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Fr. Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J.
(1623 - 1688)
a Jesuit scientist in China




Belgian stamp commemorating
Ferdinand Verbiest's work in China


Influence of Ferdinand Verbiest


Three centuries ago the Jesuit mision to China realized a special charism of the Society of Jesus. Its influence was spectacular, including projects like determining the Russo-Chinese border, and its success was even more dramatic than that of the Paraguay Reductions. Sent to Christianize many millions of people, a handful of men were trained in the language and culture of China and skilled in what the Chinese admired most, mathematics and science. Their story is told in tapistries and paintings found in the art world and references to them are read in world histories. It is ironic that the Chinese were taught the heliocentric theory by the Jesuits long before it was allowed in Europe. (Perhaps due to a substantial lag in communications, Galileo's plight had not caught up to the Jesuits in China.)

The China mission has been spoken of with awe and admiration by historians such as Joseph Needham and John Baddeley. Europe was thrilled with the work of the mission. Leibniz, an ecuminist far ahead of his time, suggested to his Jesuit friends on the China mission how to clarify the mystery of the trinity by using the newly discovered imaginary numbers as an analogue of the Holy Spirit. It is not clear whether the Jesuits took Leibniz's advice.

Although the mission had frightful dangers, savage martydoms and terrible disappointments there were times when the Jesuits enjoyed great prestige, independence and authority. One such time, during the reign of Emperor K'ang Hsi, was the tenure of the Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest as President of the Board of Mathematics. Verbiest died 300 years ago on the 27th of January in 1688, was buried with imperial honors.

Their experience was not always triumphant and the Jesuits sometimes endured great sufferings. Shortly after Verbiest arrived in Peking the Jesuits were accused of teaching a false religion and so were chained and cast into a filthy prison where they were bound to wooden pegs in such a way that they could neither stand nor sit. There they remained for almost two months until their sentence of strangulation was imposed. A high court found the sentence too light and ordered them to be cut up into bits while still alive. Because an earthquake destroyed the part of the palace chosen for the execution, the sentence was not carried out and the Jesuits were released.

Soon after in a dramatic turn of events the Jesuits moved from disgrace to honor. The Emperor ordered a public debate concerning the relative merits of Chinese and European astronomy. It was to have three parts: to determine the shadow of a fixed gnomon, to predict the position of the planets at a fixed time and to predict the exact time of a lunar eclipse which had been expected about that time. It was decided that the two astronomers, the Chinese Moslem Yang, and the Christian Verbiest should each use their mathematical skills and then the Heavens would be the judge.
The contest was held at the Bureau of Astronomy where were gathered the privy council, the ministers of state, the officials of the observatory, and a host of other mandarins. Yang was not up to the tasks, while Verbiest, with his precise data, triumphed in all three and was immediately installed as President of the Board of Mathematics.

Verbiest then audaciously suggested that the mistakes in the Chinese calendar be corrected. His predecessors had inserted an extra month to cover previous errors and Verbiest insisted that it be eliminated. Alarmed that such a public document as the nation's calendar used by millions,which had been approved and promulgated by the Emperor, should be altered, the officials begged Verbiest to withdraw the suggestion. He replied, "It is not within my power to make the heavens agree with your calendar. The extra month must be taken out." It was, and Verbiest had won an astonishing victory.

After this Verbiest had a real friend in the Emperor K'ang Hsi who was eager to share his knowledge. Verbiest taught him geometry, and in doing so translated the first six books of Euclid into Manchu. He instructed him also in philosophy and music. In doing this he took advantage of every opportunity to introduce Christianity. The Emperor elevated him to the highest grade of the mandarinate and gave him permission to preach Christianity anywhere in the empire.

After his initial successes Verbiest was entrusted with very many projects of the empire among which was the casting of 132 cannons for the imperial army, instruments far superior to any previous Chinese weapons. For this he was commended by Pope Innocent XI for "using profane science for the safety of the people". It is unlikely such a commendation would have been made today. Among his many inventions is found a steam engine to propel ships, thus anticipating Watts and Fulton. It seemed that little went on in the empire during the next few decades without Verbiest. He was frequently invited to the palace and it was not unusual for the Emperor to take Verbiest along on his expeditions throughout the empire. Having restructured of the calendar, one of the empire's most crucial documents, he composed a table of all solar and lunar eclipses for the next 2000 years. Delighted with this the Emperor gave him complete charge of the imperial astronomy observatory which had been built in 1279.
Since the ancient equipment was by now obsolete, Verbiest designed new instruments and completely rebuilt the observatory in 1673. Sensitive to history of the empire,however, he preserved the old equipment. He then constructed the great bronze astronomical instruments which have become a Peking tourist attraction even today. A century later when the Jesuits were forced out of China. the observatory fell into disrepair. During the Boxer rebellion instruments were stolen and brought to Prussia and the Jesuit scientific library was given to the Czar. In 1981, however, the Chinese government restored the observatory.

The Jesuits long had an interest in find an overland route from Europe through Christian Russia. The Tsar's ambassador to China at the time was able to speak Latin and so could converse with the Jesuits. This involved Verbiest in negotiations over the border between the two countries and later it was partly under his direction that the Russo-Chinese borders were determined and his surveyers were sent out to mark them.

Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J.

Besides his numerous maps of China, and also of the then known world, Verbiest wrote no less than 30 books. Among these may be found a 32 volume handbook on astronomy, a manchu grammar, a Chinese missal and a work entitled Kiao-li-siang-kiai which is a statement of the fundamental teachings of Christianity and which became the basis for later Chinese Chrisitian literature.

His scientific achievements occasioned several princes and many mandarins and scholars to become Catholics, so that by the time Verbiest died there were about 800,000 Catholics living in 1,200 communities. Verbiest is listed as one of 108 Chinese heroes of the popular novel Shui Hu Chuan , and his portrait is shown with Chinese features in a famous Japanese print. After he died he was buried next to the other two giants of the Jesuit mission: Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall. Their tomb is difficult to visit since it is on the campus of a College of Political Science, but it is immaculately preserved.
Verbiest died a century after the Jesuit mission had begun, and a century before the tragic decision of Pope Clement XI regarding the Chinese rites, which pratically ended this vibrant, promising mission. The work in China had to be started over again in a later century and with much less success. It is not difficult to imagine the consequences for the Church and its missionary endeavors if such a decision were made in the fifth century when St Patrick was trying to cope with the rites of the Gaels.





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