Apart from religious attainment, European missionaries in Beijing during the 17th and 18th centuries showed an aptitude for linguistics, astronomy, geography, mathematics, and cartography.
They followed the practical path the Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) had blazed in China to preach through introducing Western science and art so as to win the trust and esteem of the emperor and the elite class.
Although the Chinese emperors were never converted to Christianity, they were much impressed by the foreign priests' aptitude. They recruited them to the imperial court for service, employing their expertise to consolidate their rule and learn about the world beyond.
The missionaries’ science and art works, although largely confined to imperial and higher social classes, have always enlightened Chinese intellectuals in one way or another. Their legacies shine in the maps they charted, the calendars they developed with Western calculation methods, the astronomical instruments they devised, their introductory treatise on weaponry and geography, their translations of works of mathematics, the paintings they created with Western techniques, and the Baroque style garden structures they designed.
Extant works by them or credited to their influence are held in the permanent collections of China’s museums and universities. A selection from the Palace Museum is shown here.
Geography and cartography In 1708, French and Austrian Jesuit missionaries were designated by the Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662-1722) to survey and map the territory of the Qing Empire, including locating the Great Wall and mapping its nearby waters. Their joint work with Chinese engineers yielded the first edition of the Map of Complete View of the Imperial Territory (Huangyu Quanlan Tu), which was printed and published in 1717. The British Sinologist Joseph Needham observed that this map was the best of all world maps in Asia, and more accurate that those in Europe at the time.
Astronomy and calendar-making Astronomy and calendar-making Johann Adam Schall von Bell (Chinese name Tang Ruowan, 1591-1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (Chinese name Nan Huairen, 1623-88) accurately computed and predicted a solar eclipse and other celestial phenomena, which won esteem from Chinese emperors. They were assigned with developing and rectifying the imperial calendar and with leading the imperial bureau for calendric-astronomical affairs. Some of their works are preserved in the Palace Museum -- the former imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Several Catholic missionaries were recruited by the Qing government as court painters, including Italian Jesuit missionaries Giuseppe Castiglione (Chinese name Lang Shining, 1688-1766), Jean-Damascène Sallusti (Chinese name An Deyi, d.1781), Joseph Panzi (Chinese name Pan Tingzhang, 1733-1812), and Matteo Ripa (Chinese name Ma Guoxian, 1682-1746), French Jesuit missionaries Jean-Denis Attiret (Chinese name Wang Zhicheng, 1702-68) and Louis de Poirot (Chinese name He Qingtai, 1735-1814), and the Bohemian Jesuit missionary Ignatius Sichelbath (Chinese name Ai Qimeng, 1708-80).
They introduced the principles of perspective used in Western art to the Qing court, and worked together with Chinese painters for imperial commissions. Some of their works document significant historical events.
Father Giuseppe Castiglione served the Qing court for as long as 51 years and died in Beijing. He was buried in the Zhalan Cemetery in west Beijing. The Emperor Qianlong(r. 1736-95) respectfully composed and wrote the tomb tablet inscriptions for this diligent foreign missionary artist.