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Florentine writer Lorenzo Magalotti published Relazione della China after a colourful evening’s chat in 1665 with Austrian Jesuit priest Father Johann Grueber, who had spent several years in China. Photo: Wellcome Library, London.

Jesuit’s rich portrait of 17th century China, as told to a Florentine scientist, intrigued a fragmented Europe

  • Florentine writer Lorenzo Magalotti wrote of the ways and culture of the Chinese in Relazione della China after being regaled by Father Johann Grueber in 1665
  • Grueber spent several years in Peking before travelling overland to India by way of Tibet and Nepal, and witnessed life in the early years of the Qing dynasty

Marco Polo wasn’t the only adventurer who returned from China with a treasure trove of tales and mesmerising accounts of the Orient. For centuries, missionaries and traders were the savvy travellers who unlocked the mysteries of the Far East, relating them to avid European scholars and readers hungry for all things exotic.

In 1666, almost 400 years after Polo’s adventures, Florentine writer and scientist Lorenzo Magalotti published Relazione della China (“Report of China”), in which he enthusiastically recounted a colourful evening chat with an Austrian Jesuit priest who had spent several years in China. In 1665, Father Johann Grueber had passed through Florence and regaled Magalotti and a friend with tales of the culture, ways and lifestyle of the Chinese.

More than four centuries later, with China’s political and cultural influence on the rise, Magalotti’s book – which has been translated into French but not English – is undergoing a revival in Italy, republications proving popular among sinologists and the title becoming a key textbook at university faculties devoted to the Orient.

“Even though it’s brief, it is packed with details that fed the curiosity of Italians and Europeans for everything related to distant, unknown lands,” says sinologist Alberto Jori, a founding member of the Oriental Studies depart­ment at Milan’s Accademia Ambrosiana. “Following in the steps of famed missionary Matteo Ricci [an Italian Jesuit who landed in Macau in 1582], Jesuits were valued guests at the imperial court due to their astronomical knowledge. They had the privilege of dressing as mandarins and were witnesses of that world.”

The cover of Magalotti’s book.

Grueber arrived in China in 1656, as a professor of mathematics. In 1661, his superiors recalled him to Rome but a Dutch blockade of Macau prevented him from journeying by sea, so he instead embarked on a risky overland trip from Peking to Goa, India, by way of Tibet and Nepal.

What awed Magalotti about Grueber’s tales was the richness with which the Jesuit was able to portray life in the early years of the Qing dynasty. China’s stability and prosperity became a socio­political model for bickering Italian city states and European nations, says Jori.

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In the lively conversation, many facets of Chinese life were touched upon and the author often quoted his source, their two voices overlapping. Magalotti marvelled at descriptions of China’s wide cotton and rice fields; its gold, sapphire and emerald mines; and the “incredible quantity of money” raised by the kingdom’s customs collectors. The tiles of Peking’s royal palace, painted in beautiful yellow, “shine with sunlight as if made of gold”.

Grueber recalled the Kangxi Emperor – who would have been just a child when the priest left Peking – regularly strolling through the capital, among his people, and personally instructing his militia in their archery techniques in green fields enclosed by water ponds and walls.

The complexity of the “noble and eminent” Chinese language, able to express itself in almost “infinite” ways, fascinated Magalotti. As did concubines; the two Christians were shocked and amazed that a married man could keep as many lovers as he wished.

Tying of a ribbon at a 17th century Chinese wedding. Photo: Getty Images

“Men aged 18 get married and receive the wife’s dowry but can repudiate their wife at any time while keeping her fortune,” wrote Magalotti. Noble women rarely left their homes and when they did, they were carried in litters or by horse or donkey, with their bodies fully covered.

Chinese eating habits are sumptuously described in the book. Grueber and Magalotti were astonished that the Chinese “do not drink wine even though they have wonderful grapes”, preferring instead fermented wheat and rice drinks, and, of course, tea.

“They like their drink boiling hot so they keep it in vases near the fireplace but in summer they put some ice inside to cool it down a bit, though never leave the ice piece to totally melt for they enjoy a ‘virtual cold’. But they do like frozen fruits and ice is sold during summer on city streets.” Unfortunately, Magalotti does not explain how ice was procured and stored in those days.

The type of drinking vessel used identified one’s social status, with ordinary folk using terracotta cups, aristocrats golden and silver cone-shaped goblets that, to be placed on the table, had to be first emptied, and rich people drinking from rhinoceros horns studded with gems and gold specks.

An illustration from a Chinese manuscript of the Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, and his first convert, circa 1667. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Magalotti wrote of “little wooden sticks said to be used instead of forks” and praised the abundance of food: from great crops to succulent meats, fruits and vegetables that were “exquisitely flavoured by the numerous spices coming from the Molucche” – El Dorado for European traders who, in the 1500s, had begun trying to muscle in on the spice trade that flowed from the Maluku Islands (now part of eastern Indonesia).

Some Chinese sauces proved to be inedible for the Jesuit; soybeans and miso he defined as being “smelly” and used as “a universal sauce that blends well with all dishes. Missó is their salt, given they don’t use salt even though they have many salt wells and ponds in the western Chinese provinces.”

The Chinese banqueting style was different to that of noble European house­holds, at which everyone sat together around a large table. In China, three guests sat per table while the host dined alone, at his own table, the priest told the author. No tablecloth was used and the crockery was made of porcelain, which varied in fineness depending on social class. But just as in 1600s Europe, meals were accompanied by “superbly dressed” comedians who staged plays based on royal or family stories. These actors were either freelance or under the patronage of wealthy lords.

Magalotti wrote that although the Chinese lacked olive trees, and therefore olive oil, they used other kinds of oils, including a delicate jasmine flower liqueur and oil made from seeds of sour-tasting sesame.

The Meal of the Emperor of China, 1742. Photo: Getty Images

Chinese bedrooms are also mentioned in the book: thin cotton bedsheets; bed pavilions of thick cloth for the winter; and veils during the summer to protect against mosquitoes. Mattresses were stuffed with dried seaweed, “very soft and more delicate than silk that gives an extremely refreshing feeling”. Cushions and pillows – works of art made of fresh, soft rattan and hollow inside – were “as smooth as marble but allow the head to rest without sinking in”. Laying one’s head on one was a “delight that overcomes imagination”.

Chinese funeral etiquette also fascinated Magalotti. Burials featured many candles and fragrances, lavish sculptures and ornate coffins made from aloe, red and white sandal wood and other rare and expensive plant materials.

In a passage relating to clothing, Magalotti wrote that royal and noble Chinese wore gems on their hats – pearls, rubies, emeralds – while, depending on which aristocratic group they fit into, images of particular animals were stitched into their clothing.

When it came to sports, the Jesuit mentioned that a type of football was popular in China; five players passing the ball with their feet among themselves. They had mastered the game so well, claimed Grueber, that he once saw the ball in the air for more than 15 minutes without ever touching the ground.

Thanks to the vivid description of Chinese habits that shed light on the Orient, perceived as a faraway, complex cultural universe, the book was picked up by other authors in Europe
Federico Masini, professor of Chinese language and literature at the Sapienza University of Rome

Being an academic, it was no surprise that medicine and science had grasped the priest’s attention while he was in Peking. He was particularly impressed by the ability of the Chinese to diagnose illnesses by examining the human wrist as if it were an oracle.

In Sichuan province, wrote Magalotti, they used a root dubbed tiger’s milk for medicinal purposes. It oozed a white substance like that which leaked from the breast of a tigress when she defended her cubs from hunters. “The scent of this root’s pulp is similar to that of milk, and just as pure white [...] it is used as a potent sweat-inducing therapy.”

Chinese artisans are praised in the book, particularly those capable of making thin, beautiful vases of “rice glass”. But the art form Magalotti marvelled at most was that of the firework makers, who worked their magic not just in the open air but also inside the villas of rich families. The Jesuit told his listeners that had he not seen the spectacle himself, he would have never believed that bright double helices of light could have fallen from the ceiling of a banquet hall and turned into grape-shaped designs on the floor. It was all so real and colourful that “a paint brush couldn’t have done it better”.

Acrobats perform at the Imperial Court in the 17th century. Photo: Getty Images

There was room in the pages for vices, too. The Chinese were identified as big smokers of tobacco. Women kept their smoking pipe and tobacco inside a pocket on their shoulder while the men attached their equipment to their belt.

The success of Magalotti’s book when it was first published lay in the fact that it wasn’t written in Latin but in vernacular Italian, making it accessible to all, says Federico Masini, professor of Chinese language and literature at the Sapienza University of Rome.

“Thanks to the vivid description of Chinese habits that shed light on the Orient, perceived as a faraway, complex cultural universe, the book was picked up by other authors in Europe,” he says.

Portrait of the Qing emperor Kangxi, (1661-1722). Photo: Getty Images

When his conversation with Grueber came to an end, Magalotti still had many questions. He had become ravenously curious but daylight was breaking and the priest had to get back on the road.

Who knows how many others heard his tales of mysterious China?