The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (left) and the Chinese mathematician Xu Guangqi (???) (right) in an image from Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata, published in 1667. The Chinese edition of Euclid’s Elements (????) was printed in 1607.

Xu Guangqi, with missionary Matteo Ricci, translated Western texts into Chinese during the Ming dynasty. Their translation of Euclid’s Elements exerted great influence on Chinese mathematics. Xu became a high official in the Ming court.

Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), born in Shanghai, was baptized by Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in 1603, taking the name “Paul.” For the next three years Xu and Ricci collaborated in translating Western texts on astronomy, mathematics, and geography into Chinese. Their most famous translation was the Greek geometer Euclid’s Elements, which exerted a great influence on Chinese mathematics. Xu also wrote original works on trigonometry and agriculture, most notably the Book of Agriculture, which advocated the adoption of Western agricultural practices such as mapping, surveying, and irrigation. His interest in practical subjects was a departure from the dominance of neo-Confucian thought. After Xu became a high official in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) court, he sponsored the Jesuit missionaries in China.

Xu believed that Western scholarship, particularly geometry, could complement Confucianism and replace Buddhism by undermining the tendency toward vague speculation. In 1629 Xu demonstrated the use of Western science in predicting solar eclipses and other astrological events. When the Manchus invaded China in 1630, Xu persuaded the emperor to use Western armaments to defend the capital.

Xu Guangqi’s “Preface” to the Chinese translations of Euclid’s Elements

During the times of the Tang and Yu there already were Xi and He who took care of the calendar, as well as the Minister of Works, the Minister of Agriculture, the Forester, and the Director of Ritual Music—if those five Offices would have been deprived of Measures and Numbers, it would have been impossible to fulfill their tasks. Mathematics is one of the Six Arts mentioned in the Offices of Zhou, and the (other) five could not have led to any results without the use of Measures and Numbers… Therefore I have said that far back, during the period of the Three Dynasties, those who applied themselves to this calling were immersed in a rock-solid tradition of learning that was passed on from master to pupil—but that has in the end perished in the flames of the Ancestral Dragon. Since the Han dynasty there have been many who haphazardly groped to fine their way, like a blind man aiming at a target, vainly shooting in the air without effect; others followed their own judgments, based on outward appearances, like one who lights up an elephant with a candle, and, by the time he gets hold of its head has lost sight of its tail. That in our days the Way has completely disappeared, was that not unavoidable?! The Jihe Yuanben is the Ancestor of Measure and Numbers it is that by which one exhausts all the aspects of the square, the round, the plane, and the straight, and by which one completely covers the use of compasses, carpenter’s square, water-level and measuring rope… Starting from what is clearly perceptible, [this work] penetrates into what is most subtle; from what is doubtful certainly is obtained. Is not that utility of what is useless, the basis of all what is useful?! In truth it can be called “the pleasure-garden of the myriad forms, the Erudite Ocean of the Hundred Schools [of philosophy].” Although it actually has not yet been completed, yet, with it as a reference, it is already possible to discuss the other books…

Source: Katz, V. J.. (2007). The Mathematics of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, and Islam: A sourcebook. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 372–373.

Further Reading

Engelfriet, P. (1998). Euclid in China: The genesis of the first Chinese translation of Euclid’s Elements, books I-VI (Jihe yuanben, Beijing, 1607) and its reception up to 1723. Boston: E. J. Brill.

Jami, C., Engelfriet, P., & Blue, G. (2001). Statecraft and intellectual renewal in late Ming China: The cross-cultural synthesis of Xu Guangqi, 1562-1633. Boston: E. J. Brill.

Source: Oakman, Daniel (2009). XU Guangqi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2528–2529. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

XU Guangqi (Xú Gu?ngq? ???)|Xú Gu?ngq? ??? (XU Guangqi)

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