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July 15, 2016

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‘Confucian Christian’ a pillar of science, religion in his time

XU Guangqi is often called a “Confucian Christian” by Chinese scholars. He was baptized under the Christian name Paul in Nanjing in 1603 after becoming friends with Jesuit scholar Matteo Ricci. The next year, he succeeded in the imperial examination, becoming a royal scholar and eventually president of the Board of Ceremonies.

Fudan University Professor Li Tiangang detailed the history of this remarkable man when Xu’s memorial hall was reopened this spring in Xujiahui.

Xu was widely recognized as one of the “three pillars of Chinese Catholicism,” along with Hangzhou theologians Li Zhizao and Yang Tingyun, who shared an interest in Western science and mathematics.

In Xu’s era, science and technology were used to attract Chinese intelligentsia to the church.

“The last Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Emperor Chongzhen continuously gave Xu pieces of silver, which Xu donated along with his salary to the poor, to prisoners and to Western missionaries in Beijing,” says Zhu Xiaohong, another Fudan University professor on religious studies.

“He supported the Jesuits in China both financially and philosophically,” she says. “During the ‘Nanjing Persecution’ from 1616 to 1617, Xu wrote a famous report to assure the emperor that missionaries were good and respectable. He also arranged for his son to provide boats as shelters for persecuted missionaries.”

The 17th-century Italian priest Alexandre Valignani said Xu was the purest, the most honest and most Catholic of the “three pillars,” according to Professor Zhu.

Professor Li, editor of the Xu Guangqi complete collection, also compares Xu with his European contemporaries.

“Xu was a year younger than British scientist Francis Bacon, father of empiricism, two years older than Galileo and nine years older than German astronomer Johannes Kepler, founder of modern astronomy,” Li says. “French philosopher Rene Descartes was 34 years younger than Xu, Copernicus died 21 years before Xu was born. Nine years after Xu died, Newton was born.”

It was indeed an era of new thinking.

“A galaxy of scientists sprang up in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe,” Li adds. “At the same time in China, many scholars emerged in Jiangnan, or regions south of the Yangtze River. They made noteworthy contributions.”

Mateo and Xu lived in a time when Chinese paid more attention to liberal arts than to natural sciences. The latter wasn’t even included in the imperial examination, and few scholars devoted themselves to mathematics or other sciences.

“Mateo and Xu believed that this trend could be changed by advocating ‘practical science’ and ‘new studies’,” says Li. “It’s a pity that the turn of the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties disturbed this Chinese scientific revolution.”

Today, Xu is probably best remembered as a scientist, but he was also a deeply religious man.

“He held high moral standards,” says Professor Zhu. “He wore patched clothes and opened a gate in his Beijing home directing people to the chapel for prayer. Xu was the spiritual father of the Shanghai Catholic church. If we ignore his identity as a man of religion, we are not seeing a complete profile of him.”


 

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