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from issue no. 06/07 - 2010

“Pray to the Lord for the country because on its welfare depends your welfare” (Jer 29, 7)

Xu Guangqi: the Gospel and the well-being of the Empire


The adventure of the high imperial official at the Ming court who became a disciple of Matteo Ricci. His concern for the welfare of the people increased after he had received baptism. And now the Catholics of Shanghai want him beatified


by Gianni Valente


The facade of Xujiahui Cathedral, Shanghai <BR>[© Imaginechina/Contrasto]

The facade of Xujiahui Cathedral, Shanghai
[© Imaginechina/Contrasto]

The vast lands of China have been reddened by the precious blood of many martyred Christians. The Church has already proclaimed many of them saints and blesseds. But no pope, so far, has canonized a Chinese as a holy confessor of the faith.
The wise man of Shanghai, Paul Xu Guangqi, may be the first. Astronomer, mathematician, high official of the empire at the end of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese children learn of him at school as a benevolent father of his country, the man who invented the formulas through which they learn Euclidean geometry, who spread new techniques of cultivation, developed systems for controlling the inland waterways, showing everyone that the regular flooding of Chinese land was not the inescapable vengeance of Heaven. According to the great Jesuit from Macerata, Matteo Ricci, who in 1603 kindled his desire to be baptized, the scholar “with a fine mind and great natural virtues” was no less than “the pillar of Christianity” in China at that time.
For centuries Christians, especially in Shanghai, have kept the memory of Xu Guangqi with devotion, remembering him as one who had brought the faith in Christ to Shanghai, attracting relatives, friends and other members of the educated class to baptism. His great-great-great-great grandson built the first cathedral in the city. The present one, with the bishop’s residence, is located in the Xujiahui district, which takes its name from the Xu family lands where the local Church first settled. Even in the forties of last century, descendants of the eleventh and twelfth generations of Xu served the diocese as priests. While Christians suffering from serious diseases begged the intercession of Xu to obtain the miracle of healing from the Almighty.
Then came the storm of the Cultural Revolution. After the bloody stage of persecution, the young seminarians of the ‘eighties seemed to have forgotten the name of Xu Guangqi. Now, the memory of the imperial mandarin who became the father of the Church of Shanghai has begun to resurface. At 94 years old, with the shrewd self-confidence of youth, Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian is testing the ground to see if the process for his beatification can be set going. Jin is certain “that Xu Guangqi went to heaven to enjoy the glory of the Blessed Trinity as long as 377 years ago”. And he is also convinced that the story of the Chinese Christian who lived so long ago could provide counsel to the whole Church of China in its present situation.

The four loves
Eulogy for Xu Guangqi is the title of the booklet that Bishop Jin has written to tell the “four loves” of his illustrious fellow citizen: love of country, of the people, of knowledge and of the Church. At the end of the sixteenth century the imperial court in China was corrupt, graft was normal practice, the emperor spent his time getting drunk and copulating with his concubines, surrounded by despicable, intriguing cowards. The coastal areas suffered from the raids of the Wokou pirates, based in the islands of Japan. Even the wealthy Xu family was forced to flee to escape their raids, while their property was looted and destroyed. “Xu Guangqi”, writes Bishop Jin, “became aware as a child of the failings of the State and the suffering of the people. And he realized that a people can prosper only if they live in a strong State”. In a time of decadence and decline the young Xu nevertheless felt admiration for the human greatness of the political design that despite the knavery of the powerful held together the imperial structure in its attempt to organize the life of a people scattered over a vast territory. It was that that led him to undertake a career as imperial functionary. It took him till he was forty-two, with great effort and after many failures, to pass the examinations that allowed him into the mandarinate. In his 72 years he held various high-ranking government posts: member of the Imperial Hanlin Academy, Minister of State Ceremonial, Minister of Imperial Examinations and deputy prime minister, till becoming tutor of the heir to the imperial throne. His first ambition was to train a strong army to defend the country from the attacks of its enemies, leading him to ask his Jesuit friends to teach him Western methods of cannon manufacture. But the luxury-loving Emperor Wanli paid no heed to his ideas and refused financial support. Then, like Cincinnatus, Xu withdrew to the city of Tianjin to farm the land. It was no hobby, “He knew”, Jin writes in his praise, “that the people are the soul of a nation, and that food is the biggest problem for the people. The first concern of the State must be that of feeding the people”. That is why land is not cultivated negligently: agriculture should be studied as a science, one must understand the soil, seeds, irrigation systems, tools, climate, the changing seasons. Xu went carefully into the details, trying out on his land in Shanghai and Tianjin intensive cultivation of potatoes in times of drought and of flood, and also managed to plant the rice paddies in the infertile northern provinces. His desire to contribute to the greatness of the imperial design took the form of providing food, drink and clothing for the common people, increasing the prosperity of the great country. Xu’s passionate concern for the daily life of his fellow countrymen comes across in very concrete fashion in the books he wrote on the cultivation of the sweet potato, the turnip, rice and in the sixty volumes of his Treatise on Agriculture.

A portrait of Paul Xu Guangqi

A portrait of Paul Xu Guangqi

Doctor Paulus
On official business in 1596 the then thirty-four year old Xu met for the first time a Western Catholic priest, the Jesuit Lazzaro Cattaneo. In 1600, going to Beijing to take an exam at the Ministry of Rites, he may have seen Matteo Ricci in Nanjing. Three years later, during another posting to Nanjing, the other Jesuit João Da Rocha opened the door to the chapel to let him reverence the image of Our Lady and the Baby Jesus and gave him to read the manuscripts of the Catechism and of Christian doctrine written in Chinese by his great Jesuit brother Matteo Ricci. Xu devoured them in one night and the next morning asked to be baptized. For him, who said he was naturally inclined to doubt and skepticism, after reading the writings of Matteo Ricci “a cloud was slashed and every hesitation gone”. After eight days of intensive instruction he received baptism with the name Paul. From then on the Jesuit community in China called him familiarly Doctor Paulus.
Paul Xu welcomed the gift of faith promptly and without hesitation or waverings. Other high-ranking scholars met by Matteo Ricci, such as Qu Taisu and Li Zhizao, took their time to get baptized because they did not want to leave their concubines. As a young man Xu had married a girl to whom he always remained faithful and never practiced concubinage, as he would have been allowed by his social status.
As one of the great intellectuals of his day, Xu had seriously engaged with the virtuous ideals set out by Confucius. “Confucianism”, observes Bishop Jin in his praise of Xu, “calls for the observance of an ethic and a morality of a high order, but never provides a method for achieving the goal”. When Xu asked for baptism, his thinking had already led him to the conclusion that “the Christianity preached by the missionaries was not opposed to Confucianism, it only adds what is missing in Confucianism”. For the Christian the gift of grace can also make easy the exercise of moral virtues that the spiritual quest of Confucianism indicates as ideal goals, without then being able to point out the road to get there. His teacher Matteo Ricci also thought along those lines. The classical Confucian tradition seemed to him a spiritual wisdom for use in life, with references to metaphysical elements – the existence of a supreme being, immortality of the soul, the rewards and punishments commensurate with the exercise of moral virtue – all reachable by “the light of reason”. For the Jesuit from Macerata, Ricci, Confucianism was also compatible with Christianity not least because of its substantial indifference to the divine and its concern for worldly things. So Ricci never tired of speaking well “of the sect of scholars and its creator Confucius, who, not knowing the things of the Hereafter, had only taught of living well in this present, and of governing and preserving peace in the Realm and the Republic”.
The Christian life of the great Chinese intellectual is marked by an ordinary refreshing simplicity. Doctor Paulus twice went to Macao to participate in the Ignatian spiritual exercises. Every day he recited the Rosary and made the examination of conscience. Whenever he could, when there was a priest about, he served Mass as an altar boy and took communion. The sight of his good life, his generous modesty drew his wife, his son, relatives and friends to the life of grace bestowed by baptism. When, from 1616, came the persecution instigated by Shen Cui, an official of the Ministry of Rites, Xu showed no fear at risking his established social position: he confessed his faith publicly, in two documents, also sent to the Emperor, in which he rebutted the persecutors’ charges against the Christians and joined his fate with that of the foreign missionaries: “If anything subversive or superstitious and evil teachings be found in their doings”, Xu wrote in one of his briefs for the defense, “let the expulsion of missionaries be immediately dealt with. I myself willingly accept following them into exile as punishment for my blindness in discerning falsehood”. The Emperor listened to his arguments, but the persecution continued up to the death of the Christians’ main accuser, the malignant Shen Cui. Humbly Doctor Paulus heeded Matteo Ricci when his teacher asked him to stay in Beijing to help Christians, giving up his prospects of higher rank in other provinces of the Empire: Ricci had already recognized that in a hierarchical and centralized system such as that of China, having good relations with the imperial administration could make it easier to proclaim the Gospel. And there was no point nor did it help anyone to try to sow the seeds of Christian hope in the face of the ruling Emperor.

A procession passing the statue of Matteo Ricci in Beijing [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

A procession passing the statue of Matteo Ricci in Beijing [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

The salvation of souls and the “welfare of the Empire”
There is another aspect of the Christian adventure of Paul Xu Quangqi which is more than ever relevant when one considers the present situation of the Church in China. As Bishop Jin acutely records in his little book of praise, Xu’s concern for the prosperity of his country and the welfare of its people “grew after he was baptized”.
When he became a Christian Paul Xu did not retreat into a world apart, did not shrink from the city of this world, did not dream of building the Church as a reality antagonistic to the world, as a “Celestial Empire” parallel or even in competition with worldly empires. Instead his sympathy for the hopes and desires of men awaiting salvation from the many bodily and spiritual ills that afflicted them only became more intense and vibrant with charity.
Along those lines the high imperial official, become Christian, worked out and presented his arguments in defense of the fledgling Chinese Christendom. The missionaries from the West – Paul Xu explained – had brought only good things for the daily life of the people living in the Empire. The best of all was the Gospel of Christ with the promise of deliverance from sin and eternal salvation. Crowning that priceless gift were the scientific and mathematical discoveries of Western civilization that could facilitate rapid progress in key areas for the “welfare of the Empire”. The generous gift of knowledge and scientific instruments made by Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuits – Xu wrote – was “the result of putting into practice the divine commandment of love. But it is also a means of promoting the prosperity and peace of the country. They have applied themselves to the study of everything, of medicine, of agriculture, of hydraulics in order to promote prosperity and prevent disasters”. The translation of the mathematics of Euclid, edited by Xu together with Matteo Ricci, was in his eyes a work of great innovative import, with inestimable collateral effects: the application of mathematics to trade, cartography, engineering, the use of trigonometry to calculate heights and distances, in astronomy, and in geography.
The prudent and responsible use of scientific methods and tools by the Jesuits was even a safeguard and guarantee of imperial authority. In 1610 court astronomers, Muslims, made a gross error in their prediction of an eclipse of the sun. The mishap threatened the credibility of the emperor and the stability of imperial power. At that point Xu called for the task of the revising the calendar to be entrusted to the Jesuits. A task they were to be given only after 14 years: the granite resistance in hostile court circles was broken down with great effort, only after the Jesuit astronomers beat the Muslims in the prediction of a new eclipse.
The Jesuit enhancement of the cultural products from the West together with the Christian message and the sacraments of the Church is usually mistaken for a sort of captatio benevolentiae, a mere matter of missionary tactics. In reality, as Benedict XVI said last 29 May to pilgrims from the diocese of Macerata, “Father Ricci did not go to China to bring science and Western culture, but to bring the Gospel”. Matteo Ricci and his disciple Doctor Paulus never separated the importation of Euclidean mathematics from the desire that the Chinese also could encounter the gentle grace of Christ. The fact is that in their eyes, in Ming China, mathematics and, more generally, the logico-deductive method typical of Western culture could function as effective preambula fidei. With them Christianity had come into close confrontation with the Hellenistic culture, and could then be treated as a meeting ground with the “enlightened” approach of Confucian rationality. By developing an elective affinity that could become an alliance in the work of liberation from the darkness of superstition and magic that afflicted both the untaught and the elite and that, according to Matteo Ricci had perverse instances in the “idolatrous” doctrine and practice of Buddhist monks and Taoists.

The four “unloves”
Besides the four loves Bishop Jin, also identifies four “disaffections” in the story of Xu. The great imperial official, despite his impressive career, was an austere man who did not like riches. On his death they found only a few dozen silver liang in his modest home, the proscribed court uniform and some old clothes. According to Bishop Jin, Xu also disliked lechery, hypocrisy and corruption, and above all – an anything but minor detail – “he did not like forming parties”. Some intellectuals of his day had set up the Party of the eastern wood aiming to counter the overwhelming influence of the court eunuch Wei Zhongxian. But the latter exploited the divisions caused by their sectarian spirit, striking at them hard with condemnations and executions. Xu kept his distance from the more or less hidden machinations of power, focusing on his scholarly researches. “Thus”, notes Bishop Jin, “Wei Zhongxian found no reason or opportunity to kill him and so he fortunately remained alive. His prudent and realistic discretion, his unwillingness to embroil himself in intrigue, groupings and attempts to interfere in the games of high politics, could serve as an example to, among others, the little flock of Christians scattered in the immensity of the former Celestial Empire.


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