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  • Euclid in China: The Genesis of the First Translation of Euclid's Elements, Books I-VI (Jihe yuanben, Beijing, 1607) and Its Reception up to 1723
  • Mary Tiles (bio)
Peter Engelfriet . Euclid in China: The Genesis of the First Translation of Euclid's Elements, Books I-VI (Jihe yuanben, Beijing, 1607) and Its Reception up to 1723. Sinica Leidensia, vol. 40. Leiden, Boston, and Köln: E. J. Brill, 1998. xii, 488 pp. Hardcover $135.50, ISBN 900-410944-7.

The story of a translation of a book on geometry, even if it is a Western classic, might suggest a highly technical, rather dull study that is of interest only to specialized historians of mathematics. However, once a little of the historical context of this translation is filled in, it soon becomes apparent that understanding more about this project is of central importance in understanding the cultural interchange that took place between China and Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The first six books of Euclid's Elements, published in 1607, was the first substantial translation of a European text into Chinese. This in itself is surprising. Why should this particular work have been given priority for translation? Learning just a little more about the translators—Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi —only serves to heighten our puzzlement. Matteo Ricci was the missionary considered to be the "founder" of the Jesuit mission in China, where he arrived in 1583. Xu Guangqi was a member of the prestigious Hanlin Academy who converted to Christianity in 1604. But why were missionary and recent convert working to translate Euclid? One might have expected them to be at work on translating some part of the Bible or at least something written by one of the fathers of the Church.

Clearly there is much more that we need to understand about Euclid's Elements as an icon of Western culture and about its place on the intellectual map of the seventeenth-century Jesuits. We also clearly need to learn more about the intellectual milieu of the Chinese elite toward the end of the Ming dynasty before we can appreciate what sort of interest they would have had in Euclid's Elements. [End Page 426] This information is exactly what Peter M. Engelfriet provides, in meticulous but also highly readable and fascinating detail, in his Euclid in China. He places the translation in context, paying attention to three primary aspects: (1) the intellectual background of those who transmitted Euclid and of the version of Euclid that served as the basis for the translation; (2) the details of the translation itself and of the problems encountered in rendering a technical work from Latin into Classical Chinese; and (3) the motivations and interests of China's scholarly and bureaucratic elite, discussing the extent to which the new mathematics was accommodated within traditional Chinese conceptions of knowledge.

Until recently the Jesuits have fared badly at the hands of historians of science. Once portrayed as the villains in the story of Galileo versus the church— freedom, science, and enlightenment versus an antiquated, short-sighted, authoritarian religious establishment—they seem almost to have been written out of the history of science. One of the benefits of looking into this translation project is that it compels us to put aside this preconception and take a fresh look at the role of the Jesuits in the European intellectual life of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Engelfriet's second chapter helps us to do just that. From his point of view, a key figure is Christopher Clavius, who was responsible for raising the status of mathematics within Jesuit education, as well as for arguing the case, against the more traditional Aristotelians, that mathematics has a place in science. Moreover, it was Clavius' version of the first six books of Euclid's Elements that Ricci and Xu Guangqi translated into Chinese. This is important in a consideration of how the translation was received in China, for there are substantial differences between Clavius' version and the one that we now take to be Euclid's.

Having filled in some of the details of Ricci's intellectual background and of the place...


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