In the 17th and 18th century the Jesuits were quite active in China to convert the Middle Kingdom to the Roman catholic faith. One of the first was Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest who was determined to bring the true faith to China. The Jesuit order was formed when the european mission expeditions over the world were in full swing and their motto was to go wherever the Pope needed them. Significantly they adopted local customs and tried to find a confluence between local faiths and their Roman Catholic faith. The basic idea was that all religions were derived from a common idea of God. However strange the customs and beliefs of faraway people might seem, the Jesuits were convinced there was common ground.
Matteo Ricci, the man who really got the China mission going, succeeded in eventually reaching the court in Beijing. Although he never met the Wanli emperor himself he managed to be recognized as a great scholar and a bringer of an interesting faith. He brought a new world view to China, both in the form of a new world map which was very successful and in the form of a new cosmology. Astronomy was vitally important to the Chinese court. But in Ricci's words, “it is rubbish”. Therefore he wrote Rome to send an astronomer. Rome eventually did, the Jesuits even took over the Beijing observatory. Generations of Jesuit scientists worked, lived, and eventually died in Beijing.
Matteo Ricci was bestowed and exceptional honor after his death, he was to be buried in Beijing. In a specially assigned compound (vacated for the Jesuits by a disgraced eunich). Here he was buried, and all the other Jesuits who worked at court after him. The cemetery has seen some turbulent times, during the Boxer rebellion the cemetery was demolished and the Cultural Revolution did not pass the cemetery as well. Through the efforts of the Chinese keepers of the Jesuit cemetery the headstones of the graves are still standing. Quite an accomplishment considering the turmoil of the last century.
In Beijing we wanted to visit the site of the old cemetery of so many astronomers. The site of the cemetery (and the Jesuit' mission) is located on the grounds of the present Beijing Administrative College, the party school. However, we visited Beijing during holiday season. The school was closed, and the cemetery as well! In mails exchanged before we went i was told to simply call Mister Shen. He would open the gates for us. Mister Shen is the caretaker of the Jesuit site. When we found the site we called mister Shen and sure enough, soon he came on his bike. In his basket he had some bags with books we requested and also his own extensive set of notebooks. Mister Shen opened the gates for us. He was clearly pleasantly surprised we knew something about the history of the Jesuits in China and that we spoke some chinese. He showed us the graves and told us some stories about some of the Jesuits there we really did not knwo about. We knew about the astronomers, but it turned out Rome had sent a painter and a harpsichord expert as well. All to impress the emperor's court and to support the mission.
His notebooks contained photos, newspaper articles and his own writings about everything connected to the mission. Mister Shen showed us the cemetery, and the new college built on orders of the Qing emperor after the boxer rebellion. The new college is located where the first church used to be and is built in the styles of different European countries. After this mister Shen showed us the outlines of the original mission, some traces were still visible. He told us about the church where the Jesuits introduced the European wine making process. The church is still there, now it is a wing of the student's dorm. The cross over the door has long been replaced by a communist' star.
Mister Shen gave us a tour all afternoon and told so much about the history of the Jesuits in China we didn't know. His enthusiasm for a time when there was a genuine exchange of knowledge between Europe and China was clearly genuine. An enthusiasm i share.
Mister Shen, thank you for a very interesting and inspiring afternoon!Geotag (location) for: