Anyone who seriously studies recent China history, its first steps toward the modern world and its place on the international stage will encounter frequent mentions of “western learning”, “western scholars” and “western missionaries”. Among these references one will often find the “Society of Jesus” and “Jesuits”. Most people can guess that these names are somehow connected to Christianity, but beyond this they have little idea.

The Society of Jesus is a religious order of the Catholic Church. The priests and brothers who are its members, commonly called “Jesuits”, are not monks who spend their entire lives in the confines of their monasteries. Quite the opposite, they go to wherever they are needed, use whatever method they feel they can morally use to propagate the gospel and be of service to others.

1540 The Society of Jesus is founded by a Spanish Basque St. Ignatius Loyola 依那爵·罗耀拉. Practically from its beginning, China was a part of its missionary plan.

1542 The founder’s closest friend and dearest companion, St. Francis Xavier 圣方济各·沙勿略, who was to become known as the Apostle of East Asia, sets sail from Portugal first to India, then to Malacca and to Japan, until finally he is on a small island off the coast of China knocking on the door of the nation he most wanted to enter. Death overtook him in 1552 before his dream could be realized.

1552 Perhaps as a special gesture of divine providence, in the very year Francis Xavier died his successor is born, Matteo Ricci 利玛窦, who at the age of 30 manages to enter Canton in 1583 and then after 18 years of wandering in the south finally reachs Beijing in 1601. For 10 years through his formidable knowledge of mathematics and astronomy and his strenuous efforts to assimilate Chinese culture, Ricci’s rectitude and religious fervor were admired by all and deeply impressed the intellectuals. His substantial efforts to promote the exchange of eastern and western ideas led them to realize the interaction of mind and spirit. He shared with them the love of God for all men and for their salvation. The way Ricci conducted himself as a missionary has been followed by all the Jesuits who succeeded him. During the past several centuries, the Society of Jesus from beginning to end has played an important role in dialogue and interaction with Chinese culture, education and religion.

1644 In the first year of the Ching Dynasty, the Shunzhi Emperor orders the missionaries to retain their previous important positions. For instance, Johann Adam Schall von Bell 汤若望 for eighteen years was in charge of the Observatory, achieving the highest possible rank of Guanglu Mandarin(光禄大夫). During the time of the Shunzhi Emperor, about 150,000 Chinese were baptized. By the time of the Kangxi Emperor there were 270,000. (During this time there were already other missionaries besides Jesuits in China.)

1669 Kangxi Emperor appoints the Belgian Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest 南怀仁 to take charge of the Beijing Observatory. During the Late Ming and Early Ching Dynasties, the influence of the Jesuits was not just religious. Most important perhaps was their introduction of western science, reform of the astronomical calendar, geography, mathematics, medicine, and physics, as well as philosophy, western liturgical music, art, and language. 

Many scholars of Chinese history have said that if the influence of the missionaries in the late Ming and Early Ching periods had been allowed to continue, the course of China’s later history would have been quite different, its entrance into the modern world sooner and the influence of China on the world much greater.