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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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