Treasures of city's Jesuit legacy are put on display

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 July, 2003, 12:00am

If Matteo Ricci returned to Shanghai today he would be a happy man.

For the first time since 1949, the city government has put on display some of the treasures of the Jesuit legacy to Shanghai, including books dating back to the 16th century and graphics of Ricci's most famous convert, a senior official in the Ming government who is buried in a mausoleum nearby.

The treasures are on display at the Zangshulou, part of the Shanghai Library in Xujiahui, one of the city's busiest commercial districts. The building is part of a four-storey apartment building in a large complex of churches, schools, orphanages, seminaries and a planetarium built by the Jesuits on land they acquired in 1847.

After the Qing government turned against Christian missionaries at the end of the 19th century, the Jesuits had to withdraw from Beijing and turned the Xujiahui domain into their centre.

When the communists expelled the Jesuits from the mainland after 1949, they took with them most of their possessions but left some behind. It is part of this collection that went on display last Tuesday.

The earliest book is a treatise in Latin on western philosophy printed in Venice in 1515, the work of a Scottish scholar named John Duns Scotus, who died in 1308. Next to it is a history of China, also in Latin, by an Italian Jesuit named Martini Martinii, published in 1655.

There is a French-Latin-Chinese dictionary by a French diplomat, Chretien Louis Joseph de Guignes, 'published on the order of His Majesty, the King and Emperor Napoleon the Great' in 1813 by the imperial publishers. It is one of the few copies in the world.

There is also a Latin-Chinese dictionary published in 1723, a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary published in 1833 in Macau and books written in Chinese by Jesuit scholars.

On the wall hangs a handwritten map of Jiangsu province, produced by a French Jesuit named Gibert, which records the number and location of Catholic churches.

Also on display are photographs dating from the 1850s, which record the growth of the Jesuit domain from a single church in a house in traditional style to dozens of western-style buildings, including St Ignatius Cathedral, built between 1896 and 1910 with a capacity of 2,500. It remains the largest Catholic church in China.

One shows a European teacher with a long beard teaching his students in French and Latin. Another shows a school orchestra.

The man who started all this was Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit who came to China in the late 16th century and was allowed to live in Beijing in 1601 on an imperial stipend as a western scholar. He and other Jesuits used their knowledge of astronomy, cartography, clockwork and memory training to attract members of the Chinese elite.

Ricci's most famous convert was Paul Siu - Xu Guangchi - a top official and astronomer who converted in 1603 and is buried in Xujiahui. His mausoleum is in the process of being repaired.

A library official said changes in the overall climate made it possible to show these treasures for the first time.

'Our principal job has been preservation,' he said. It is expected the items will be on display for two weeks.

Asked if the government would return the domain to the Jesuits, the official said no. 'It is only because the city has looked after these buildings that some remain,' he said. 'Look around you. Most have been demolished for commercial development.'

Relations between Beijing and Rome remain tense, with the Vatican one of the few states in the world that does not recognise the communist government.

But for a few days, the public can marvel at this collection - and thank Ricci for his legacy to China.

Caption: One of the dictionaries left behind by the Jesuits which is on display at the exhibition in Shanghai.