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Jesuit Priests: The Ambassadors Between King Louis XIV and the Qing Emperor Kangxi

"If you’ve been waiting for an invitation, this calligraphy is it. Commissioned by Facebook, this is a hand-lettered design for a poster. Quote is Facebook mine "

- Massimo Vignelli

Dignitaries from kingdoms around the world, from India, Vietnam, to Tunisia paid their respects to the Sun King, King Louis XIV of France, the principal Monarch in Europe during the 1600s. His supreme rule, his dutiful focus on all aspects of French society propelled the Baroque era and its arts to its heights and gave him an omnipresence on the world stage. In a land far beyond, as Laura Hostetler described in her essay A Mirror for the Monarch: A Literary Portrait of China in Eighteenth-Century France, “Louis XIV may have been the Sun King in his own court, but other constellations existed.” A man endowed with a similar aura, paralleled in kingdom, reigned far away in China, he was Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty. The two rulers,

Dignitaries from kingdoms around the world, from India, Vietnam, to Tunisia paid their respects to the Sun King, King Louis XIV of France, the principal Monarch in Europe during the 1600s. His supreme rule, his dutiful focus on all aspects of French society propelled the Baroque era and its arts to its heights and gave him an omnipresence on the world stage.

In a land far beyond, as Laura Hostetler described in her essay A Mirror for the Monarch: A Literary Portrait of China in Eighteenth-Century France, “Louis XIV may have been the Sun King in his own court, but other constellations existed.” A man endowed with a similar aura, paralleled in kingdom, reigned far away in China, he was Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty.

The Palace of Versailles circa 1668, as painted by Pierre Patel (Versailles Museum). King Louis XIV’s palace, the crown jewel of Baroque architecture spared no expense. The palace had been constructed to consolidate power to himself and end the disputes between the French nobles. Commoners were welcome within its walls to present their issues before the court.

The two rulers, though a world apart, took interest in each other. The communication, inquiringness, and admiration the Monarchs offered each other crossed over 5,000 miles to grace the other. The main mode of connection between the two were Jesuit missionaries. They doubled as educators and tutors in the early universities in Western Europe and were well versed in many languages and areas of study. The Jesuit priests were often given a seat nearer the rulers that most others could only dream of at the time.

Jesuit Missionaries described many wonders and customs within China. They wrote about Chinese fishermen training cormorants to fish for them. Many of these observances were thought of as tall-tales concocted by the authors to help sell their books on China. “Imagining China: the View from Europe,” 1500–1700

The Jesuits brought back and forth between the two kingdoms fanciful illustrations, books, knowledge, beliefs, lavish decorations, medicines, silk, spices, tea, and maps that offered glimpses into a very different and exotic world that set the imagination a-flight.

A healthy competition and affection between the rulers developed through their exchanges. The Jesuit missionaries shared flowery comparisons between the two. Laura Hostetler quoted from Bouvet’s Histoire de l’Empereur de la Chine, 1699 “The Jesuits whom your Majesty sent to him several years ago were astonished to find at the ends of the earth, that which had not been seen up to this time outside of France, that is to say a prince, like you Sir, in which is joined to a mind as sublime as it is solid, a heart that is even more worthy of empire; who is master of himself as of his subjects, equally adored by his peoples and respected by his neighbors; who, glorious as he is in his great enterprises, has even more valor and drive than good fortune: a prince in one word who unites in his person the majority of those qualities which make heros, and would be the most accomplished monarch to reign on this earth in a long time were it not that his reign coincided with that of Your Majesty.”

The Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722), the 4th Emperor of the Qing Dynasty,at the age of 45, painted in 1699

Emperor Kangxi, having dutifully memorized the Confucian classics and hundreds of other works on moral etiquette and humility from Chinese literature, won the hearts of the Jesuit priests with his caring affection for his own citizens. In 1670, Kangxi issued the Sacred Edict for his citizens to follow. It consisted of sixteen maxims that instructed the average citizen in the basic principles of Confucianism:

  1. Highly esteem filial piety and brotherly submission to give due weight to social relations (敦孝弟以重人倫);
  2. Behave generously toward your family to promote harmony and peace (篤宗族以昭雍睦);
  3. Cultivate peace within the neighborhood to prevent quarrels and lawsuits (和鄉黨以息爭訟);
  4. Respect farming and the cultivation of mulberry trees to ensure sufficient clothing and food (重農桑以足衣食);
  5. Be moderate and economical in order to avoid wasting away your livelihood (尚節儉以惜財用);
  6. Give weight to schools and academies in order to honor the scholar (隆學校以端士習);
  7. Wipe out strange beliefs to elevate the correct doctrine (黜異端以崇正學);
  8. Elucidate the laws in order to warn the ignorant and obstinate (講法律以儆愚頑);
  9. Show propriety and tactful courtesy to elevate customs and manners (明禮讓以厚民俗);
  10. Work diligently in your chosen callings to quiet your ambitions (務本業以定民志);
  11. Instruct sons and younger brothers to keep them from doing wrong (訓子弟以禁非為);
  12. Hold back false accusations to safeguard the good and honest (息誣告以全善良);
  13. Warn against sheltering deserters lest you share their punishment (誡匿逃以免株連);
  14. Promptly and fully pay your taxes lest you need be pressed to pay them (完錢糧以省催科);
  15. Join together in hundreds and tithings to end theft and robbery (聯保甲以弭盜賊);
  16. Free yourself from enmity and anger to show respect for your body and life (解仇忿以重身命).
Three Jesuit scientists at work in China. Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, Ausführliche Beschreibung des Chinesischen Reichs und der grossen Tartarey (Rostock, 1747-1749). By courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A Portuguese Jesuit priest, Alavaro Semedo, praised Chinese society in his book, History of That Great and Renowned Monarchy of China, he states “We have seen that the allure of the Chinese derives from their difference. This difference does not make them inferior. On the contrary, the readership “of whatsoever profession” can learn much and profit by reading about their “Politicks, Oeconomicks, Sciences, Mechanicks, Riches, Merchandise, &c.” thereby “reap[ing] no small benefit.” In moral virtue too, we are told, the Chinese are to be admired: “though wilt find them so far to transcend us therein, that they may be proposed as an excellent patterne, (as also they are a shame) to Christian States.” The logic here parallels that of Confucius whose Analects state “Even when walking in a party of no more than three I can always be certain of learning from those I am with. There will be good qualities that I can select for imitation and bad ones that will teach me what requires correction in myself.”

Jesuit astronomers of the Jesuit China missions, with the Kangxi Emperor (Beauvais, 1690–1705). In the early hours of the morning, Emperor Kangxi would meet his missionary tutors to learn about a range of Western fields of study.

The Jesuit missionaries were often accomplished linguists, astronomers, cartographers, artists, or mathematicians. Emperor Kangxi employed the missionaries as tutors or sought literature from them. First and foremost, on the minds of the Jesuits however, was to spread Christianity in China. The Jesuit missionaries were openly welcomed to preach. Kangxi’s tolerance of Christianity was one of the main factors that helped open China to Western ideas, achievements, and trade. Emperor Kangxi gave his approval and blessings to a church founded in Beijing, writing a poem to commemorate its opening:

Emperor Kangxi’s (China’s Qing dynasty) Poem:

When the work of the cross is done, blood flowed like a river,
Grace from the west flowed a thousand yards deep,
On the midnight road he was subjected to four trials,
Before the rooster crowed twice,
three times betrayed by a disciple.
Five hundred lashes tore every inch of skin,
Two thieves hung on either side, six feet high,
Sadness greater than any had ever known,
Seven words, one completed task,
ten thousand spirits weep.

16th century Jesuit Map of China
16th century Jesuit Map of China. During the Baroque era in France, people were fascinated by mystery as much as by the empirical world. Jesuit priests exchanged maps with the Chinese. The Jesuit priests sometimes left areas of the maps in their reproductions blank or inaccurate on purpose with fanciful illustrations of dragons and mythical creatures to enhance the “mystery” and spurn the imagination to wonder, or to sell their updated and more complete version of a map again a few years later…

Western and Eastern medicine, along with remedies, herbs, and other cures were exchanged. Timothy Billings, in Imagining China: the View from Europe, said that “Chinese medical practices such as acupuncture, acupressure, and moxibustion from alternative and homeopathic remedies [are] still practiced today, and these were introduced to Europeans in the sixteenth century.” Billings noted that many plants common in the West came from China thanks to the Jesuit missionaries. Rhubarb, now a popular vegetable used in desserts, was once brought to the West from China as a potent medicine to treat cancer, and was excellent in expelling toxins from the body.

These exchanges of knowledge helped the two civilizations flourish. King Louis XIV and Emperor Kangxi both invested heavily in their relationships with one another which allowed them to become centers of trade and cultural advancement in their own spheres. The rulers became two of the most renowned, longest reigning Monarchs in history thanks in part to the Jesuit priests and their invaluable services.

 “If a man takes no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand.” ~ Confucius




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