CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 23, September 2010


In Praise of Xu Guangqi | China Heritage Quarterly

In Praise of Xu Guangqi 徐光啓

Aloysius Jin Luxian 金魯賢

Introduced and translated by Jeremy Clarke

This year's anniversary has seen places connected to Matteo Ricci seek to capitalise upon this legacy. Although Ricci never visited Shanghai, it had a special relationship with him because it was the birthplace of his great friend and academic collaborator, Xu Guangqi. In 1606, Xu invited Ricci to send a Jesuit with him as chaplain when he returned to Shanghai for a period of mourning. The Italian Jesuit priest Lazzaro Cattaneo was duly dispatched and his stay in Shanghai marked the beginnings of the Catholic Church there. Ever since, this region has played a significant part in the history of the Chinese Catholic Church. The present Catholic bishop of Shanghai, Aloysius Jin Luxian, has long sought to remind Shanghai Catholics and the world more broadly of the critical role Xu played in many of Ricci's academic endeavours.

To this end, availing itself of the occasion of the Ricci anniversary, the diocese of Shanghai launched its 'Matteo Ricci Year' with an opening ceremony at Sheshan Seminary (Sheshan Shenxueyuan 佘山神学院) on the outskirts of the city. According to the Jesuit News Service, Bishop Jin maintains that the year 'aims to boost evangelization work among priests, nuns and laypeople'. The Matteo Ricci year is 'not merely a commemoration, but has practical significance for Catholics on how they can continue the priest's work of adapting the faith to Chinese culture.'

In 2008, Bishop Jin wrote a lengthy letter to his diocese encouraging them to emulate the life and work of Xu Guangqi, whom he described as a patriot, a scientist, a humanist and a person of faith. The following English translation of this letter appears here in an academic journal for the first time. It is included in its entirety because, in addition to deepening one's understanding of the role of Xu Guangqi and other Chinese scholars in accomplishments that have often been attributed to Ricci alone, it also gives an insight into the contemporary Chinese Catholic church.

Like many of his generation Bishop Jin spent many years in prison (he was arrested on 8 September 1955) and in this letter he talks of the situation that faced the church throughout the twentieth century. Although some of the spiritual language of the letter may seem out of place here, the letter is an important primary document that will be of interest to general and specialist readers alike.

This letter is dated 22 July 2008. It was produced as a pamphlet of sixteen pages and distributed to the parishes of Shanghai. It was not published through a recognized publisher but probably produced in the diocesan offices. The translator acknowledges the assistance of Elizabeth Hellman, who availed herself of an Italian translation by Teresa Wo Ye.—Jeremy Clarke

To all the Priests, Sisters, Seminarians and Lay Faithful,

On the eighth day of November 1933 (the seventh day of the tenth month of the traditional calendar) the diocese of Shanghai held a solemn commemorative ceremony to mark the three-hundredth anniversary of the death of Xu Guangqi. At that time I was a seventeen-year-old student at the Sacred Heart Seminary at Xujiahui, in my second year of literature studies. On the morning of that day I attended a memorial high mass at the church at Xujiahui. The church was festooned with banners inscribed with black characters and was filled with people. The choir sang the Requiem Mass. That afternoon the Bishop of Shanghai, the French-born Monsignor Augustus Haouisee SJ led the memorial service. Clad in a black cope he circled the grave, incensing it and sprinkling holy water upon it. His actions were accompanied by the chants of the gathered faithful as they sang 'Save me, O Lord' and 'External rest grant unto him O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him'. In my heart I thought it could not be that, after three hundred years, this great man—who gave so much to his church and country—still needed his descendants ten or so generations later to implore our Heavenly Father to spare him further torment and release him from purgatory's suffering.

At that time a descendant from the eleventh-generation, Fr Simon Xu Chongxu, was the editor of The Sacred Heart, and a twelfth-generation descendant, Fr Joseph Xu Zongze, was the editor of The Church Magazine. Both publications were distributed widely through-out China and were sold extensively. These two priests vigorously promoted the cause of their ancestor, suggesting to all the faithful that they should pray to Xu Guangqi for a miracle when they were attending those who were seriously ill. In this way they would then be able to ask that Rome open the cause of Xu Guangqi's canonisation. Yet, when the magazines published articles that expressed gratitude to Xu Guangqi for his intervention, these accounts only described the restoration to full health of people who had suffered from relatively minor illnesses. Furthermore, when the faithful were at the side of the seriously ill they still sought the assistance of St. Theresa. Consequently, it seemed as though belief in the efficacy of Xu Guangqi did not increase.

Fig.1 A bust of Xu Guangqi. Photograph: Jeremy Clarke

Fifty years later, the year 1983 marked the three-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Xu Guangqi's death. I had just been released from imprisonment in the north and was teaching at Sheshan Seminary. During one class I asked the seminarians: 'Who was Xu Guangqi?' From among the fifty or so students there was not a single correct response. I then asked a seminarian called Ni Guoxiang. He stood up to give his answer and, replying in a loud voice, said: 'I guess he must have been a famous person!' This set the whole room roaring with laughter. I was saddened in my heart that, among those seminarians who had been baptised during the years of the Cultural Revolution, the knowledge about church history was so slight. And what grief I felt! The seminarians had publications that they could read; one such magazine, The Shanghai Newspaper, published an academic piece commemorating Xu Guangqi but only commented upon his stature as a great scientist. There was not a single word about his Christian faith. It is incredibly one-sided to introduce Xu Guangqi without including the fact that he was a Christian!

I made a promise to myself that I would make Xu Guangqi extensively known. He ought to be in our hearts forever as he is truly an exceptional person, a model for all time. He brings glory to the people of Shanghai and indeed brings glory to the Christian faithful as well. As a result of that promise, there came to existence in Shanghai, one after the other, Guangqi Press, Guangqi Training and Formation Centre, the Guangqi Old Person's Home, Guangqi 'Hope' primary school and so on. I hope indeed that the name Xu Guangqi is known widely throughout the diocese of Shanghai.

Time flies and in a flash another twenty-five years have gone by. This year is the 375th anniversary of Xu Guangqi's passing; in another flash of time twenty-five more years will elapse and in the year 2033 it will be the 400th anniversary of Xu Guangqi's death. I will not see that day and so, to the best of our ability, let us now commemorate his 375th anniversary.

Xu Guangqi was an uncommonly talented man. He was a mathematician, an astronomer, a promoter of water conservancy and an agricultural savant. He was a military expert who wrote treatises on military issues, trained soldiers and supervised the construction of new forms of ordnance. He was a specialist in literature and politics. He was a minister of the Board of Ceremonies and served the Emperor as a Vice-President. It is possible to say that he was a man who appears once in a thousand years. He died in his seventy-second year. He had lived a blameless life, always conducting himself with righteousness and having led an existence simple and unadorned. His life was without blemish.

I sincerely believe that Xu Guangqi has been in heaven for 375 years, gazing with reverence at the glory of the Heavenly Trinity. Today as we extol and commemorate him, we are urged to follow his example. We must study by his side and imitate Xu Guangqi's large-heartedness, whereby he cultivated intensely four great passions: a love of his country, a love for the people, a love of science and a love for the Catholic Church.

Xu Guangqi's Loves

Love for Country: Xu Guangqi was Shanghainese and lived during the latter period of the Ming dynasty. At that time the dynasty was rotten, great wickedness held sway and corruption prevailed. National power was declining daily and the people were living in hardship. Japanese pirates invaded the coastal zone, time and again. These short-statured bandits came over the sea from nearby islands. They attacked on a regular basis, laying waste the cities, burning down people's houses and looting their property before returning home with their sails spread. The Xu family was a thriving, moderately well-off clan, self- reliant and generous, often providing assistance to their neighbours, either financially or in other ways. At the time of the coastal attacks, the whole family sought refuge, from the oldest to the youngest. The pirates destroyed the countryside and plundered their household. After this, Xu Guangqi's father worked the fields himself and, as the saying goes, his grandmother and mother 'were spinning and weaving from dawn until dusk, stopping for neither heat nor cold.'

Fig.2 Xu, the literatus convert. Photograph: Jeremy Clarke

Xu Guangqi claimed that his family was of straitened circumstances and that from his youth he had personally experienced his country's powerlessness and had shared the sufferings of the people. He understood profoundly that in order to make the people prosperous, it was essential to forge a strong nation. Xu Guangqi was anxious for both his nation and his people. He knew that, in addition to the pirates, there was a people in the north who 'were continually moving about in search of new pastures' and who were growing in might. It was as if their whole population was an army, being not only ready for battle but also good at fighting. At that time they were conserving their energy and building up their strength, drilling and practising. They looked towards Beijing, glaring like a tiger eyeing its prey, and were waiting to enter the mountain passes, to replace the imperial court and rule all of China. At the same time the dynasty, both the emperor and his high-ranking officials, were leading aimless and dissipated lives.

As a scholar, Xu Guangqi was well versed in the works of Confucius and, in the sage's words 'the poor can only look after themselves, the rich are able to care for all under Heaven'. He knew that when a strong forceful neighbour was approaching the border, this saying was impractical since, when the country is defeated and when families are separated, who is even able to look after one's self? Thereupon, as a personal mission, Xu Guangqi took up the cause of the development of his nation. He was deeply convinced that everyone has a share of responsibility for the fate of one's own nation. In The Analects of Confucius he read that one studies so as to assist in the administration of the people. He therefore studied in order to become an official since, at that time, it was only as an official that one could render service to one's motherland and to one's people.

When he was nine years old Xu Guangqi studied at the Longhua Temple in Shanghai and, after ten years of assiduous study, he sat the bachelor's examination at nineteen years of age. Then, on five different occasions, he sat the provincial level examinations, although without success. At the age of thirty-five he sat this examination once more, his sixth attempt, and again the vice-president of the examination board placed his paper in the pile of those who had been unsuccessful. Yet, two days before the publication of the list of successful candidates Jiao Hong, the chair of the examination board and one recognized for his conscientiousness and sense of responsibility, re-read each candidate's examination scroll. He found Xu Guangqi's essay and was so full of admiration that, as a result, he named Xu Guangqi as the best placed of all the successful examination candidates. Afterwards, Xu Guangqi went to Beijing on many occasions to sit the examinations at the Board of Rites. Yet, each time, his name did not appear on the list of successful candidates. It was only in 1604 that he finally attained the rank of jinshi, one successful in this final examination, and was placed eighty-sixth on that occasion. He was also ranked fifty-second in the palace examinations and achieved fourth place in the Hanlin Academy. At that time, when he formally assumed his official duties in the bureaucracy, he was forty-two years of age.

Xu Guangqi was a diligent student and very well read. All his life he paid particular attention to agricultural and military affairs, conscientiously reading works on martial matters, making careful studies of weapons, ordnances and the art of training troops. He was an expert in military affairs and was a scholar-general. After he became a member of the Hanlin Academy, Xu had enough seniority at court to offer advice to the throne. Time and again he petitioned the throne, volunteering his services to the Emperor to train the imperial army and to supervise the manufacture of new types of weapons. The Emperor Wanli resided within the palace, concerned only with the luxuries of life, and did not heed Xu Guangqi's petitions. It was only once the Emperor received emergency reports from the border alerting him to the danger that he accepted the services of Xu Guangqi.

Exuberant and full of ambition, Xu Guangqi arranged troop exercises for 100,000 of the finest soldiers, personally supervised the manufacture of munitions and invited the missionaries Emmanuel Dias (Yang Manuo) and Francesco Sambiasi (Bi Fangqi) to help in the construction of western-style cannon. Afterwards, the Emperor used only Xu Guangqi's methods and did not listen to other proposals. The Emperor also unstintingly supported these methods from the public purse and allowed other departments to make use of Xu Guangqi's expertise. Xu's dream of developing a strong nation had peacefully become a reality so he resigned his position and retired to Tianjin to work on his farm.

Xu Guangqi's return to the farm was not, as imagined by other court officials, a care-free existence. Nor was his life the refined 'plucking of chrysanthemum under the eastern hedge as one gazes leisurely at the southern mountain', in the words of the poet Tao Yuanming. He farmed cotton, sweet potato and paddy rice. The sole reason he spent his days in the fields was so that the ordinary people might have ample food and clothing, as Xu Guangqi had an ardent love for the common person.

Love for People: Xu Guangqi was born into an ordinary family of modest circumstances. Many years later, even once he had risen to the position of a minister of state working at the imperial court, his lifestyle remained that of an ordinary person; he never forgot his roots. Xu Guangqi worried for his nation and for his fellow-citizens. He knew that the nation's foundations rested on the people and that the principle occupation of the common person was the obtaining of their daily food. For Xu Guangqi, the most important thing was to solve the problem of people not having enough to eat. In relation to a nation, agriculture must be considered as the basis upon which to build a state. If the people do not have enough to eat, how can they be patriotic? If the rank-and-file soldiers do not have enough to eat, how can they go to war?

From an early age, Xu Guangqi not only knew what it was to work in the fields but he also exercised his mind and body in the pursuit of becoming a better farmer. He was aware that agricultural studies was a vast field of scholarship, including such themes as soil conditions, what kind of seed to use, the issue of water conservancy, the types of agricultural tools, the impact of climate and seasonal influences and so on. Nurturing the soil could not be a half-hearted or casual activity. Xu Guangqi made on-the-spot surveys, kept good records, conducted experiments and summed up his findings. He recorded the knowledge he gleaned from his personal experiences in a journal that he'd been keeping from the time of his youth, and to which he was still adding when he was seventy-two years old.

He did not write this book to gain a name for himself but kept this journal only in order to solve practical problems of the people. At that time the regions of Songjiang and Shanghai often suffered from floods, which caused widespread hunger and famine. Drawing on his bounteous knowledge, Xu Guangqi introduced the sweet potato to the region. Due to his many years of experience, this project was successful, and the crop was of a high quality with a pleasing taste. He was joyful beyond measure and subsequently wrote a treatise about this—Growing Sweet Potato—which explained successful planting methods even in waterlogged areas. This thereby allayed the people's fear of hunger.

In order to resolve the issue of producing enough food for people to eat and enough material for them to make clothing, Xu Guangqi continued to study methods of cotton farming. As a youngster he had come to the realisation, one he enthusiastically shared with his parents, that if a cotton plant was allowed to grow to a certain height but no higher, then waste could be limited as the growth of the cotton buds would be stimulated.

Fig.3 Xu, the militant. Photograph: Jeremy Clarke

Traditionally, paddy rice was not grown in the north, as it was said that it was not possible for any such rice to survive. Thus they ate long grain rice in the north, which they used to have to transport from the south and at great cost via inland canals. Xu Guangqi used his own money to buy some wasteland at Tianjin, where he built a one-storey bungalow in which to live. He recruited some workers and personally conducted experiments in the planting of long grain rice. After three years of effort he managed to harvest a bumper crop. Xu Guangqi had thereby enabled the people of the north to eat low-priced long grain rice. Afterwards, once improvement in techniques had taken place over several generations of farmers, Tianjin became well-known throughout the whole country as a centre of rice production.

Xu Guangqi considered the issue of effective water conservancy to be the crux of agriculture. He researched how to use water more efficiently and how to construct a system that conserved water successfully. Everything he did was for the sake of the betterment of the common people. The work that he conducted over these tens of years was brought together in China's first agricultural encyclopaedia, Complete Treatise on Agriculture (Nongzheng quan shu 農政全書). This represented the culmination of his life's work. Even on his deathbed he exhorted his grandsons to write a petition to the emperor about The Compendium so that it could be popularised throughout the nation. The people were always in Xu Guangqi's consciousness, even at the hour of his death, and chief among these were the long-suffering farmers.

Love of Science: Xu Guangqi passionately loved science and was very knowledgeable in this field. In ancient China he was one of the foremost scientific experts among the scholar class. In olden times all our scholars were Confucian specialists; they ardently read the ancient texts and made careful study of the way of Confucius. From their lips would often fall the phrases 'Confucius says this, Confucius says that...' and their writings would all be eight-legged essays as they strove to become officials. Those who studied the natural sciences were 'as rare as a plume from a phoenix and a horn from a unicorn' and, moreover, were not respected by other scholars. Han Yu once wrote, 'people without perseverance cannot become anything other than a quack doctor'. In his opinion, being a physician was not a prestigious occupation and it seemed as those engaged in scientific activity were only involved in very limited worlds.

Nevertheless, even though Xu Guangqi was a Confucian scholar and was involved in administration for many decades, he was always interested in researching scientific matters. His energy was devoted to the practical sciences and, moreover, in many branches of learning he made significant contributions. This is universally acknowledged and it is one of the things I especially admire about him. Leafing through the authoritative Grand Encyclopedia of China, Xu Guangqi's impressive contributions are recorded in the sections on mathematics, astronomy, water conservancy and agriculture.

The following are illustrative selections from this encyclopedia. In the section on mathematics the Grand Encyclopedia of China records that:

Xu Guangqi...considered that mathematical knowledge could make the nation prosperous, could be used to strengthen the people and could be put to civil use for the benefit of society… With Matteo Ricci he co-operated, on one project after another, on the translation of the first six volumes of Euclid's Elements of Geometry, The Principles of Measurement, Simple Theory Regarding Surveying and other books like these. At the same time he considered mathematics to be the basis of scientific technology and realised its importance in the fields of legislation, water conservancy (irrigation), musical notation, national defence, construction, public finance, mechanics, cartography, medical studies, statistics and so on. Xu Guangqi's translation of Elements was the first translation into Chinese of a Western mathematical work. His translation of Western words into Chinese characters was not only succinct and accurate but it also marked the first time that some of these concepts had been translated into Chinese. A great many of these words are still in use today, such as the word for a point (dian), a line (xian), a face or a side (mian), a straight line (zhi xian), a curved line (qu xian), a right angle (zhi jiao), an obtuse angle (dun jiao), an acute angle (rui jiao), a vertical line (chui xian), a polygon (duo bian xing), parallel lines (ping xing xian), perpendicular lines (dui jiao xian), amorphous shapes (qing zhe xing), similar (xiang shi), tangents (wai qie mian) and so on. Liang Qichao acclaimed Xu Guangqi's translation saying, 'Every word is as pure gold and beautiful jade. It is a work that will last forever.

In the volume on astronomy one reads:

… [s]ince the early days of the Ming dynasty, there have been frequent mistakes when the Datong Calendar has been used. For example, the solar eclipse that was predicted to take place on the Eleventh Month of the Thirty-eighth Year of the Emperor Wanli's reign, simply did not happen. Xu Guangqi, on the contrary, used European methods of calculation and these were both accurate and precise. Consequently, these methods gained a great reputation. Afterwards, on numerous occasions, many officials suggested that the calendar be reformed and they suggested that Xu Guangqi be chosen as an expert consultant and given the responsibility to undertake the task. During the fifth month of the second year of the Chongzhen Emperor's reign, after there was an inaccurate prediction of a solar eclipse, Chongzhen accepted the proposal put forward by the Board of Rites that Xu Guangqi be given permission to organize the Board of Rites and begin the reform of the calendar. Xu Guangqi firmly advocated the use of Western methods, declaring that his guiding principle would be that 'if we wish to attain success, we must be understand the methodology; before we understand the methodology, we must engage in translation.' The head of the Rites Bureau invited the Jesuit missionaries Johann Terrenz Schreck, Giacomo Rho and Johann Adam Schall von Bell to assist in this work.

Fig.4 Xu, the scientist. Photograph: Jeremy Clarke

They translated and then produced 46 types of documents, culminating in 137 volumes of the Chongzhen Almanac. Among other things, these documents included the classical Western astronomical theories, the different types of instruments, the methods of calculation and surveying, theories about the astronomical chronometer and the use of calculus. At the same time the Rites Bureau engaged in many activities that promoted the inculcation of both these methods of astronomy and the knowledge upon which such methods were based. It also introduced the European quadrant and the telescope…and organized the production of a celestial map, from which one could calculate lunar and solar eclipses.

In the section on agriculture one reads that:

Xu Guangqi is the author of The Complete Treatise on Agriculture. His work of research emphasized first-hand practice and the summing up of one's experience. His whole life was marked by occasions when he returned to farming, and engaged himself in the cultivation of crops, experimentation and the recording of the results of his agricultural work. For example: between 1607 and 1610, on a farm in Shanghai, he experimented with sweet potato and cotton and this led to four books, including Growing Sweet Potato and The Rape Plant. Between 1613 and 1618, on a farm he had reclaimed from wasteland at Tianjin, Xu Guangqi led the way in planting southern paddy rice on a grand scale and then wrote Farming in the North; moreover, based on his personal experience of cultivating flowers and plants, medicinal herbs and other new species on his own farm Xu Guangqi wrote the five-volume work A Miscellany of Agricultural Knowledge, which was a kind of small encyclopedia of agricultural science. Between 1621 and 1628, he continued with experimental planting on his family's farm at Shanghai and in 1625, the fifth year of the reign of Emperor Tianqi, he began writing Complete Treatise on Agriculture. Even when he was made a minister in the imperial court in 1632, he kept gathering material for the manuscript, continually adding to it and writing down his findings even when he was ill. Chen Zilong revised Xu Guangqi's manuscript after his death and it amounted to sixty volumes. It was published in the Twelfth Year of the Chongzhen Emperor's reign. The publication had thereby ensured that this precious body of agricultural knowledge was preserved for the whole world.

The volume on water conservancy and hydraulics also says:

Xu Guangqi's whole life was spent in careful scientific examination and the most significant of his contributions was in the field of agriculture and water conservancy. In the field of practical science, he attached importance to traditional practices carried out over a long period of time, and Shanghai and Tianjin were the places where he put into practice his experiments with agriculture and water conservancy.

I am struck by the thoughts that Xu Guangqi's heart was filled with a passionate love of science and that he put scientific principles into practice with great zeal. He did this even after he was baptized into the church, which might seem all the more remarkable. Yet, the fact that Xu Guangqi became a pious Christian reveals that he considered there to be no contradiction between science and religious belief.

Love for the Church:Xu Guangqi was born in a poor family. After some success in his local exams, he failed to accomplish anything in the higher-level exams for some time. He was simultaneously father and son, with the double responsibility of supporting his elderly parents and raising his own children. The lack of success in the exams left him only one possibility of providing support for his family, which was to provide education to the children of wealthy families. In 1596, when Xu Guangqi was thirty-three years old, his countryman Zhao Zhen was sent as a civil administrator to Ying Zhou, in the province of Guangxi. He asked Xu Guangqi to accompany him so that he might take up the responsibility of teaching children. In order to earn something for his family, he complied, said farewell to his parents, wife, and children, and left his house. During his trip from Shaoguan, in the province of Guangdong, he met Father Lazzaro Cattaneo SJ, with whom he had a long conversation. For Xu Guangqi this marked his first contact with a Catholic priest from the West.

Four years later, in the year 1600, while on his way to Beijing to take an exam at the Ministry of Rites, he passed through the city of Nanjing, where he saw a church. It is here that he met Father Matteo Ricci: this provided the occasion to become more familiar with the Catholic Church and to come into contact with Western science. Afterwards, he obtained a good result in the examination and thus was able to return home.

In 1603, on the occasion of a journey from Shanghai to Nanjing, he returned to the church out of a desire to make a cordial visit to Father Matteo Ricci. Ricci, however, had already left for the north. He thus met with Father Joao da Rocha, who gave him two books: The True Meaning of the Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven and The Decalogue. He took these two books and returned home. He then read them attentively and found himself in perfect harmony with their contents. The following day, he asked to be baptized. Father Joao da Rocha entrusted him to a Chinese Jesuit brother by the name of Zhong Mingren, who instructed him in the Catholic faith for eight days. At the end of this period, he was baptized with the name Paolo. Xu was forty-one years old.

The following year, he once again went to Beijing to take the exam. Finally, he managed to enter the highest level of the imperial bureaucracy and became a member of the Imperial Hanlin Academy. At this time, Ricci had already settled in Beijing. Xu Guangqi then received a fixed stipend that enabled him to bring his father, wife, son, and daughter-in-law to Beijing. His family was thus reunited. Xu Guangqi patiently taught them the catechism of the Catholic Church and the whole family asked to receive baptism, an event that brought joy and harmony to them all. Xu Guangqi saw Matteo Ricci as a father figure, and always turned to him for advice. He admired Western science, but given the limits of the time, he was not in a position to learn a foreign language. In line with the motto, 'in order to emulate and surpass, it is necessary to understand, but to understand it is first necessary to translate', Xu Guangqi decided to dedicate himself to collaborating in the translations of Matteo Ricci.

Xu Guangqi belonged to a scholarly class that trained using the works of Confucius and Mengzi. He was a principled person who, in line with Confucian teachings, was always concerned with his own humane education, familial harmony, and peace within the State. 'At the age of forty,' as Confucius says in The Analects, 'he had already achieved full maturity and independence of thought'. His vision of life and the world had been formed, and yet in endeavouring to put the doctrine of Confucianism into practice, he realized that this doctrine spoke only of man and not Heaven; it referred only to the present reality and not the future life. This seemed like a large gap to him. He thought that humans ought go beyond themselves and yet can only realize their greatest desire when they are united with God. Confucianism invokes an observation of very high ethics and morality, but for him it never provided a method for achieving this aim. Obviously, Xu was also familiar with Buddhism. At the age of nine he went to school at the Longhua temple, and yet he never accepted the teachings of this religion.

In 1596, Xu encountered Catholicism for the first time, but he received baptism only at the end of 1603. He had thus studied and seriously researched this doctrine for a full seven years. He arrived at the conclusion that the Christianity preached by the Western missionaries was not contrary to Confucianism, rather, it only added that which is missing from it. While studying Christian doctrine in depth, he produced a brief written summary:

To place the service of God in the centre; to concern oneself with the salvation of the soul and the body; to attempt the way of filial piety and charity; to convert from one's own sins and to aspire to sanctity in order to enter the gates of Heaven; to make penance and the purification of vices the heart of ascetic life; to aspire to paradise as the reward for good deeds; to be aware that eternal damnation will be the inferno for impenitent sinners. All of these teachings are part of a fundamental truth regarding Heaven and humanity. These teachings can render men [sic] more brotherly and sincere, and stimulate to the highest degree their commitment to eradicating evil from their existence. The salvation that comes from the Lord is a great grace: the doctrine concerning the reward for goodness and the punishment for evil is demonstrated in a very clear way, it is capable of touching the deepest part of the heart. This doctrine moves men to fear and the sincere faith that is born from the depth of conscience.

Xu Guangqi did not become Catholic because of some passing interest nor, as some have said, because of access to the more advanced technology of the West. Only after more than three years had already passed since his conversion did he begin to collaborate with missionaries on their translations. The entire life of Xu Guangqi was characterized by a great moral rectitude and transparency. To say that he became Catholic out of secondary interests is an insult to his person. His very life, after having become Christian, manifested the authenticity of his faith. It was because of his style of life, combined with his capacity to explain the faith so well, that convinced his father, wife, and son to all become Christians. Later on, he invited Fr Lazzaro Cattaneo to evangelize Shanghai, the city of his birth. He hosted the missionary in his house and set up a chapel for him. While his public standing became more prestigious, his faith also became deeper and his missionary zeal more ardent.

The growth of the Catholic Church always encounters countless difficulties, and China is not an exception. Following the initial missionary progress of the Church, an attempt at persecution began to spread gradually. This exploded in May 1616, due to the work of Shen Que, a civil assistant in Nanjing. Shen Que had presented to the emperor Wanli 'A petition on the necessity to expel foreign missionaries'. This document was filled with slander and attacks on the Catholic Church that called for the expulsion of missionaries from the imperial borders. Xu Guangqi, upon learning the news, courageously decided to write his own petition during that same year, despite his inferior position to Shen Que. This letter bore the title, 'Petition on the discernment of real knowledge'. In this document, he not only had the courage to admit his own Catholic faith, but also defended the morality and erudition of the missionaries. He said that they had arrived in China with the sole aim of convincing people to be benevolent, and was convinced that none of them could be considered conspirators. In the petition, he presented three points:

First, these people had gathered a certain number of Chinese scholars to collaborate on the translation of classical Western works. This task is the result of putting into practice the divine commandment of love, but it is also a means of promoting prosperity and peace in the country. They applied themselves to the accurate study of everything: of the calendar, of medicine, of agriculture, of hydraulics, and so on, with the aim of promoting wellbeing and preventing calamity. The fruit of their studies is being collected in a series of books. We invite His Majesty the Emperor to send court officials to ascertain the truth regarding the contents of these Western scientific texts. If there is anything in these works comparable to subversive, superstitious, or evil teachings, it is given that the missionaries will be expelled immediately. I myself will readily accept to follow them into exile as punishment for my blindness in discerning what is false.

Second, His Majesty the Emperor is invited to gather Buddhist and Daoist experts for an official public debate. When such a debate comes to a conclusion, the Emperor and his Confucian officials will express their verdict. If these Western works have indeed no practical value and I myself will have no more means to defend my arguments, it is given that the missionaries will be expelled immediately. As for me, I am ready to submit to whatever punishment they receive.

Third, if the translation of these books into Chinese is too difficult, and the Buddhist or Daoist experts in the position to do it cannot even be found, His Majesty the Emperor is invited to give orders so that the appropriate offices translate the general content of the Catholic doctrine, its commandments and admonishments, and the stories told in its books. Of these they would make a book, without needing to be too precise. I myself have already translated about thirty books…I present them now for the consideration and scrutiny of His Majesty the Emperor. If there seem to be subversive ideas inside these books, or notions that do not promote good and avoid evil, or that could upset morals, it will lead directly to the missionaries' expulsion. I am ready to submit to the same punishment.

In his petition Xu Guangqi presented facts, gave reasons for his defence and declared himself ready to guarantee all of it with his own life. The petition had a very convincing effect: the Emperor Wanli rejected the letter of Shen Que and wrote in response to Xu Guangqi the words 'Acknowledged' (zhidao liao)—thus indicating his approval of Xu Guangqi's requests.

Shen Que did not give up, and in September he sent a new petition to the Emperor, 'Another petition on the necessity to expel foreign missionaries'. In this he called for the suppression of Catholics and, in collusion with Wei Zhongxian (another truly perfidious character), increased hostility towards them. Shen Que had also received a letter from Fang Congzhe, an official from the Ministry of Rites in Beijing, in which he wrote 'Concerning the Westerners acting as missionaries in our country: first of all, let's put them in prison; we'll then ask the Emperor to sentence them'. Following this advice, soldiers were sent to surround the church in Beijing and arrest the priests and Catholic followers inside. They were subsequently cast into prison.

Xu Guangqi's reaction was two-fold. He wrote a second petition in defence of the Catholics and, realizing that he could not stop the persecution, he decided to run the risk of protecting the missionaries of Beijing by offering them his residence. He even begged his family in Shanghai to protect the missionaries and hide them there. At the same time, Xu Guangqi, along with Li Zhizao, Yang Tingyun and others wrote a letter explaining the Catholic faith. This was to be sent throughout all of China, in the hope of mitigating the losses suffered by the Church. Xu Guangqi defied Shen Que for nine years. That is, until Shen Que's death in 1624. If Xu Guangqi had not loved the Catholic Church, would he have risked so much?

Twice he went to Macau, before he became an official, to practice the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Each day he engaged in morning and evening prayer, examined his conscience before he went to bed, and recited the rosary. When the priest was present, he offered to serve at the altar. He always received communion. He was a true model for Christians. After his death, the Superior General of the Jesuits in Rome ordered all priests of the Society of Jesus to celebrate three masses in his honour. He was regarded as an irreplaceable benefactor of the Catholic Church.

Xu Guangqi's Contempt

Contempt for Lust: Since antiquity in our country, scholars, aristocrats, and landowners were all allowed concubines, while the richest had more than one. When he was nineteen years old Xu Guangqi married a girl from the Wu family, who was younger than him by three years. As they faced life's tests together, their love became stronger, even until the time when they both had white hair. He was always loyal to her, and all her life she was very chaste.

Contempt for Wealth: He once said, 'from childhood I was very poor'. After passing the local bureaucratic exam at the age of nineteen, he failed the regional exams many times and therefore was excluded from a career in public administration. To support his family, he was obliged to teach children. He thus had to go far away, to Guangxi. He went to Beijing many times to take the exams, but not by horse, with his head held high and with a valet following behind with his books, as was typical of the sons of wealthy families. He went there on foot in a simple fashion, with his belongings on his shoulders. He would set out even a month before the examination was scheduled. We can therefore deduce that he was poor. Although at the age of forty-one he passed the exam and obtained the title of jinshi, he continued to live simply and poorly. We of Shanghai are very familiar with garden of Yu Yuan, a place in our city that almost all of us have visited. Pan Yunduan built this garden. Pan was older than Xu Guangqi by thirty-six years, so he was almost a contemporary of Xu Guangqi. This gentleman came to be the third-level administrator of the province of Shaanxi, a political position corresponding more or less to the current office of lieutenant governor of a province. He had the financial potential to build an enormous mansion, something that happened not infrequently. People had a habit of saying, 'during the Qing dynasty, it is sufficient to fill a public office for three years in order to have 100,000 pieces of silver at one's disposal'.

We all know that in modern times Ma Xiangbo was a patriot. He worked for Li Hongzhang, assuming certain responsibilities, not great ones it is true but not small ones either. Anyway, when Ma retired, he was in a position to carry out a very generous gesture: to donate 3,000 mu (Chinese hectares) of good land and 100,000 liang of silver in order to found a university. Xu Guangqi, on the other hand, became Guardian of the Imperial Heir and a Grand Scholar; he was a public official of the highest degree, corresponding to the current office of Prime Minister. In the final period of his stay in Beijing as Imperial Minister, Xu Guangqi had only a nephew and a grandnephew at his side, and an old servant at his service. At the moment of his death, there were only some tens of silver in his home; apart from the official uniform he wore at court, the rest were all old clothes. His home in Shanghai, which still exists, had only nine rooms. He also had some land in Tianjin, which he had purchased and cultivated for completing his agricultural experiments. It is evident that for Xu Guangqi, riches carried little importance. He was like the lotus flower, which, even when emerging from murky, muddy waters, flourishes in all its splendour, without any damage from the filth around it.

Contempt for Hypocrisy and Contempt for Corruption: During his political career, there was a eunuch named Wei Zhongxian, who was very powerful. Wei was wicked, duplicitous, very ambitious, treacherous, ingratiating towards those who were of a higher rank, but overbearing and deceitful towards those who were lower than him; he promised prosperity to those who would execute his orders and death to those who would rebel. At court, every official from every department feared him; he was feared as much by local officials as he was by those in the provinces. To avoid his fury was not so much about not offending him or not disobeying him, but rather to praise and congratulate him even when it was not deserved. And so they wished him 'nine thousand years of longevity', that is, a little less than the 'ten thousand years of longevity' bestowed upon the Emperor. Wei would have liked to be totally rid of Xu Guangqi, who instead not only maintained his distance, but even dared to criticize him. Xu Guangqi was therefore pushed aside, downgraded, and banished from the court. In order to maintain his moral integrity, Xu Guangqi preferred to continue his agricultural experiments and cultivate the earth.

Contempt for Political Factions: At the end of the Ming dynasty, the majority of the scholarly class had cultivated the ideal of disinterest in political and material issues; they frequently gathered together for profound discussions. They were not satisfied with the dictatorship of Wei Zhongxian. They would meet in the city of Wuxi with a Confucian by the name of Gu Xiancheng. Gu taught at the Imperial Hanlin Academy and fascinated a great number of scholars. They highly esteemed moral integrity and dedicated themselves to the study of fundamental principles. Gu wrote couplets in this Academy:

The sound of wind, the sound of rain, the sound of reading:
All enter one's ears.
The affairs of family, the affairs of the State, the affairs of the world:
All occupie one's heart.

These lines expressed the particular realm within which the intellectuals of the period were circulating. These intellectuals formed a party by the name of 'The Party of the Eastern Wood'. The influence of this party grew progressively until it became a political force capable of opposing Wei Zhongxian. Unfortunately, after only a short time, divisions within the party began to appear, as in the parties of Zhe, Kun, Chu and so on. These groups were in disagreement and began to attack one another. 'The Party of the Eastern Wood' thus found itself divided into different factions fighting among themselves; its power was dispersed.

Wei Zhongxian profited from this and set out on a rampage, with great cruelty and brutality, killing and punishing the participants. It was the tragic end of the entire party. The city of Wuxi borders Shanghai. Throughout his life Xu Guangqi always made good use of all that he learned and did not limit himself to merely theoretical talk. He never let himself be influenced by 'The Party of the Eastern Wood', nor did he ever participate in its activities. He always concentrated on his scientific research, and as such Wei Zhongxian could not find a motive or an occasion to kill him. Therefore, fortunately, he survived.


I have spoken about four things that Xu Guangqi despised, because only by not loving these things can it be possible to choose to love truly, with a great and authentic love; and only he who truly loves is remembered throughout time.

In ending this letter, a phrase repeatedly comes to my mind from Sima Qian, in his Heirs of Confucius, a work written in praise of Confucius. Sima Qian wrote, 'A great mountain is admired, and a safe path goes past. Although we cannot reach its destination, the tension towards it remains'.

All who are inspired by such a great model as Xu Guangqi should apply themselves to follow his direction. I hope that the diocese of Shanghai begins a great effort to become familiar with and emulate the example of Xu Guangqi. We are now celebrating more than four hundred years since the arrival of Matteo Ricci in China, and since then the Pope has never canonized a Chinese confessor of the faith. Xu Guangqi can be declared a saint without a shadow of doubt. We of the diocese of Shanghai should pursue every effort to reach this aim.

The universal Church this year celebrates the year of Saint Paul. We, in this very time, should commemorate the Chinese Paul, that is, Xu Guangqi. (In the diocese of Shanghai, we will discuss a way of organizing the activities in celebration of this commemoration; later on, we will choose a day to communicate this news.)

I hope that in our diocese, priests, nuns, seminarians and the Catholic faithful all compete in learning from Xu Guangqi, in imitating his four loved and the four things he despised.