‘The Observations We Made in the Indies and in China’: The Shaping of the Jesuits’ Knowledge of China by Other Parts of the Non-Western World

08 Mar 2018

Abstract. The Jesuits’ experience in China is usually analysed within the framework of Sino-Western relations. However, Jesuits’ writings often evoked their experience in and knowledge about China in association with other parts of the non-European world, including India, South-East Asia, the Middle East, Africa and America. Based on a prosopographical analysis of China Jesuits’ biographical data, we first demonstrate that the encounter with other non-European regions was an integral part of the China Jesuits’ itineraries; for they all travelled through intermediate areas on their way to China, and some also did so on their way back to Europe. Secondly, relying mainly on examples drawn from French Jesuits’ scholarship between the 1680s and the 1750s, we demonstrate how encounters with other non-European regions and the overseas interests of their home country shaped the Jesuits’ scientific agenda as well as the way they understood things Chinese. Lastly, we illustrate how Jesuits keenly studied historical and contemporaneous accounts in Chinese and Manchu on the neighbouring regions of the Qing empire. We argue that the body of knowledge produced by the China Jesuits should be studied in a spatial framework that goes beyond the China-Europe dichotomy since it was, on one hand, filtered by the Jesuits’ knowledge about other non-European regions, and on the other hand, concerned with a geographical area larger than the territory of China under the Ming dynasty We also argue that the China Jesuits’ scholarship was configured by the spatial dynamics shaping the Society of Jesus, Bourbon France and Qing China; thereby, we contribute to a better understanding of both the French Jesuit and Qing networks, and the interconnections between them.