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Jesuits in China

The objective of the Jesuits in China was to spread Christianity. But when missionaries arrived in the late 16th century, they encountered a people who believed in the superiority of Chinese civilization and felt the “barbarians” outside their borders had little to offer. 
Chinese scholars, however, soon became deeply interested in European sciences, especially astronomy. And it was through astronomy that the Jesuits (many of whom were highly skilled scientists) began to gain the trust of the Chinese elite and eventually became advisers to the imperial courts. The priests accommodated themselves to Chinese culture by learning the language, wearing local clothing and trying to find connections between Confucian beliefs and Christianity.

In Chinese society, the emperor was the mediator between earth and heaven, and much of the scheduling of public life was predicated on the calendars issued in his name. These calendars were calibrated by precise observations of the sun, moon and stars. By demonstrating the advantages of European astronomical predictions (of eclipses, for example), the Jesuits were able to convince the Chinese that European ideas could be valuable. The Chinese were also fascinated by the things the Jesuits brought with them, including clocks, prisms and world maps.

Despite the Jesuits’ significant tenure in China, Christianity was never adopted there on a large scale. But the long association between scholars from East and West led to the transmission of knowledge in both directions and sparked cross-cultural curiosity that continues today.