- Sojourners in a Strange Land: Jesuits and Their Scientific Missions in Late Imperial China
There is no shortage of books, in several languages, on the Jesuit missionaries in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century China, and on the European science that a few of these Jesuits taught in China. If any subject in the history of late-imperial or early-modern China has attracted enough scholarship to do it justice, it would probably be this one. But much of the more recent scholarship on this subject rather neglects the European audience and background of the scientific mission of the China Jesuits (just as Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land [New York, 1961] does not tell us much of what we might like to know about Valentine Michael Smith's Martian background and support network).
But whereas Heinlein does tell us quite a bit about Smith himself, Hsia's account of the China Jesuits is cast more as a "biography in a collective mode" (p. 7) in which individual personalities do not stand out as clearly or vividly as in the Jesuit historiography of an earlier generation. Although Hsia demonstrates an admirable competence in the field of spherical astronomy (starting on p. 100), neither does the book focus on the science that Jesuits taught in China or even much on the Chinese reception. Hsia's niche in this comparatively oversubscribed field is, rather, "the historical emergence and fortunes of this puzzling figure" (p. 2) of the Jesuit missionary scientist in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century China—an individual who transmitted European science and personal discoveries to the Chinese literati, European savants, and other interested parties of the European proto-Enlightenment.
But what is really mystifying about this book is Hsia's own apparent puzzlement about the figure of the Jesuit "missionary scientist," "saintly mathematician" (p. 147), and "missionary as a man of scientific expertise" (p. 2) and her presentation of such phrases as if they were evidently oxymoronic. Had Hsia read more carefully John L. Heilbron's The Sun in the Church (Cambridge, MA,1999), which is included in her bibliography, she might have been struck by the first sentence: "The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, [End Page 877] from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably, all other institutions" (p. 3). Granted that the Jesuits of this era might be fairly characterized as "shape-shifters" (p. 1) or even as "masked men," where is the evidence that the guise of missionary-scientist was one of the more unusual, if not the "most peculiar" (p. 2), of these shapes? Indeed, the figure of the missionary scientist was not that uncommon a sight in colonial Latin America. In that case, the authorities, as well as the colonial audience, might have occasion to ask,"Who was that masked man?" (title of Hsia's chapter 1).
The most valuable part of the book is the discussion of the literary genres through which the Jesuits communicated with one another and their various publics. It is clear that China became a sort of scientific colony in which the Jesuits began the process of mapping out the universalist pretentions of European science, which in turn transformed China into a not-so-strange land—still exquisite, perhaps, but no longer exotic.