Torn between the Imperial Court and the Roman Curia: Joachim Bouvet’s Tianxue benyi 天學本義

Lecture in German at the Missionary Seminary in Sankt Augustin, 12 October 2023

At the invitation of the Monumenta Serica Institute, Prof. Dr. Claudia von Collani (University of Würzburg) shared her insights on a very specific work of a Sino-Western cultural exchange – the Tianxue benyi (The Original Meaning of the Heavenly Teaching) conceived, compiled and edited by the Jesuit Joachim Bouvet (1656–1730). This work was a remarkable attempt at a contextualized Catholic theology in China at the turn of the 17th to 18th century as well as the Jesuits’s last stand in the Chinese Rites Controversy. Von Collani’s presentation was based on her most recent publication, Der ursprüngliche Sinn der Himmelslehre (Tianxue benyi): Joachim Bouvets (1656–1730) frühe Missionstheologie in China. Analyse, Transkription und Übersetzung der lateinischen Fassungen, which was edited and published by the Monumenta Serica Institute in 2022.

As von Collani showed, the Tianxue benyi foreshadows a shift in missionary strategies by the Jesuits: Up to the late 17th century, the order tried to gain converts mainly among the literati and was willing to accommodate to those aspects of Chinese culture which were not in conflict with Catholic tenets of faith early on. However, from the late 17th to early 18th century on, the Jesuits focused their efforts on gaining acceptance among the highest echelons of Qing society, i.e., the scholar-officials at court and ultimately the emperor himself. Most hopes rested on the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662–1722), who, according to Bouvet, was already very close to becoming a Christian. Kangxi’s Edict of Toleration from 1692, which recognized and protected the Catholic faith and religious activities of Catholics, was interpreted as a further step in this direction by the Jesuits.

In this window of opportunity, from 1701–1707, Bouvet compiled the Tianxue benyi, later to be reconceived in the more elaborate Gujin jing Tian jian 古今敬天鑒 (Mirror of Ancient and Modern Examples of Revering Heaven). The manuscript comprised quotes from Chinese sources that could be read as being in accord with key concepts of the Christian faith, such as monotheism and a belief in retribution for evil and good deeds meted out by a higher power. What made Bouvet’s project most remarkable is the fact that it was firmly rooted in a Chinese Confucian context. Quotes were not only taken from the Chinese classics but also from popular proverbs and literati aphorisms as well as statements of contemporary scholar-officials. With regard to quotes from the Classics, Bouvet also relied on the Rijiang 日講 (Daily Lectures), orthodox Confucian commentaries compiled for educating the emperor. The Kangxi Emperor took a great personal interest in this project and provided his own comments on the manuscript.

At the same time, the Tianxue benyi served to justify the Jesuit missionary strategy of accommodation to Chinese culture that became most obvious in the Jesuits’ decision to regard the rites honoring the ancestors as being of a purely secular and communal nature. The work was presented to the Papal Legate Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon (1668–1710) on his arrival in China (1705) to prove the commensurability of Christianity and Confucianism, but it was rejected by a board of reviewers, who unanimously opposed the Jesuit position. The reviewers were handpicked by Tournon despite their lack of proficiency in classical Chinese. A Latin translation was made at the request of the Kangxi Emperor in order to facilitate a proper review. While this translation never fulfilled its purpose to persuade the Roman Curia of the Jesuit strategy of accommodation – Tournon proclaimed the ban on the Jesuit position in the Rites Controversy in Nanjing in 1707 –, several manuscript versions of this work have survived in different European archives and testify to Bouvet’s remarkable merging of Confucian-Christian horizons.