1. The Jesuits in China

Schall von Bell in Madarin costume

The Society of Jesus was a new religious order recognised by the Pope in 1540. The Jesuits were particularly prominent as educators and missionaries, and worked zealously to renew Catholicism in Europe and to make new converts for Counter-Reformation Christianity across the globe.

The Jesuits first entered China via the Portuguese trading enclave of Macao. Their task was daunting. In 1610 there were eight European fathers and eight Chinese brothers. Between the 1630s and 1680s there were usually about 30 to 40 missionaries in all of China, which already had a population of 150 million (more than double all of Europe) in the late 16th century.

An early and important strategy was to seek the patronage of scholars and officials, and ultimately the Emperor himself, while attempting to navigate the complexities and heritage of Chinese culture, religion, society and politics. Success was not guaranteed. Political turbulence, crises and conflicts during the 17th century saw many Jesuits exiled and imprisoned.

Learning the Chinese language and collaborating with Chinese scholars were essential to achieving an ambitiously formulated programme of publications. Such projects of translation and authorship identified the Jesuits as learned men worthy of respect, and took their version of the Christian message beyond the limited circles of their personal acquaintance.