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How Catholic Missionaries Brought Science to China

Jesuit China

In late December 1668, in a contest held at the Chinese Bureau of Astronomy, the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) correctly predicted the length of a shadow cast by a vertical rod. The Kangxi Emperor was impressed. But he challenged Verbiest to two additional tests: the prediction of the exact position of the sun and planets on a given day and the timing of an approaching lunar eclipse. Verbiest successfully completed the final two tests, and, in the process, showed that the Chinese had much to learn from their Jesuit visitors.

With his scientific prowess firmly established, Verbiest became close with the Emperor, often accompanying him on excursions throughout the empire. Verbiest would make the most of this opportunity. Before he had passed on from this life, he had designed a self-propelled vehicle, cast cannons for the imperial army, written a 32-volume handbook on astronomy, composed a 2000-year table of future eclipses, and rebuilt the imperial observatory, enriching it with several bronze astronomical instruments. His funeral serves as an indication of his achievements: it featured musicians, standard bearers, and fifty horsemen.1

Verbiest is one of many illustrious Jesuits to make valuable contributions to Chinese science. By 1800, more than 900 Jesuit missionaries had reached China.2 It was science that served their primary purpose of sharing the Catholic faith and allowed the Jesuits to wield significant influence in China. Verbiest clearly understood the importance of science to evangelization efforts: “As a star of old brought the magi to the adoration of the true God, so the princes of the Far East through knowledge of the stars would be brought to recognize and adore the Lord of the stars.”3

The Jesuit Chinese missions represent one of the great untold stories of modern history. Jesuit missionaries would introduce the telescope and the discoveries of Galileo, determine the Russo-Chinese border,4 discover a land route between India and China,5 introduce European astronomy and mathematics, revise the Chinese calendar, map out the empire using modern methods, introduce stereographic projection of maps, participate in the division of China into time zones, and discover that Korea was a peninsula rather than an island.

Besides Verbiest, several other missionaries stand out for their valuable contributions. Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), a student of Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christopher Clavius, inaugurated the Jesuit missions in China when he reached Macau in 1582. Eventually adopting the dress of Chinese scholars and acting as an adviser to the Imperial court, Ricci introduced Christianity and recent European scientific discoveries to his Chinese hosts. In mathematics, he was the first to introduce trigonometry6 and the works of Euclid7 to China.

Ricci’s most important scientific contribution, however, was his Impossible Black Tulip map, a cartographical wonder that greatly expanded Chinese geographical knowledge and was considered more accurate than contemporary maps of Europe.8 While previous Chinese world maps showed only the fifteen provinces of China surrounded by water and a few islands,9 the Impossible Black Tulip is the oldest surviving Chinese map to show the Americas. A 1602 edition of the map recently sold for $1 million and was displayed at the Library of Congress.

Ricci not only introduced European science to China, he was the first to provide Europe with an account of Chinese geography, culture, and literature. Ricci was more than a herald of scientific discoveries: he may one day be a saint. The Church has named Ricci a Servant of God, which denotes that his cause for beatification and canonization has been set in motion.

Another important Jesuit missionary is Adam Schall von Bell (1592-1666), an accomplished astronomer who entered Macau in 1619. By the time Schall von Bell reached China, the Chinese calendar, which had been used for 40 centuries, was in desperate need of revision. After arriving in Beijing in 1630, Schall von Bell began working tirelessly on calendar reform. Indeed, during his life, he would write no less than 150 treatises on this subject.10 In 1644, Schall von Bell was able to earn the respect of the Chinese government by correctly predicting an eclipse (The Chinese astronomers had erred by an hour in their prediction). After Schall von Bell’s astronomical feat, he was appointed director of the Board of Astronomy, the first Jesuit to fill this post.11

With his newly earned position of authority, he reduced the number of Chinese calendars from five to two. Because of his astronomical and calendrical work, Schall von Bell was given the title Mandarin of the First Class, an honor normally reserved for Chinese dignitaries, and a sign of Schall von Bell’s influence. “It can be said,” writes a Jesuit historian, “that no westerner in the whole history of China ever enjoyed as much influence as Schall did.”12

Remarkable Jesuit contributions were not confined to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Several Jesuits connected with the Zikawei Observatory would make important contributions into the twentieth century. Marc Dechevrens (1845-1923) became director of Zikawei in 1876. With fellow Jesuits Francisco Faura and Jose Maria Algue, Dechevrens was one of “the first to study the nature and characteristics of typhoons.”13 An instrument he designed to measure wind velocity was installed on the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 World’s Fair.

In 1888, Stanislas Chevalier (1852-1930) succeeded Dechevrens as director of the observatory, continuing his predecessor’s work with typhoons. Chevalier also carried out a cartographic study of the Yangtze, made no less than 1200 astronomical observations, and determined the geographical coordinates of 50 Chinese towns. His research eventually led to the creation of 64 maps, earning him a medal from the Geographical Society of Paris.14 Finally, in 1920, Ernesto Gherzi (1886-1976) was appointed to Zikawei, where he studied typhoons and Chinese climatology. Gherzi was “one of the first to investigate the relationship between microseismic noise and oscillations in the atmospheric pressure.”15 He later became a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Taken collectively, the Jesuit Chinese missions form an important chapter in the long and often complex relationship between religion and science. Joseph Needham, in his important multi-volume Science and Civilisation in China, highlights the significance of the Jesuit Chinese missions: “In the history of intercourse between civilisations there seems no parallel to the arrival in China in the 17th century of a group of Europeans so inspired by religious fervour as were the Jesuits, and, at the same time, so expert in most of those sciences which had developed with the Renaissance and the rise of capitalism.”16 When history offers us ‘no parallel,’ we should take notice.
(Image credit: Wikimedia)


  1. MacDonnell, Joseph. Jesuit Geometers. St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1989. 66.
  2. Mungello, D.E. The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009. 37.
  3. Brucker, Joseph. “Ferdinand Verbiest.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912.
  4. MacDonnell, 64.
  5. Wright, Jonathan. God’s Soldiers: Adventure, Politics, Intrigue and Power: A History of the Jesuits. New York: Doubleday, 2004.74.
  6. MacDonnell, 30.
  7. MacDonnell, 25.
  8. MacDonnell, 26.
  9. Brucker, Joseph. “Matteo Ricci.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company,1912.
  10. MacDonnell, 30.
  11. Udias, Agustin. Searching the Heavens and the Earth: The History of Jesuit Observatories. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003. 43-44.
  12. Udias, 44.
  13. Udias, 161-162.
  14. Udias, 162.
  15. Udias, 167
  16. Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China: Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959. 437.
Andrew Kassebaum

Written by

Andrew Kassebaum is the Evangelization Coordinator for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Before stepping into this role, Andrew earned a Master's degree in theology from Ave Maria University. After years of skepticism and reductionism, Andrew's life changed forever upon reading Pope Saint John Paul II's writings on the human person. Andrew is fascinated by the question of why science developed in Western Europe at a unique time in history.

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  • How tragic that they attempted to use science to promote superstition. :(

  • This is an interesting article. It illustrates that the relationship between the Catholic Church and science is far more nuanced than is often suggested.

    • I agree. Which is why simplistic accounts from either side, Catholic or atheist, fail to paint the whole picture in all of its complex and interesting color.

    • I love his last line.

    • Andrew Kassebaum

      Yes, the historical relationship between the Catholic Church and science is incredibly rich and complex. Best of luck in your studies, Paul.

      • Thanks, and to you as well. I hope we can see more of your writing here in the future.

  • Fiona LeMaster

    The heading should say "European Science", not "Science". It wrongly makes people believe on starting the article that the Chinese had no history of science, when in fact they were in front of the Europeans and had been for aeons.

    • Andrew Kassebaum

      The history of China offers us a long history of discovery and insight. Some of these achievements greatly influenced the West. But sustained, collaborative investigation of the natural world, what we call the scientific enterprise, arose only once: in Western Europe. When the Jesuits reached China, they found science at a low level, as my article shows (at least in a limited way).

    • Darren

      Ah, yes, European Exceptionalism, that stalwart justifier or Colonialism, Sexism, and Racism, retreaded as Christian Exceptionalism.

      Ecclesiastes got that right, at least; nothing new under the sun.

  • workforlivn
    • Andrew Kassebaum

      This book is ahistorical.

  • teo

    This history brings back to me my youth. When I would crack open a science book and I could feel my heart racing with excitement of what I would learn. Now as an old man this old heart of mine will take off when I see the priest elevate the host at holy mass. I can begin to understand the reasons why these Jesuits sacrificed so much for their vocation to mankind.

  • While I think religion poisons everything, I do no think everything it does is poison.

    I have many disagreements with Catholicism, but its general position on science is not one of them.

    • I think it might be fun to write an imagined alternate history, where Western Europe still develops the scientific method, but Europe has no religion. Jesus was a great philosopher and advocate of skepticism and inquiry, and preached against superstition and against any sort of faith or moral dogmatism. He was put to death, but his movement caught on and transformed Europe. How would Europe have looked different in AD 500? AD 1000? AD 1500? How would the world look different today?

      • ColdStanding

        No need to tart it up. Just call it fiction.

        • Of course. Fiction it would be. But it would be a very different story written by Brian than it would written by Brandon, I'd imagine.

          • The trouble is it would not flow.

            "Jesus was a great philosopher and advocate of skepticism and inquiry, and preached against superstition and against any sort of faith or moral dogmatism"

            Such a Jesus would be completely unimpressive. So unimpressive I doubt anyone would bother to kill him. If they did nobody would care.

            Really you can put forward a communist Jesus or a Muslim Jesus or anything else. Just pretend your philosophy has the power to create a wonderful society. At the same time use the name of Jesus because His philosophy is the only one that did.

          • Randy, your response is the perfect example of why writing such a fiction would be so fun. There would be several ways to write it. For starters, I think the secular Jesus would definitely be put to death, if for nothing else than his political views. The Jews would see him as a corrupter of their youth, and the Romans as a zealot. Would his beliefs have much influence on the world? Who knows? Socrates changed the world, and he wasn't preaching religion.

            I don't think our society was made much better or worse by the Jesus we ended up with. Things would have looked very different if he never existed, but I don't think we would be at all worse off. Art and music would be just as beautiful. It's just that the art and music would have a very different subject matter and a somewhat different style. I suspect that science would be in about the same place with or without the existence of Jesus.

            If somehow our Jesus could have been replaced by the secular Jesus, and if his philosophy would somehow have caught on and spread throughout the world, I think the world would be better in some ways. I think science would be far more advanced, for one thing.

            But what do you think? Without dodging the scenario. Imagine, however unlikely or dissonant you may find it, that Jesus was replaced by someone with Carl Sagan's philosophy, that he was put to death, and that his philosophy caught on and spread through the world. How would our world look different? Do you think it would look better or worse?

          • Carl Sagan? It would look exceedingly worse. I don't think secularism is much of a philosophy. Most of what is good about it was rooted in Christianity. Those parts are likely to diminish and it is likely to reduce to nihilism. I don't think nihilism is a livable philosophy. So where does it go? Something will come and fill the void. Some will turn to Catholicism. Islam might do very well because it offers strength or it might decline as the history of Islam and the Koran are scrutinized. Not sure. I just think secularism has no chance because it offers nothing of its own. No meaning to life, no hope in death, no moral goodness to strive for, man just needs those things.

          • Looking at the life stories of the Buddha, Epicurus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, I suspect that a deep and abiding peace can be found in the naturalistic philosophies. I found very little peace in the Catholic Church during the darker moments of my life.

    • teo

      Would the Pieta or the David be poisoned marble?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      You think religion poisons everything? Of course religion is too broad a term. Did Catholicism poison architecture, higher education, art, music, medicine, vernacular literature, empirical science?

      • Yes.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          If you are serious, your yes is absurd.

          • David Nickol

            If you are serious, your yes is absurd.

            It makes about as much sense to me to make generalizations about religion as it does about weather. Is weather a good thing or a bad thing? Is most weather good? Is most weather bad? For all practical purposes, in the West, the same goes for Christianity (and, broadly speaking, Catholicism).

            Still, according to Catholicism, most religions are at best incomplete and at worst false. And even if we accept Catholicism as the "one true" religion, it must be admitted that a Church run by human beings, even with the alleged guidance of the holy spirit, has been far from a faultless organization.

            It seems to me that if one believes in "the Fall" (as I do not), religion is a result of Original Sin. Religion is the means by which fallen human beings, cut off from God, nevertheless try to remain in touch with him. It is difficult to imagine something called "religion" would have been needed in Eden, and equally difficult to imagine "religion" in heaven or after the resurrection of the dead.

          • ColdStanding

            Religion is what we, as creatures, are called to do by our creator, namely render to Him His just due. God gave to Adam things to do. So, right from the beginning man has been under obligation to God; had expectations placed upon him. Indeed, Adam was tossed from the Garden for failing in his obligation to God.

            Heaven is the fulfillment of the obligations the created has to the creator leading to total union where the creature shares in the life of the creator and is therefore without want, by which I mean the created can no longer be considered as having an obligation. However, as in the Apocalypse and Isaiah, the liturgical life lived by Christians (with caveats) is an anticipation of the eternal life of the holy in heaven.

            Therefore, I believe you err in your analysis. I have, with ease I might add, presented an account by which the essential parts of religion have always been and will always be central to man's relationship with his creator.

          • David Nickol

            Religion is what we, as creatures, are called to do by our creator . . .

            So Moloch worship was not a religion?

            I have, with ease I might add, presented an account . . . .

            Yes, after one has been typing for a while, it's practically effortless.

          • ColdStanding

            It is the same family of disorder, if not the same species, as what you do in your post. One might make the case that you have, putatively, exercised your reason, but you falsify your principles because you deny the end towards which your reason is directed.

            So it goes the false action of the religious impulse when focused upon the idol named Moloch.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Since etymologically religion means to bind, Adam and Eve in the Garden had religion because they were bound to God. The people in heaven also have religion because they are bound to God forever in friendship. The people in hell also have religion since they are bound to that condition.

            But I agree with you that Catholicism is full of faults. Nobody is impeccable in the Church militant. Nobody has claimed to be.

          • David Nickol

            Since etymologically religion means to bind, Adam and Eve in the Garden had religion because they were bound to God.

            It seems to me that in a discussion about whether religion has been, on balance, a good thing or a bad thing, it is rather presumptuous of the religion partisans to attempt to define religion from God's point of view (as it were). You and ColdStanding are basically defining religion (it seems to me) as what God wants people to do in their relationship with him. Religion, then, is first Judaism, and then with the coming of Jesus, Catholicism. Buddhism, Moloch worship, Hinduism, Scientology, and so on, then are classified as religions because they are misguided attempts at Judaism and later Catholicism. I suppose that might suffice for committed Catholics, but it is certainly a position that can never be accepted by anyone else but Catholics, and certainly not by atheists.

            I just began reading Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation by Robert Bartlett and came across this interesting paragraph:

            Alongside the new relationship with the state, new patterns and habits of worship developed, which it is possible to sum up simply by saying that in this period Christianity became a religion. The Middle Eastern world in which Jesus and his first followers lived had a clear and distinct concept of "religion": the temple cults in which ritual specialists, the priests, represented the people and sought divine favor through sacrifice. In its origin Christianity was a radical revivalist cult that rejected most of these things. By the end of the fourth century they were back again: holy buildings, priestly rituals, and the language of sacrifice and mystery. A priest of Baal or of Isis or of Yahweh would certainly have recognized what kind of thing the Christianity of the late fourth century was. It was as part of this immense transformation that the cult of the saints came into new prominence and assumed new forms.

            I think if we are going to discuss the merits and demerits of religion, we need a more "objective" definition of what religion is that includes religions both preceding and outside of the Judeo-Christian variety. Defining religion as "what God wants people to do" isn't really helpful, especially for those who don't believe in God.

          • ColdStanding

            It isn't as if the phrase "What God wants people to do" hasn't been near totally worked out in the entailments there of. I have before me a book, properly called a manual, on moral theology, fruit of the Christian Catholic tradition. The entries cover nearly every aspect of the human condition that could lead men into a moral quandary. So, I am surprised that you'd attempt to characterize my statement as if none of the work had been done to determine what my phrase entails in fine detail.

            This manual of which I speak by no means unique or rare (perhaps becoming so of late more so). It is very carefully categorized; the product of literally centuries of diligent observation, research, reflection and prayer. There is much in it to satisfy the desire of the mind for knowledge. Solid practical wisdom. Yes, for Christian Catholics, but then we are blessed with many treasures.

            I do not see a fault with saying that religion is what God wants people to do. At it's most general, this tentatively could be rephrased as the human relationship with supernatural. While this might be more broadly inclusive, there is little evidence that a broadly inclusive definition is what is needed.^ Perhaps if one is just beginning to search, OK, but it, I posit, would need to be dropped for a more specific definition.* You can enter into an "imagined alternate history" as if Jesus was not God as Paul wistfully proposes, but, this being the thing with the dead, you can not un-live the witness of their lives.

            God always has been, is now, and ever shall be. Like it or lump it.

            *How do I know this? Because it has already happened.
            ^Needed as opposed to desired. It is greatly desired by many to make the definition of religion as broad as possible so as to make it meaningless.

          • ColdStanding

            You have taken one step too far at your last line of the first paragraph. Hell is the rejection of the offer God makes to be joined to Him; to be bound to Him. If religion is a binding whose proper object is God, those in hell can be said to be bound, but they are not bound to God, therefore their binding is not of a religious character because that to which they are bound is not the proper end of religion: God.

            You can have the characteristics of religion, but not have religion.
            A buttercup flower has leaves and petals, but it is not thereby a rose.
            You can have the physiological activation of the genitals, but not meet the requirements for sex.

            Lastly, it treads near blasphemy to say that Catholicism is full of faults. The Church is a perfect society. No definition of the Church can leave out the Church Triumphant who are completely perfect, are holy, and enjoy the beatific vision of God. What they are we fervently hope to be. We are saints in training. Additionally, the souls in the Church Penitent are also holy. That which is holy is perfect. That which is perfect is without fault. The Church Militant is imperfect in many of its members, but even here there are the righteous. To be full of faults means that there is no more room to possibly put in any more faults. It is not even true that Catholicism is mostly or even faulty in a significant portion.

          • David Nickol

            Lastly, it treads near blasphemy to say that Catholicism is full of faults.

            That's our Kevin. Always hovering right near the edge of blasphemy.

          • ColdStanding

            He is putting his immortal soul in danger for out of love for you. You aught wake up to that fact and thank him. Instead it amuses you. He is the object of your amusement. I don't know what you intend by such a deplorable treatment of another to be but it certainly isn't friendship.

          • David Nickol

            He is the object of your amusement.

            No, you are the object of my amusement. Kevin is one of the most cordial, most effective, and most knowledgeable defenders of Catholic "orthodoxy" on this site and has been since (I believe) its inception. Although I have many disagreements with Kevin, he has my total respect. On the other hand, you show up out of nowhere and accuse Kevin of being near blasphemy and utter nonsense like this:

            You've got Stockholm syndrome. Hanging out with atheists as much as you do is starting to affect your ability to think like a Catholic. You'd better put an hour a day in with the Church Fathers or St. Thomas for the next month, fast from posting for a year, and call me in the morning.

            You owe Kevin an apology. It is difficult for me to see how someone with your attitude could draw anyone to Catholicism. You are much more likely to drive people away.

          • ColdStanding

            Ah, yes, discussion but always and only on your terms.

            So tender. It takes so little for you to cry foul.

            But, please, enjoy your time with your chums.

          • Michael Murray

            You can have the physiological activation of the genitals, but not meet the requirements for sex.

            Sad to say you can also have the requirement of sex but not achieve the physiological activation of the genitals.

          • ColdStanding

            One should not be surprised when disorderly use of something leads to disorder.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Let me edit one bit of punctuation so as to remove what you think is blasphemy. "But I agree with you that Catholicism is full of faults: Nobody is impeccable in the Church militant."

            It was already implied that by Church I mean the Church militant but the the colon makes it explicit, since a colon in this context means that what follows explains or expands on what came before it. The Church militant, made up of the people of God alive on earth today, are full of faults. I am one of these faulty people.

          • ColdStanding

            You've got Stockholm syndrome. Hanging out with atheists as much as you do is starting to affect your ability to think like a Catholic. You'd better put an hour a day in with the Church Fathers or St. Thomas for the next month, fast from posting for a year, and call me in the morning.

            The claim of the Christian Catholic Church is to scientific precision in theology. It does not good to attempt to give an account of your faith while thinking its OK to trade away this or that bit so as to make nice, which seems to be what you are doing.

            The fault in your post does not rest in slip-shod punctuation. The Church Militant have been washed of original sin. The significance of this can not be overstated. If we wisely make use of the sacraments, especially confession, we are united with God and our particular sins are forgiven us. Indeed, they have risen in baptism to newness of life: a new creation. Do not let the degraded condition of the people you associate with tempt you to degrade yourself and the gifts you have received. Boldly proclaim the truths of the faith that has brought to both you and I salvation. A Catholic is humble before God's majesty and a light to the world. You are putting your's under a bushel basket.

            What we struggle against is the our continuing disposition to sin. But even this is God's justice and mercy and sign of His affection for us, for in it we know that we have gained something precious that needs to be guarded least it be lost.

            So, please, do not confuse the teaching on humility and remorse for our sins with the faults of the fallen and fallen away. Not the same thing.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I've flagged your comment as it appears to be personally abusive. You seem to be making judgments about my interior thoughts and motivations rather than focusing on arguments and evidence.

          • ColdStanding

            Withdrawn as is your pleasure. Adieu.

    • ColdStanding

      But how do you know that your disagreement with the Church on various topics are not the result of the Church craftily poisoning your reason so that you will disagree with it?

    • Andrew Kassebaum

      In order for me to better assess your first claim, can you define two terms, namely, religion and poison? I appreciate your second point. Thanks for reading.

      • Not really, I will be advancing a definition of religion in an upcoming blog post. But I am basically just accepting that not everything done in the name of religion is negative. In fact, I would say most things humans do in the name of religion are positive.

        I am being a bit trite here and I hope that is okay, I don't want to debate your piece. I'm trying to be nice.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Andrew Kassebaum, thanks for both writing this piece and then hanging around to engage in the comments. This to me kind of thing SN is supposed to be!