Globalising China

My PhD thesis, Globalising China: Jesuits, Eurasian Exchanges, and the Early Modern Sciences, reveals how the Manchu conquest of China in the 1640s transformed understandings of the sciences in early modern Europe. It explores how the Jesuit China mission, which was largely responsible for the circulation of Chinese knowledge to Europe in the early modern period, shaped European images of the Other.

The “Tartar war” between the weakened Ming dynasty, peasant rebels, and the Manchus—a semi-nomadic population from northeast Asia—was experienced first-hand by several Jesuit missionaries proselytising in China. During the unstable interregnum, Jesuits sought patronage from disparate warring factions, offering their astronomical expertise to help various pretenders secure the “Mandate of Heaven” to rule legitimately over China, hoping to ensure their mission’s survival. By engaging with Chinese and Manchu astronomical labourers, reading Chinese treatises on cosmology, agriculture, cartography, history, and moral philosophy, and interacting with scholar-officials and military commanders, Jesuits learned extensively from local technoscientific discourses and practices. Between 1653 and 1658, the Italian missionary Martino Martini (1614-1661) served as a mission procurator—responsible for promoting the China mission in Europe—and representative of the new, Manchu-led Qing dynasty. In Europe, Martini published accounts of the Ming-Qing War (1654), China’s geography (1655), and history (1658) with commercial printers, reaching a wide, interconfessional readership. He courted patronage from powerful Habsburg rulers and defended the Jesuits’ involvement in Chinese sciences and politics at an audience with Pope Alexander VII. As this dissertation contends, Martini’s successful mobilisation of disparate political, religious, commercial, and scholarly networks across a turbulent Eurasia enabled his laudatory accounts of Chinese sciences to reach an extraordinarily wide audience. In turn, during the long eighteenth century, European writers drew—often polemically—on Martini’s accounts of Chinese agriculture, astrology, cartography, chronology, cosmology, ethnography, military cultures, and moral philosophy to propose new solutions to contemporary technoscientific and political crises. As such, the dissertation argues that Manchu and Chinese cultures of knowledge, mediated by Jesuits, occupied an important and underappreciated role in Enlightenment sciences.

My first chapter studies the social and technological factors that shaped the adoption of gunpowder technology in seventeenth-century China. The chapter explores the Jesuit missionary Martino Martini's account of the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, De Bello Tartarico Historia (1654), which suggests that cavalry perhaps played at least as important a role as firearms in the establishment of the Qing Dynasty.

The second explores the role of Martini's geographical description of China, the Novus Atlas Sinensis, published in Amsterdam in 1655 by the renowned Dutch East Indies Company cartographer and print-capitalist Joan Blaeu (1596-1673), in shaping "Enlightened" cartographic practices and visual culture. It is concerned with understanding how the Atlas helped to construct an image of China as a wealthy, civilised, cultured, and above all different-but-not-too-different empire, which distinguished it from the New World, which was often characterised by iconographies of cannibalism, savagery, and incivility.

The third chapter links the history of agriculture to the history of astronomy in the context of the Jesuit China mission. Both reformist Chinese literati, such as Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) and later European writers on agriculture, such as François Quesnay (1694-1774) were interested in understanding how the state could harness the power of nature—in all its different, culturally-specific articulations—to build its strength and economic influence. My research looks at how the Jesuits' understanding of the Chinese calendar shaped their perceptions of agriculture in the Middle Kingdom. Read more about this project here!

The final chapter examines the changing credibility of different genres of historical knowledge—material histories, text-based hermeneutics, and astronomical reconstructions—between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries in Europe. The chapter suggests that the highly visible adoption of Chinese astronomical records in European historical scholarship in the early Enlightenment was shaped by an astronomy-centred alignment of interests between the Jesuit missionary Martino Martini (1614-61), the new Manchu regents of China, and secular French scholars.

A painted portrait of the Jesuit missionary Martino Martini (1614-61). He is wearing a red hat and has a long black beard.

Portrait of Martino Martini S. J. (1614-61), painted by the Walloon artist Michaelina Wautier in 1654.

Portrait of the Ming literature Xu Guangqi

Portrait of the Ming era literatus, philosopher, and Christian convert Xu Guangqi (1562-1633), who was heavily involved in reforming the Chinese calendar under the Chongzhen Emperor.

A 17th century book open across two pages, showing Martini's 1655 general map of China. All of the then-Qing Empire is shown in the map. The top left corner shows a box with well-dressed figures and the text "Imperii Sinarum Nova Descriptio"

Martini's general map of China from Novus Atlas Sinensis (Amsterdam: Joan Blaeu, 1655)