A fascinating new take on the Jesuit missionaries to China

Paul Xu (bottom left) and his granddaughter Candida (bottom right), along with Ricci, Schall, and Verbiest (top row) (Wikimedia Commons)

Ten years ago, the Jesuit-run Taiwanese television production company Kuangchi Program Service started a series of documentaries on Jesuits in China. But unlike typical examples of such films, Kuangchi took the unusual step of focusing its initial story not so much on well-known Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci but on Paul Xu Guangqi. Paul was a Chinese layman, inspired by Ricci, whose work helped open many doors for Christianity in China.

As a result of K.P.S.’s willingness to come at the story from a Chinese perspective and to focus in large part on the scientific and scholarly achievements of Jesuits in China, “Paul Xu Guangqi—China’s Man for All Seasons” was given the privilege of debuting on Chinese television, the first time a documentary featuring a European missionary was given such an opportunity. And the film was extraordinarily well received; its audience was in the hundreds of millions.

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A second piece followed about 17th-century German Jesuit Adam Schall von Bell, who among other things helped China reorient its calendar. And a third film, about 18th-century Italian painter and missionary Guiseppe Castiglione, was viewed in China by over 360 million people—larger than the entire population of the United States.

I’m always a little leery of religious documentaries. It’s very hard for religious groups not to turn their stories into either a tale of “church triumphant amidst the simple/violent natives” or a kind of children’s story hagiography which reads closer to Santa Claus (but with wounds!) than the complexity of the person or their context. But I must say I really enjoyed these films, which Kuangchi has now made available internationally on DVD under the title “Thriving on Difference: Jesuits and Their Engagement with China.”

Each is between 25 minutes and 45 minutes, is in English and has the look and feel of a classic P.B.S. documentary. My personal favorite is the film on Castiglione; it’s filled with gorgeous paintings done by him over the course of his 51 years in China, along with fascinating insights into how his work interacted with and impacted the Chinese artistic scene. Castiglione’s work demonstrated the possibilities of linear perspective to Chinese artists and led to major innovations. And his ongoing conversation with the Chinese via his art is really interesting to consider.

I was also fascinated by how the film on Xu Guangqi uncovers a sort of forgotten history of the Jesuits in China. It’s Guangqi that pushes Ricci to translate Euclid’s Geometry into Chinese, an effort that took four hours a day for 18 months and ended up revolutionizing mathematics in China. It’s also Guangqi—some 18 years after Ricci had died—who got the Chinese emperor to look to the Jesuits for new astronomical equipment and help with their calendar after Chinese court astronomers’ work proved inadequate in predicting the time and length of a solar eclipse. 

If you’re looking for something a little different for your parish or classroom or you’re interested in some well-told stories about intercultural exchange in China, I highly recommend these DVDs. They can be purchased as a set here

Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent.

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