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|THE JESUITS AND SINO-WESTERN TECHNOLOGY
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In this mornings’ presentation, Dr. Eugenio Menegon gave us a description of the daily life of a Jesuit at the Imperial court in Beijing during the reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. He referred to the endless labors that the Jesuits endured and reflected on their artistic and scientific work as points of pride in the face of great difficulty and often, outright hostility.
I’ve been asked to give an extremely brief description of some of the scientific and technical skills that the Jesuits mentioned by Dr. Menegon practiced in China. The physical evidence of these skills is suggested by several of the items on exhibit here at the Oakland Museum. Items such as the compass, star-chart, telescope, and calculating engine, are but an indicator of the technical and scientific expertise that existed during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties with the introduction of European theories and methods, which were themselves undergoing rapid changes.
The title of this talk derives from the dual meaning of the term “mechanics,” which in one sense implies the mechanical, physical workings of nature and the universe, and also as a reference to the Jesuits and their Chinese associates, who, in an important way, regarded themselves as “mechanics,” or technicians who used the exploration of the natural world as a focal point of understanding and confirmation of an underlying universal design. A similarly dual meaning suffuses the term tianxue or Celestial Studies mentioned by Dr. Menegon, which may be read as the study of astronomy/astrology (“the heavens”) or as a euphemism for Christianity ("Heaven”). During late Ming and early Qing China it was the Jesuits who were the primary agents of this Sino-European interchange.
The study of the history of science, particularly as it applies to China, has gained new relevance both because of renewed appreciation for historical Chinese technological development and because some of the most important and interesting cultural interchanges between China and the West took place in the area of the physical and mathematical sciences. Notwithstanding the difficulty of the Jesuit position in China, the historical background in which this exchange took place, with the help, encouragement, and skill of Chinese scholars, friends, and craftsmen documented at this exhibition shows that the tools used by the “Mechanics of Heaven” have a rare mix of function and craftsmanship that make them especially interesting.
Ships and Maritime Technology
The focal point of Sino-European exchange was the port of Macau, ceded by the Ming government to Portugal. When looking at the distances from Portugal to Macau a fundamental question becomes, how did they get there? Unlike the Silk Road tradition of caravans traversing the expanse of Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau, or the route traveled by Marco Polo and the Franciscans during the Yuan era, by 1513 travel from Europe to Asia took place exclusively by sea, a result of the steady development of Iberian shipbuilding and maritime technology. On the European side, the Portuguese had developed a variety of practical maritime navigational tools such as the nautical compass, accurate charts, rutters and route maps with marine topography, and combined them with improvements in ship construction. The ships of this time had their origins in the larger type of trading vessels of northern and southern Europe of the 14th-17th centuries, and developed as a compromise between the typical square rig of the northern European nations and the lateen rig of the Mediterranean. This type, known as a caraval, had very high fore- and after-castles, and a cargo capacity of as much as 1,500 tons. A later, larger version was the carrack, forerunner of the larger three-masted ships which dominated naval architecture until the mid-19th century. Still, seafaring was dangerous, and shipwreck was extremely common. Records indicate that in the one hundred years from 1540-1640, almost one-third of the ships, passengers and crew (including Jesuits) traveling between Europe and China were lost en route. Nonetheless, in the 16th and early 17th centuries, almost all the Spanish and Portuguese trading voyages to the Indies and China sailed in carracks. (Columbus’ flagship Santa Maria was probably a carrack.) With these improvements caravals and carracks became like WWII-era Liberty Ships or DC-3’s: economical, reliable, and practical. (Upstairs in the California Museum are models of Spanish carracks that sailed from Spain to Mexico and California, and often across the Pacific to the Philippines and China.)
[SLIDE 1] Chinese ships were renowned for their watertight compartments, large cargo capacities, and overall ruggedness. With some important exceptions, Chinese ships were built for specific tasks and largely confined to coastal or riverine traffic, such as grain transport along the Grand Canal, merchant traffic, and general transportation. Oars played a relatively smaller role in Chinese shipping theory, although military ships were another matter. Along navigable rivers and manmade waterways ships could be either be sailed or towed, pulled by laborers called “trackers,” or poled (“punted”). Illustrated records from as early as the Song Dynasty depict even quite large craft being maneuvered with human power.
While Chinese shipbuilding was geared to practical, smaller scale transport commerce, Chinese shipwrights were capable of constructing much larger, ocean-going craft. The most illustrious example of this took place in the early Ming Dynasty with the seven voyages of the celebrated Admiral Zheng He.[SLIDE 2] Rather like the European voyages of a century later, the Ming voyages combined exploration with diplomatic contacts, inspected trade prospects and established tributary relationships with the kingdoms of the Southeast Asian trade routes, the Malacca, in present day Indonesia and Malaysia, extending as far as the African coast. By European standards they were mammoth undertakings. For example, during the First Voyage (1405-1406) Zheng He commanded a fleet of 317 ships with nearly 28,000 men, their arms and supplies. The fleet included several massive “treasure ships,” approximately 400 feet long and 160 feet wide. Ports visited include Champa, in central Vietnam; Majapahit on Java; Semudra and Deli on the northern coast of Sumatra, continuing to Sri Lanka and then to Calcutta. Traveling through the Straits of Malacca on its return, the Chinese fleet defeated a local pirate chief who had been threatening merchant shipping in the Straits. During the Third Voyage (1409-1411) the expedition visited Malacca, a port on the Malay Peninsula that was gaining importance. There Chinese officials recognized Paramesawara as the legitimate ruler of Malacca and gave him a tablet officially declaring that the city was a vassal state of China. Increasing Malacca's power, the Chinese court believed, would establish a balance of power among rivals in Thailand, Java and Malacca and insure Chinese trading rights through the Straits. After stopping at Semudra, the fleet went to Sri Lanka where they became involved in a local power struggle among its Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslim populations. Luring the Sinhalese troops out of the city, Zheng He and his troops took the capital, captured the ruler and installed a ruler of their own choice in his place. After this voyage many ambassadors from the countries the treasure fleet had visited brought tribute to the Ming court. By the time the seventh and last voyage was concluded in 1433, Chinese fleets had reached Hormuz, Yemen, and the African cities of Mogadishu, Brawa, Malinda, and Mombasa. Among the treasures returned to the Court: two giraffes, considered an animal nearly comparable to the qilin or unicorn, a symbol of righteousness for the Ming.
By the time Matteo Ricci arrived in 1583, these were distant events, and many doubted the veracity of the records concerning such huge ships until the discovery in the 1970s of two early Chinese shipwrecks and their subsequent archaeological excavation cast new light on early Chinese shipbuilding technology. The two ships noted are a Song Dynasty ship found at Hou Zhu, near Quanzhou in Fujian Province dating from about 1277; and a Yuan Dynasty ship found at Shinan, near Mokpo in South Korea, dating from about 1323. Both ships depart significantly from generally accepted theories of ancient Chinese shipbuilding techniques and the finds raise fundamental questions. The Quanzhou ship is 24 m. long, 9 m. wide and 2.2 m. deep. The interior of the ship is divided into thirteen compartments by a series of twelve bulkheads. There are two surviving masts. The ship was transom-sterned with an axial rudder. The keel is 20 m. long, made in three parts. The ship is “clinker” type, made up of double overlapped planking up to the turn of the bilge where it becomes triple planked. The method of joinery is extremely unusual, being made up of three strakes of lap-joined carvel and then a clinker joint. Additionally there is clear evidence that the ship was built shell first. Other artifacts have been discovered, including a huge rudder that, if scaled normally, indicate it might have belonged to one of the 400 ft. long treasure ships of the 1400’s.
Cartography and Maps
In China, the Jesuit role in the introduction of Western maps and cartographic techniques is well known and is the usual starting point for the study of Sino-European interchange. Jesuit astronomers and cartographers have a long history of service to the Chinese Empire and introduced many new technological and theoretical modifications to traditional Chinese maps. Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J., pioneer of the first post-medieval Christian mission, was a skilled linguist, mathematician, and cartographer. As early as 1584 Ricci had copied a European map in his possession and translated the names into Chinese. This work, the Yudi shanhai quantu is now lost, though the outline is preserved in the Tushu bian by Ricci’s friend and associate Zhang Huang. In 1600 a revised version of this map was produced with the slightly altered title Shanhai yudi quantu. With the help of the eminent scholar and friend of the Jesuits, Li Zhizao, in 1603 and 1604 the 3rd and 4th editions titled Kunyu wan’guo quantu were produced [SLIDE 3], copies of which exist in the National Palace Museum in Beijing and in the Vatican Archives. Ricci introduced longitude and latitude (which was in general harmony with traditional Chinese mapping “grids”) and combined earlier European maps by Ortelius and Mercator as the basis for Europe, Africa [SLIDE 4], and the Americas. The sections on China and East Asia were based on a 1579 edition of the Guangyu tu by Luo Hongxian, and local maps culled from gazetteers and illustrated sources. The result provided Chinese scholars with a vastly expanded view of the world, including the first accurate representations of Europe, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and the Americas on a Chinese map. Ricci’s maps gave Chinese names for hundreds of foreign locales, and often included detailed physical or topographical information. Ricci’s maps were so influential that many of the Chinese place-names still in use today trace their origin to Ricci’s maps. Many Ming scholars immediately recognized these maps as important improvements on existing cartographic technology. Previously unknown regions were now charted in Chinese style. Strategic implications must have been obvious. [SLIDE 5: Michel Boym map of China, 1643]
Europeans benefited from this exchange as well, as the Jesuits returned observations, maps, and descriptions of Chinese society, culture, and political philosophy back to a fascinated Europe. Ricci’s fellow Jesuit Michele Ruggieri created a large collection of maps with detailed information on terrain, waterways, and cities. Dictionaries and lexicons were created and the first semi-standard romanizations for Chinese characters were developed. Books and published letters sent to Europe were highly popular and avidly studied by historians and philosophers. [SLIDE 6: Verbiest World Map with Mercator projection, 1674]
Ricci lived in China until his death in Beijing in 1610, during the late Ming dynasty under the Wanli Emperor. But unlike later Jesuits, he did not directly serve an emperor, but lived and worked as an independent scholar among Chinese scholars. As Dr. Menegon noted this morning, after the establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644 the role of the Jesuits in Beijing changed. Jesuit skill at cartography and astronomy (in addition to art, music, and mathematics) brought them to the attention of the Imperial Court. A Jesuit proposal to map the entire Empire was encouraged by the Kangxi emperor began in 1698 with local topographical maps, including the range of the Ming walls and defenses north of the capital and into the Ordos. A complete set was presented to the Emperor in 1717; copperplate engravings were made and a woodblock edition was published in 1721 under the title Huangyu quanlan tu (or A Map of the Complete Imperial Realm). Sometimes called the Kangxi Atlas, (or Jesuit Atlas), this became the basis for many other maps: Huangyu shipai quantu (1726-29), Qianlong shisanpai ditu (1760), Huangyu quantu (1844), etc. The Huangyu quanlan tu was the basis for nearly all Western maps of China until the 20th century.
Astronomy and Mathematics
Even more than cartography, astronomy and calendar studies became an important focus of Jesuit and Chinese scholars. The Jesuit introduction of European astronomical mathematics, calculating instruments, and plane and spherical geometry was highly applicable to the adaptable nature of Chinese astronomy, and enhanced by accurate Chinese observations of stellar phenomena, novae, comets, and so on, dating back a millennium. The pace with which these importations were accepted was not only due to their immediate and apparent usefulness, but also to the existence of common astronomical techniques based on a “kernel” of common conceptions of space and time. Jean-Claude Martzloff lists four mutually acceptable propositions:
1. Space and time were both deemed quantifiable on the basis of measurement and cataloging of celestial positions. [SLIDE 7: Galileo “all things are measurable”]
2. Eclipses of the sun and moon, ephemeredes of the sun, moon, and planets, solstices and equinoxes, and other celestial phenomena, were considered mathematically predictable from computational techniques, using ready-made computations (tables) and particular algorithmic prescriptions free from the hold of astrology.
3. Criterion of validation of predictions hinged on the agreement between the result of predictive computations and observation.
4. The perfectibility of predictive systems, i.e. the possibility of reducing the margin of error between theoretical predictions and real observations was generally granted by the most influential astronomers.
In fact, “predictive competitions” between Chinese, Muslim, and European systems were organized by Chinese authorities during the early 17th century to uncover which methods gave the most consistently correct results. By 1645 Jesuit success in these “competitions” led to widespread reform and modification of traditional Chinese methods, such as the promulgation in the same year of the Shixian li, a calendar based on the computations published by the Bavarian Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell in his Xinfa suanshu. Despite conservative opposition, Western stellar mathematics became the basis for Imperial astronomical calculations, and began a tradition of appointing Jesuits such as Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest to head the Imperial Bureau of Astronomy. [SLIDE 8: Verbiest’s prediction of solar eclipse April 29, 1669]
Thus today in Beijing are to be found replicas of the instruments of Uraniborg [SLIDE 13: Beijing Observatory], refashioned in China and modeled directly on the Tychonic precedent but with Chinese adaptation and decoration. (All of Tycho Brahe's instruments are lost, most destroyed during the uprisings in Prague in 1619. The great globe ended up at the Round Tower in Copenhagen, where it was destroyed in the fire of 1728.)
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