The Jesuits between East and West, between China and Europe
For centuries, Europeans have been inclined to project particular fears and phantasies onto China. The fairly recent, quite spectacular development of China into an economic superpower goes hand in hand with the awareness that the West is not automatically the dominant power on the global stage any longer. The rapid rise of China has been rekindling fears in Europe of the ‘yellow peril’, a notion which first emerged in the late nineteenth century. Cultural anxieties and suspicions are likely to prevent the development of more realistic images of each other. In this context, it is instructive to look more closely at a relevant episode from the past: the adventures of the Jesuits, who in the late sixteenth century began to travel to China to spread Christianity. To some extent these missionaries managed to establish a dialogue on religion, philosophy and science with the oft well-educated upper echelons of Chinese society. If this dialogue did not always lead to mutual agreement on issues, it did help to promote more mutual understanding and less distrust. As the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) wrote commonsensically about the Chinese in the early seventeenth century: ‘They are human beings, just like we are.’
Maastricht University has a quite specific relationship with the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. In 1575, this Catholic religious order selected Maastricht to establish its first Jesuit college in the Netherlands. In 1976, after the departure of the Jesuits from Maastricht, the new university located its medical faculty on the premises of the city’s former Jesuit college. The university also acquired a wonderful library from the Jesuits, known as the Jesuit Collection, which holds thousands of valuable books of travel and other precious works.
The availability of these travel books serves as an endless source of inspiration for the international student population of Maastricht University. For instance, students from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences who enrol in the ‘On Expedition’ course have explored many fascinating stories about ‘other’ cultures – stories which in fact reveal a lot about their author’s perspective and cultural background as well.
The new exhibition is devoted to the role of the Jesuits as mediators between East and West, a theme which fits well with Maastricht University’s interdisciplinary Global Studies programme, which includes a focus on Tolerance & Beliefs. From the start, the Jesuits were known for the importance they attached not only to spirituality, but also to education. Many of them were – and are – themselves critical intellectuals with a scholarly mindset, an open attitude towards cultural contact and a global, international outlook.
This exhibition centres on the often lavishly illustrated books about China from Maastricht University’s Jesuit Collection. Driven by missionary zeal, many Jesuits embarked on a risky journey to the East – and quite a few of them did not survive the hazardous ocean journey. Those who did make it to China, arriving there as of 1582, encountered a highly developed culture. Much to their surprise, they saw that the Chinese knew book printing already, while there was also an extensive network of schools in China. Around 1600, over 150 million people were living in China, while Europe had a population of some 75 million. At the time, the Chinese empire was led by the Ming dynasty, which relied on a bureaucracy of officials well versed in the Confucianist classics. The empire had a fairly stable autocratic regime. The Jesuits were dependent on Chinese bureaucracy to enter the country and they could not simply leave again. This implied that they had to adapt to all sorts of local circumstances. Between 1582 and 1773, when the pope would formally abolish the Jesuit order, some 400 foreign Jesuits arrived in China. One of them came from Maastricht: François de Rougemont (1624-1676), who later on would actually contribute to spreading the views of Confucius in Europe. Usually there were not more than 40 Jesuits active in China at one time, even though at one point there were as many as 80 Jesuits. By 1700 they had managed to convert some 200,000 Chinese.
The Jesuits realized quite well that they were in a position of dependency. To stimulate cultural exchanges, they studied Chinese – the common language, after all – and they tried to look at things from the vantagepoint of the Chinese and their mindset. If the Jesuits were to succeed in spreading Christianity, they also needed to conform in part to Chinese rules. They were deeply impressed by ancient Chinese civilization, with a history dating back even further than the Deluge. By being sensitive to all this history, the Jesuits managed to open up a dialogue, resulting in exchanges in such fields as science, technology, music, art and religion. In spreading Christianity, they consistently tried to find common ground with Confucianist teachings and rituals, in interaction with the Chinese. Confucianism served as a base not only for the moral and ritual conduct of Chinese families, but also for society as a whole. The so-called policy of accommodation by the Jesuits was not so much a deliberate strategy, but the outcome of careful attempts at interaction, whereby all the time the Chinese were in a position of power of course.
After the Manchu people conquered China in the middle of the seventeenth century and established the Qing dynasty, the Jesuits managed to gain access to the Chinese court. That the Jesuits were well-versed in science, especially mathematics and astronomy, and also had various technological skills at their disposal played an important role. Notably emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) thought well of the Jesuits. At the same time, however, they faced more and more pressure from other corners. The Franciscans and the Dominicans complained to the pope that the Jesuits went too far in their accommodation of China. There was increasing criticism of the use of specific Chinese rites involving the translation of ‘God’, while concern was raised about the liturgy’s adaptation to Chinese rites. Pope Clement XI decided to interfere and prohibited Chinese converts to join Confucianist rituals – much to the dismay of the emperor of course. The Jesuits got crushed, as it were, between East and West. As of 1725, Chinese leaders grew less enthusiastic about Christian activities in their country.
For a long time, the Jesuits were seen as authorities who determined the image of China in Europe. Increasingly, however, traders began to be influential as well, and their primary aim was to set up trade relations with China. They were less inclined to accommodate the Chinese. As a result, concerns tied to cultural exchange receded to the background, even though all sorts of ‘chinoiserie’ became fashionable, as also revealed by several (travel) books on China featured in this exhibition. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Chinese-European relations grew increasingly antagonistic.
Arts and Heritage Committee Maastricht University
University Library Maastricht
Composition and texts
Annemieke Klijn, curator Arts and Heritage Committee and professor Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Odin Essers, curator Special Collections Maastricht University
With the cooperation of
Ton Brouwers, Rob Collaris, Percy Flint, Souhaïlla Koudan, Ivo Kruchten, Ilona Steege en Lies Wesseling
Any questions? Please contact