Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) was a Chinese scholar-official, who rose to one of the highest government positions in the Ming dynasty, pioneered in the introduction of Western science and technology into China, and became one of the "Three Pillars of the Catholic Religion in China" in the 17th century.
Xu Guangqi was born in Shanghai in 1562. At the age of 19, he passed the first stage of the Chinese civil service examination system, receiving the shengyuan (bachelor) degree. He did not, however, pass the second stage juren (master) degree examination until 1597, and even at that late date his success was something of a miracle. When the chief examiner Chiao Hung (1541-1620), concerned that he could not find an outstanding candidate for the "Number One Graduate" position, began to review some of the rejected exam papers, he was surprised to find the excellent essays of Xu Guangqi. Quickly elevated from the "failed grade" to the "Number One Position," Xu became well-known. But it took him another two attempts over a seven-year span before he passed the third stage jin-shi (chin-shih; doctorate) exam in 1604. At the age of 42, he was finally qualified for higher government positions.
Xu was born into a family whose finances were in disarray. Although his grandfather had amassed a small fortune through commercial dealings, the Xu family estate had been plundered by the Japanese pirates who had raided the Shanghai area from 1551 to 1557. Division of family properties with relatives led to further impoverishment. Xu's father engaged in both farming and teaching to make ends meet, while his grandmother and mother augmented income with spinning and weaving. Out of sheer necessity, Xu combined his preparations for the civil service examinations with jobs in farming and handicraft. Rumors of renewed Japanese pirate raids also drove him to pay attention to military affairs and to study the problems of maritime defense. He became aware that the Ming dynasty was ten times weaker militarily than the Song (Sung or Soong) dynasty (960-1279) which had been conquered by the Mongols. The question of how to make the dynasty prosperous and strong absorbed a great deal of his thinking. Influenced by traditional Chinese theories, he became convinced by the year 1597 that it was only through emphasis on agriculture that China could be prosperous, and it was only through a properly trained and equipped military force that the Ming dynasty could be strong.
According to his only son, Xu Guangqi harbored a deep sense of patriotism toward the Chinese nation. With his interest in agriculture, handicraft, technology, and military arts, he gradually developed a scientific spirit and innovative attitude. His son says that Xu Guangqi regularly "investigated ancient records and evaluated contemporary sources concerning the national economy," and that he "took voluminous notes and gathered various information on economic matters."
By the early 17th century, the Ming dynasty was not only economically and militarily weak, but also politically corrupt. The abilities of the emperors degenerated and the eunuchs steadily gained power. Chinese scholar officials who were concerned about the fate of the nation became restless. Some of them formed partisan groups to advocate needed reforms. Some sought escapes through their interest in Buddhism and Taoism. Others searched for new answers to the old problem of dynastic decline. Thus, the new knowledge about a distant Great West (i.e., Europe), which the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and his companions brought to China from 1583 onward, attracted the attention of a number of enlightened and patriotic Confucian scholar officials. It was in such a political and intellectual climate that Xu Guangqi was converted to the Roman Catholic faith.
There were several factors involved in Xu's conversion. Firstly, the new knowledge concerning a well-governed Europe attracted his deep interest. By 1603, Xu believed that the Catholic religion could supplement Confucianism, replace Buddhism, and facilitate "good government." He was convinced that the new religion could make the heart of each Chinese sincere and honorable, thus recreating a noble society in China. Secondly, Xu admired the lifestyle of the Jesuit missionaries such as Ricci, Lazare Cattaneo (1560-1640), and Joao de Rocha (1566-1623). He asserted that the saintly lifestyle of the Jesuits was comparable to that of the sages idealized in Confucian literature through the centuries. Thirdly, Xu was searching for the meaning of life and death, and he found that the existence of a personal Christian God allowed him peace of mind. Fourthly, Xu was fascinated by European science and technology which the Jesuits brought to China. He was interested particularly in Western geography, mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, hydraulics, and military arts. In each of the fields, China had its own achievements, but was falling behind.
Fifthly, the Jesuit missionaries, under the leadership of Ricci, had adopted a policy of cultural accommodation visa-vis Confucianism. This policy had grown out of a respect for the Chinese tradition and the Sinocentric view of the world. Realizing that the Europeanization policy adopted elsewhere had no future in China, the accommodation policy allowed for the use of traditional Chinese terminology to express the religious ideas of Christianity. It permitted the Chinese converts to continue their participation in the performance of traditional Confucian civic rites. This policy impressed the Chinese intellectuals that Catholicism and Confucianism were complementary. According to Xu, the coming of the Jesuits was prompted by the fact that they "realized that Confucianism also teaches the doctrine of service for Heaven and the cultivation of the individual mind." In China, a Confucian scholar official could adhere to any religious faith so long as he fulfilled his social and political obligations to the emperor and the state. The cultural accommodation policy thus made it possible for Chinese scholar officials, such as Xu Guangqi, Li Zhizao (1565-1630), Yang Tingyun (1557-1627), to make necessary changes within the Chinese tradition.
Last, but most important, the conversion of Xu Guangqi was made possible because it occurred at a time when the Chinese did not possess any first-hand knowledge of Europe. Neither did they know anything about the Portuguese Padroado (Patronage) which was, according to George H. Dunne, the "union between the mission and colonial imperialism" insisted on by the kings of Portugal. Being an idealist, Xu was more or less convinced that a utopia existed in Europe. He had no knowledge about the Protestant Reformation then taking place.
The conversion of Xu Guangqi to the Roman Catholic faith was, nevertheless, an important chapter in the history of Sino-Western cultural contacts. In the past, Catholic writers in China and in the West have generally glorified this unusual event. But some modern Chinese writers tend to downgrade its significance and prefer to stress Xu's preeminence as a scientist and authority on agriculture. During his lifetime, Xu himself seemed to have succeeded in compartmentalizing his own religious acculturation. That is, in religious matters, he accepted the Roman Catholic faith and followed the instructions of the Jesuit fathers. But in the field of political and social obligations to the state, he acted like a typical Confucian scholar official in his loyal service to the dynasty.
In political activities, Xu was a member of two important offices of the Ming imperial court from 1604 to 1621: the Hanlin Academy, which provided literary service to the court, and the Supervisorate of Imperial Instruction, which directed the education of the heir apparent to the throne. These positions gave him knowledge of the inner workings of the court; they also insulated him from the factional strife which became frequent as the dynasty weakened. He probably knew that he was not without sympathy in the court when he defended the Jesuits against unjustified accusations in 1616. Although he had to observe the mandatory three-year mourning period from 1607 to 1610 after the death of his father in 1607, his positions in these offices would be resumed in 1611 with regular promotions. He would also be assigned a few special duties: in 1611, he would be asked to teach Confucian classics to the eunuchs; in 1613, he would serve as a co-examiner for the jin-shi examination; and in 1617 he would be dispatched to the province of Ningxia (Ninghsia) to bestow imperial investiture on a member of the imperial family.
Before returning to Shanghai in 1607 to observe the mourning period, Xu received instructions in mathematics, astronomy, and Christian theology from Matteo Ricci. A lasting result of their joint efforts was the preparation of a Chinese translation of the first six chapters of Euclid's Elements of Geometry which was published in May of 1607. This translation was based on the Latin version of Euclid produced by Christopher Clavius, a famous Jesuit mathematician and Ricci's professor in Rome. It became the first Western scientific book rendered into the Chinese language. Following this, they also produced a Chinese translation of a work on trigonometry. In addition, Xu wrote a postscript for a book on Christian teaching written by Ricci. Xu wrote two booklets on the surveying method as well.
On his way to Shanghai via Nanjing (Nanking), Xu also invited Father Cattaneo to establish a Catholic church in his hometown. This church eventually developed into a major Catholic center in Shanghai by the early 20th century. Meanwhile, Xu used the mourning period to engage in agricultural enterprises. He planted sweet potatoes, which were then introduced into China from America, and advocated their widespread planting in order to deal with drought and flood emergencies. He promoted the seeding of turnips for food as well. Recognizing that the willow trees which dotted the countryside had only aesthetical appeal, he advised the farmers to plant a special evergreen tree and bamboo tree as both had real economic values. Moreover, by discarding ancient myth, he proved beyond doubt that cotton could be planted in North China and that the textile industry could be gainfully established there as well. When news of Matteo Ricci's death reached him, Xu made preparations for his return to Beijing (Peking) and was there when Ricci's sealed coffin was buried on November 1st, 1611, on All Saints' Day.
From 1611 onward, Xu continued to introduce Western scientific and technological knowledge into China. With the help of the Jesuits, he published in 1612 a work on the Western system of water conservation and irrigation. At that time, he also made an unsuccessful bid to have the Ming court employ Jesuits to reform the Chinese lunar calendar on which many of the farm activities were based. In 1613, securing a sick leave, he went to the area of Tianjin (Tientsin), about 100 miles from Beijing, to establish a 120-acre (800 mou) experimental farm. While there, he tried new methods of reclamation, irrigation, and flood control. He also experimented with the utilization of fertilizers and the planting of rice, beans, mulberry trees in the northern climate.
In July of 1616, Xu was quickly recalled to the capital. It was at that time that a conservative official in Nanjing initiated the persecution and deportation of the Jesuits. Private church services and rapid conversions had fostered suspicions of secret aims. Xu boldly defended the missionaries, offering to receive punishment himself should there be any truth in the false charges. His petition to the throne, the Pien-hsüeh chang-su (Memorial on Western Teachings), is the most important document in the early history of the Chinese Catholic Church. Eventually Xu, together with Li Zhizao and Yang Tingyun, were able to protect those Jesuits who were not involved in the Nanjing episode.
While in the north in the 1610s, Xu had worried about the safety of his son's family when he heard rumors of renewed designs on Shanghai by Japanese pirates. The rumors were false, however, and no attack occurred. Then the Manchu-Qing tribes began to threaten the Ming dynasty's mandate to rule China. Although Xu used every effort to propose measures to deal with the Manchu challenge, he was unable to alter the gradual decay of the Ming rule, especially after the notorious eunuch Wei Zhongxian (Wei Chung-hsien; 1568-1627) gained control of the government from 1621 to 1627. As a consequence, Xu was forced to retire to his hometown in Shanghai, and he returned to his agricultural studies. It was during those years that he compiled the Nung-cheng chuan-shu (Complete Treatise on Agriculture) which became one of the five most important works on agriculture in Chinese history. He also published his recollections concerning the throne, and its dealings with the Manchu threat, under the title Hsü-shih pao-yen (Xu's Private Thoughts). Copies of this book were later destroyed during the literary inquisition ordered by the Manchu Emperor Qianlong (Ch'ien-lung; r. 1736-96). Fortunately, a rare copy was kept in the French Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and was reprinted in 1933 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the death of Xu Guangqi.
Xu ended his years of forced retirement in 1628 after the Chong Zhen emperor, the last Ming ruler, ascended the throne. In five years, Xu rose from the post of vice minister in the Ministry of Rites to grand secretary in the imperial cabinet and concurrently the Minister of Rites. Though he achieved great prestige and additional recognition, other grand secretaries with seniority in the imperial cabinet monopolized the political power. Xu decided to concentrate his efforts in the Calendrical Bureau for which he was also the head. In completing the reform of the Chinese calendar from 1629 until his death in 1633, he earned the perpetual gratitude of the Chinese people. In that task, he brought in the Jesuits to help. He not only safeguarded their positions in China but also paved the way for the German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666) to become influential in the early Manchu dynasty. Under Xu's direction, the Jesuits and their Chinese co-workers translated Western books on astronomy into Chinese, designed new astronomical instruments, calculated the movements of the celestial bodies, and produced a new system of Chinese lunar calendar which was in use officially from the mid-17th to the early years of the 20th century. Unofficially, this calendar is still referred to today when Chinese people everywhere in the world celebrate the annual lunar New Year's Day.
Xu again urged the use of Western cannons and firearms to cope with the Manchu threat. He also suggested the training of new armies and the enlistment of Portuguese soldiers. Due to official inertia, factional rivalries, and financial stringency, all of his appeals came to naught. The fall of the Ming dynasty could be partially traced to the fact that such measures as proposed by Xu were not implemented. Xu also recommended that the Calendrical Bureau be transformed into a sort of Science Academy, this also was not accepted by the imperial court. Had this proposal been acted upon, Chinese science nd technology would not have been so behind the Western world when the Opium War broke out in 1839.
In early 1628, however, Xu was overjoyed to see the publication of the T'ien-hsueh ch'u-han (Books Related to the Lord of Heaven Religion—First Collection). "Heaven Religion" meant Catholicism. This work, which consisted of 20 previously published titles written by the Jesuit missionaries and their Chinese collaborators, deals with various religious and scientific subjects. It stands out as a great landmark in the history of Sino-Western relations and a permanent tribute not only to Matteo Ricci and his Jesuit companions, but also to learned Chinese Catholics of the early 17th century.
Xu died on November 8th, 1633. His descendants continued to be active in the Catholic Church in China. A distant relative of the 11th generation was Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Song Meiling).
Kuang-ch'i, Hsü (Collected Writings of Xu Guangqi). Edited by Wang Chung-min. Shanghai: Chung-hua Book Co., 1963.
"Kuang-ch'i, Hsü" in A. H. Hummel, ed., Emminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period. Library of Congress, 1943-44, pp. 316-19.
Kuang-ch'i nien-p'u, Hsü (Chronological Biography of Xu Guangqi). Edited by Liang Chia-mien. Shanghai: Classics Publishing Co., 1981.
Chen, Min-sun. "Hsü Kuang-ch'i (1562-1633) and His Image of the West," in Cyriac K. Pullapilly and Edwin J. Van Kley, eds. Asia and the West. Notre Dame, Indiana: Cross Cultural Publications, 1986.
Dunne, George H. S. J. Generation of Giants. University of Notre Dame Press, 1962.
Trigault, Nicolas. China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci, 1583-1610. Translated by Louis J. Gallagher, S. J. Random House, 1953.
Ronan, Charles E., S. J. Oh, and Bonnie B. C. Oh, eds. East Meets West: the Jesuits in China, 1582-1773. Loyola University Press, 1988.