MRI Forum 41

"Clearing the Heart, Seizing Time and Opportunity:
European Allegorical Prints in Late Ming China and Literati's Reception"

by Eugenio Menegon


Summary of the Presentation

The role of images in European-Chinese relations has been overshadowed by discussions of artistic influence on the Chinese tradition, focussing on the introduction of pictorial techniques such as chiaroscuro and linear perspective. Undeniably, the Jesuit missionaries used European oil paintings and engravings to impress their literati audiences and the imperial court, and European pictorial conventions exerted a limited influence in China. However, religious images also played an important role in the propagation of the Christian faith and of Western symbols. Missionaries directly imported religious paintings, prints, and books with illustrations, either to use them during their tours of preaching as visual materials, to distribute them to converts for worship, or to place them in churches. They also commissioned local artists with the production of paintings and woodblock prints, inspired by European models. These practices were rather universal in the Chinese mission, and flourished especially in core economic areas, like Jiangnan and Fujian. Today little is left of this visual production of religious subjects, mainly preserved in a handful of Chinese Christian texts containing religious images. The best examples are the late Ming series of religious images in Giulio Aleni’s Tianzhu chuxiang jingjie (“Illustrated Explanation of the Lord of Heaven’s Incarnation,” Fujian, 1637) and Adam Schall’s Jincheng shuxiang (“Illustrated Text Presented to His Majesty,” Beijing, 1640). However, traces of the images circulating in the China mission can also be found in written sources, both Chinese and Western. Among such Chinese sources is an extraordinary book, the Kouduo richao (“Diary of oral admonitions,” ca. 1640) compiled by Fujianese Christian literati in the 1630s to record the activities of the Italian Jesuit Giulio Aleni (1582-1649) and some of his companions in Fujian. The text occasionally mentions that missionaries showed religious pictures to Christians. In particular, it offers a detailed description of two series of images on moral self-cultivation and the importance of time, that the Polish-Lithuanian Jesuit Andrius Rudamina (Lu Ande; 1596-1632), one of the confreres of Aleni in Fujian, showed to literati in 1631. The identification of these prints mentioned in the Kouduo richao is significant. First, it increases the size of the iconographic body of European images that scholars have positively identified as being transmitted to China. Secondly, it gives an idea of how these images were shown and explained to Chinese converts, a glimpse into evangelization methods through visual aids rarely afforded by sources, and a mirror of Chinese literati's reactions to foreign ideas and symbols.

Profile of the Speaker

Eugenio Menegon (B.A. in Oriental Languages, University of Venice Ca Foscari, Italy; M.A. Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Ph.D., History, University of California, Berkeley), Assistant Professor, Department of History, Boston University, Boston, USA.  Eugenio Menegon teaches courses in Chinese history (pre-modern and modern periods) and in world history at Boston University (USA). His interests include Chinese-Western relations in late imperial times, Chinese religions and Christianity in China, Chinese science, and the intellectual history of Republican China. He has published a number of articles in various languages, and he is the author of an Italian-language biography of the Jesuit Giulio Aleni, a pioneer in cross-cultural and religious exchanges in China in the seventeenth century, entitled Un solo Cielo. Giulio Aleni S.J., 1582-1649. Geografia, arte, scienza, religione dall'Europa  alla  Cina, (One Heaven. Giulio Aleni S.J., 1582-1649. Geography, art, science, and religion from Europe to China, 1994). He was Research Fellow in Chinese Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium) in 2002-2004 and An Wang Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University (2006-2007). His forthcoming book, entitled Ancestors, Virgins and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China, centers on the life of Catholic communities in Fujian.