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Imagined Civilizations

China, the West, and Their First Encounter

Roger Hart

Publication Year: 2012

Accounts of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Mission to China have often celebrated it as the great encounter of two civilizations. The Jesuits portrayed themselves as wise men from the West who used mathematics and science in service of their mission. Chinese literati-official Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), who collaborated with the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) to translate Euclid’s Elements into Chinese, reportedly recognized the superiority of Western mathematics and science and converted to Christianity. The writings relegate Xu and the Chinese to subsidiary roles as the Jesuits' translators, followers, and converts. Imagined Civilizations tells the story from the Chinese point of view. Using Chinese primary sources, Roger Hart focuses in particular on Xu, who was in a position of considerable power over Ricci. The result is a perspective startlingly different from that found in previous studies. Hart analyzes Chinese mathematical treatises of the period, revealing that Xu and his collaborators could not have believed their declaration of the superiority of Western mathematics. Imagined Civilizations explains how Xu’s West served as a crucial resource. While the Jesuits claimed Xu as a convert, he presented the Jesuits as men from afar who had traveled from the West to China to serve the emperor.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-viii

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-32

This book takes as its starting point an observation that one might hope would be uncontroversial: “civilizations” are no less imagined than “nations.” During the later decades of the twentieth century, the term “imagined communities” gained considerable prominence through critical studies of various forms of nationalism. ...

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2. Science as the Measure of Civilizations

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pp. 33-50

Imagining “civilizations” to be the central actors in historical drama, writers since the eighteenth century have devised a variety of defining features that were supposed to distinguish between them. Terms such as “modernity,” “science,” and “capitalism” headed the list of mutually incongruous candidates invoked to portray stark differences: ...

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3. From Copula to Incommensurable Worlds

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pp. 51-76

By adopting certain naive presuppositions, studies of the asserted problems encountered in translations between languages have often reached dramatic conclusions about the fundamental differences between civilizations. These presuppositions are naive in the sense that they circumvent many of the questions that should properly confront historical inquiry, ...

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4. Mathematical Texts in Historical Context

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pp. 77-130

The Song (960–1276) and early Yuan (1260–1368) mark the apex that traditional Chinese mathematics never again attained, the received historiography has maintained: during the period from the mid-Yuan until the arrival of the Jesuits at the end of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Chinese mathematical treatises were lost, ...

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5. Tracing Practices Purloined by the Three Pillars

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pp. 131-194

“Tattered sandals,” regrettably, was all that remained of Chinese mathematics, which could just as well be discarded because Western mathematics was in every respect superior—or at least so claimed Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) in his preface to the Guide to Calculation in the Unified Script (Tong wen suan zhi, 1613).1 ...

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6. Xu Guangqi, Grand Guardian

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pp. 195-256

Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) rose from presented scholar (jin shi) to one of the more distinguished positions in the official bureaucracy of the Ming dynasty, Grand Guardian of the Heir Apparent and Grand Secretary of the Hall of Literary Profundity (Taizi taibao, Wenyuange da xueshi). ...

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7. Conclusions

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pp. 257-264

Previous accounts of the “first encounter” of “China” and “the West” concur for the most part in their retelling of the historical events. In these accounts, China during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and especially during the later years of the Ming, is often held to have been in a period of profound decline ...

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pp. 265-270

During the period in which this book was written, I have been fortunate to have benefited from the generous support of several institutions and the encouragement of numerous colleagues; I would thus like to express my gratitude for all their help. ...

Appendix A: Zhu Zaiyu’s New Theory of Calculation

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pp. 271-278

Appendix B: Xu Guangqi’s Right Triangles, Meanings

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pp. 279-290

Appendix C: Xu Guangqi’s Writings

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pp. 291-304


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pp. 305-366


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pp. 367-374

E-ISBN-13: 9781421407128
E-ISBN-10: 1421407124
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421406060
Print-ISBN-10: 1421406063

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 15 halftones, 2 line drawings
Publication Year: 2012