Alien Voices under the Bean Arbor: how an Eighteenth-Century French Jesuit translated the Doupeng xianhua 豆棚閒話 as the “Dialogue of a Modern Atheist Chinese Philosopher”

08 Aug 2017

This article examines an eighteenth-century French Jesuit’s translation of the final chapter of the early Qing collection of vernacular stories Doupeng xianhua 豆棚閒話 (Idle Talks under the Bean Arbor), which became a “philosophical dialogue” of a “modern atheist Chinese philosopher.” The trajectory of the text is examined by analyzing the layers of meaning superposed upon it by a succession of agencies: the original author Aina Jushi 艾衲居士, a Jiangnan literatus who philosophized on the fall of the Ming dynasty; Father François-Xavier Dentrecolles, the Jesuit missionary who translated the text with extensive commentaries of his own to make a case against atheism; the Parisian editor Jean-Baptiste Du Halde who published the translation in the landmark of Jesuit sinology, Description de l’Empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise (1735); the engravers in Paris and the Hague who remolded its cosmological diagrams to conform to their own scientific and aesthetic standards; and finally, its European re-translators and readers, some of whom used it as a weapon against the Jesuits and the Catholic Church. The gains and losses of the Doupeng xianhua during this process are discussed, as well as the new light brought by the French translation on its circulation in Qing China. Finally, the challenge this atypical case poses to received narratives of the Sino-Western cultural exchange through the Jesuit mission is assessed.