholics who operated in China into two. Fan was arguably the most successful out of the five travellers to Europe, as he not only made it back alive for one, but was also fortunate enough to make history also as Chinese civilization’s first ever visitor to the Americas. It was all this as such, that helped him to distinguish himself aside from his predecessors.

When analyzing the life and times of our five heroes, a few trends are apparent. Political missions for one always ended in failure, with the European polities of the respective times most unwilling to assist. Another trend, was that most of these men died before they ever made it home, Fan was the only sure exception that we have to that extent, Zheng on the other hand, we do not have enough information to conclude his fate.

In addition to this, it is perhaps also notable but not a surprise, that all our visitors were also Christians. A religion which urged its followers to literally “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” well who could ever be surprised that it was they and not even China’s diplomats, which defied the norms of the time, and travelled abroad, especially since four of the five had been aided in their journeys, by the Western powers.

The only one who stood out to that extent was Rabban Bar Sauma, who was aided by the fact that there had literally been an empire which expanded all the way from one end of Eurasia, to the other, thus providing him with not only safe passage for the majority of his trip, but an incentive to travel in the first place too.

Regardless, it is the author’s sincerest hopes, that you, the reader has benefited most from the promulgation of this answer, which was intended to shed light on a topic that very few are acquainted with – a trend that he hopes to change, and quickly so at that.


Originally posted on April 19th, 2019 linked down below as follows: Matthew Nghiem’s answer to European travelers into China and the Far East like Marco Polo are well-documented. Were there ever Chinese explorers that traveled as far as Europe?