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  • Letters of a Peking Jesuit: The Correspondence of Ferdinand Verbiest SJ (1623–1688). Revised and Expanded by Noël Golvers
  • Wu Huiyi (bio)
Noël Golvers. Letters of a Peking Jesuit: The Correspondence of Ferdinand Verbiest SJ (1623–1688). Revised and Expanded. Leuven: Ferdinand Verbiest Institute, KU Leuven, 2017. 962 pp. Paperback €82.00, isbn 978-90-8209-098-7.

The Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688, in China after 1659) was one of the giants who indelibly marked the Jesuit China mission (1583–1793). The linchpin figure of the Catholic Church in China during the first decades of Kangxi era, Verbiest also served as the director of the Astronomical Bureau (Qintianjian 欽天監), taught Western mathematics to the emperor, produced world maps, casted iron cannons for the Qing armies, and acted as interpreter for Portuguese, Dutch, and Russian envoys in Beijing. He is, indisputably, a figure of exceptional interest for understanding Sino-Western relations during the early Qing period, for historians of politics, religion, and science alike. However, in stark contrast to Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) who has been the subject of more than a dozen monographs, there has been little research on Verbiest and his many activities: only two book-length publications, a biography in Dutch (1970), and an edited volume stemming from a conference held in 1988, have so far been dedicated to him. This new complete edition of Verbiest's extensive correspondence, expertly compiled and annotated by Noël Golvers, a leading scholar in the history of the Jesuit China mission, will no doubt offer a long-awaited opportunity for researchers from a wide range of fields.

As the title indicates, this edition, containing 134 letters (both those written by Verbiest and those sent to him), a long introduction (pp. 11–84), an appendix, and glossaries, builds on an earlier edition in 1938 by Henri Josson and Léopold Willaert, itself based on the work of Father Henri Bosman in the 1920s. This earliest edition of Verbiest's letters contains 88 items based on an incomplete survey of originals in Belgian libraries and photographs from the Jesuit Roman archives (the originals being then inaccessible). Golvers's new [End Page 255] edition, the result of a 20-year comprehensive survey in archives across Europe, Asia, and America, represents both a quantitative and qualitative leap forward. It most notably contains 43 newly discovered letters from the Ajuda Library of Lisbon which have never before been published, together with fragments of Verbiest's lost letters collated from other historical sources. Misspellings and omissions of the 1938 editions have been corrected.

Moreover, the critical apparatus is thoroughly upgraded. Written in Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and Russian, each letter is preceded by an exhaustive inventory of the physical locations of its extant copies and evidence of its reception in the seventeenth century. Each letter is also provided with a rich body of annotations and a substantial English summary containing its main arguments and significant details, often involving full-scale translation. Readers not fully versed in these languages are thus able to appreciate and utilize the valuable information these letters contain. In all respects, this new edition has surpassed the older one, and is most likely to become the definitive edition of Verbiest's European-language correspondence.

Verbiest's correspondence contains a wealth of information on a broad range of topics, not least the daily conduct of the Catholic mission in China during that period, which saw significant turmoil. It provides interesting first-hand accounts of early Qing history, including the transition from the Oboi Regency to Kangxi's personal reign, the War of Three Feudatories, and Sino-Russian confrontations, while echoing events in Europe at a distance, such as the defeat of the Ottoman army in the Battle of Vienna in 1683 and the expulsion of the Huguenots from France in 1685. The letters paint a colorful picture of the historical world of a seventeenth century China Jesuit in which global and local dynamics are closely intertwined.

The significance of this timely publication should be appreciated against the background of a thoroughly renewed historiography about the Jesuit China mission during the past three decades, which is addressed in Golvers's...