Nirmal DASS

Father Ferdinand Verbiest, from the manuscript Galerie illustrée de portraits de jésuites, by A. Hamy, 1893.

One of a number of Jesuit missionaries who were sent to China from Rome in the seventeenth century, Father Ferdinand Verbiest was befriended by the K’ang-shi emperor and became one of the foremost astronomers and scientists in China.

Father Ferdinand Verbiest was born in Pittem, a small town in what is now Belgium, and from an early age he studied at the institutions of the Jesuits in Belgium and in Seville, Spain. He excelled at mathematics, science, and astronomy, as well as languages: He was fluent in Flemish, Latin, German, Italian, and Spanish. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Society of Jesus in the hope of going to work in the missions in Central and South America. But the Jesuits had other plans for him; word had come from the Far East, calling for more priests to carry on missionary work in China. Father Ferdinand at once set about to learn Manchu, gaining much fluency by the time he left for China in 1658. He was one of about thirty-five missionaries sent by the Jesuits.

The subsequent years were difficult ones. The missionaries faced varying degrees of persecution and privations, since their fates were closely tied with Chinese politics. When the Shunzhi emperor died at a young age, the affairs of the state fell into the hands of four co-regents who governed on behalf of his seven-year-old successor, K’ang-shi. The regents looked unfavorably on the influence of the Jesuits, and sought to discredit them by an old custom in which they pitted them against renowned shamans of the court. The Jesuits, led by Father Johann Adam Schall von Bell, lost the competition to a Muslim shaman, Yang Guangxian. Schall and the others were imprisoned on the charge of spreading Christianity (labeled an evil religion), and sentenced to death. They were saved by an earthquake, however, which was interpreted as a sign of heavenly displeasure. All the inmates in the prison were released, including the Jesuits. A few years later, Father Verbiest underwent a similar competition, again against Yang, but this time the Jesuits won.

In 1699 the heir to the throne came of age and took power as the K’ang-shi emperor. He, like his father, favored the Jesuits, and within the year, Father Ferdinand was placed in charge of the royal observatory and was made the overseer of the dissemination of mathematical knowledge in the kingdom.

One of his first tasks was to complete a calendar that would reform an inaccurate lunar calendar, devised by a Muslim rival of the Jesuits, which had included an extra month. The new calendar that Father Ferdinand made used solar rather than lunar calculations and was personally approved by the emperor, thus becoming the new standard across China. Thereafter he and Father Ferdinand became close friends, and the Jesuit taught the young emperor mathematics and geometry, music, and philosophy. As a result, Father Ferdinand’s stature grew, and he became one of the most influential men of his time in China.

Among the things he devised for the emperor were star charts, a cannon, and even a steam-driven toy cart, which some say is the first automobile. The star charts, which became a great aid to navigation, clearly identified the various constellations and celestial bodies and located their exact position in the sky. The cannons that were cast were far superior to the ones then in use in the Chinese army, in that they could withstand prolonged use without fear of explosion from overheating. In addition, he designed and had cast six astronomical instruments in 1673, which were housed in a newly built observatory in Beijing. Replicas of these instruments may still be seen at the observatory; the original instruments were removed during the Boxer Rebellion and taken to Prussia by the Germans. Among the instruments that would prove the most beneficial were the sextant, which one could use to determine latitude; the ecliptic armilla, which was used to calculate ecliptical longitude and latitude of the stars and planets; and the equatorial armilla, which allowed for the computation of true solar time.

Father Ferdinand also wrote more than forty books on science, mechanics, astronomy, and theology. As special gifts for the emperor, he created a world map and a table of all lunar and solar eclipses for the coming two thousand years. This world map included the latest details available, and was the most complete of its time. Its impact was immeasurable in that it sought to chart the entire world from the Chinese point of view. China was the locus, from which the various points of longitude and latitude radiated.

Father Ferdinand died in 1688 after falling from his horse. He was buried in Beijing near equally renowned fellow Jesuits: Fathers Matteo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell. The emperor bestowed upon him a posthumous name; he was the only European to have been given such a royal honor. Through his work in mathematics, physics, engineering, astrology, mechanics, cartography, philosophy, and theology, Father Verbiest provided a wide-ranging and comprehensive view of Western scientific traditions to the Chinese intellectual tradition.

Further Reading

Golvers, N. (2003). Ferdinand Verbiest, S. J. (1623-1688) and the Chinese heaven: The composition of the astronomical corpus, its diffusion and reception in the European Republic of Letters. Louvain Chinese Studies, 12. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press.

Hardenberg, H. O. (1995). The oldest precursor of the automobile: Ferdinand Verbiest steam turbine-powered vehicle model. Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers.

Masini, F. (1996). Western humanistic culture presented to China by Jesuit missionaries (XVII-XVIII centuries): Proceedings of the conference held in Rome, Ocober. 25-27, 1993. Rome: Institutum Historicum, S. I.

Rowbotham, A. H. (1942). Missionary and Mandarin: The Jesuits at the court of China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Witek, J. W. (Ed.). (1994). Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688): Jesuit missionary, scientist, engineer, and diplomat. Nettetal, Germany: Steylar Verlag.

Source: Dass, Nirmal. (2009). VERBIEST, Father Ferdinand. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2385–2386. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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