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Table of Contents
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 170-175

Conveying traditional Chinese medicine to Europe in the 17th–18th centuries from the tradition of natural history

Department of English, College of Foreign Studies, Nanjing Agricultural University, Nanjing 210095, China

Date of Submission19-Jul-2021
Date of Acceptance09-Aug-2021
Date of Web Publication30-Sep-2021

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Yin- Quan Wang
College of Foreign Studies, Nanjing Agricultural University, Nanjing 210095
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_30_21

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How to cite this article:
Wang YQ. Conveying traditional Chinese medicine to Europe in the 17th–18th centuries from the tradition of natural history. Chin Med Cult 2021;4:170-5

How to cite this URL:
Wang YQ. Conveying traditional Chinese medicine to Europe in the 17th–18th centuries from the tradition of natural history. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2021 [cited 2021 Oct 26];4:170-5. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2021/4/3/170/327157

The translation efforts and missionary works by the Society of Jesus (or Jesuits) in China between the 16th and 18th centuries is a significant part of the history between China and the Western world. The Jesuits were instrumental in the transmission of knowledge, science, and culture between China and the West, which had an impact on the Chinese society and has continued to this day.

  Jesuit's China Missions and Scientific Exchanges in the 16th–18th Century Top

The late Ming and early Qing periods (16th–18th century) were marked by rapid colonial expansion into the New World by major European countries, thereby giving rise to cultural contact on a massive scale and ensuing Christian infiltration into the Asian countries. The period from the late Ming to early Qing dynasties, particularly from 1582 to 1793, was also a new era featuring the first close scientific exchanges between Europe and China. Spearheaded by the arrival of Italian Jesuit missionaries Michele Ruggieri (罗明坚1543–1607) in 1579 and Matteo Ricci (利玛窦1552–1610) in Macao in 1582 and with the death of Jean Joseph Marie Amiot (钱德明1718–1793) in Beijing in 1793, hundreds of European Jesuit missionaries came to China to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and spread Catholicism to the Chinese soil. In 1685, the French King Louis XIV sent a mission team of five Jesuit mathematicians to China in an attempt to undermine the influence of the Portuguese patronage in the Far East. The first contingent of French Jesuits headed by Jean de Fontaney (洪若翰1643–1710) arrived in Ningbo, China, in July 1687, marking a watershed in the Jesuit missions in China that saw the beginning of cultural and scientific exchanges between China and Europe in the ensuing two-century period. The Jesuits translated the Western texts and disseminated Western science and technology knowledge in China, thus enabling China's educated elites and well-known intellectuals to access the early discoveries of modern science. At the same time, the Jesuits in China were among the first Europeans in the modern era to study the Chinese language and to tell Europe things about China. As their goal was to disseminate a complex religious message into a sophisticated culture, the Jesuits subjected themselves to years of study the Chinese language and culture before attempting to evangelize the Chinese people. Both Ricci and Ruggieri were determined to adapt to the religious traditions of the Chinese. In particular, Ruggieri learned about the common people whose minds were dominated by Buddhist and Taoist thoughts while Ricci contacted the educated classes among whom Confucianism prevailed. Through their efforts of translation, publication, and correspondence with their targets of preaching, the Jesuits transmitted Chinese culture and science to Europe, thereby giving rise to the emergence of Chinoiserie and deepening the Europeans' knowledge and understanding of China.

Numerous elements account for the proliferation of Jesuits' intercultural concepts both in China and Europe. Among them were the international and domestic backgrounds at that time, the scientific needs of the Chinese intellectuals, the political needs of the ruling class, and the policy of cultural adaptation on the part of the Jesuits. In the late Ming dynasty of the late 16th century, capitalism gradually gained its momentum throughout Europe and expanded itself overseas as Europeans searched for raw materials, consumers, and geopolitical influence worldwide. The discovery of the New World further triggered off the Europeans' further enthusiasm in exploring China. The maturity of the feudalistic society and the infancy of capitalism in the late Ming dynasty brought about many changes in politics, economics, culture, and social customs, thus paving way for the imperial China to adopt and introduce whatever was good for the empire. In the field of science and technology, the need for the practical application of advanced science and technology was greater than before. To the ruling class who sought to cement its power, the advanced science and technology transmitted by the Jesuits would be crucial for consolidating the rule of law. For the Jesuits, the powerful and prosperous society of the Ming dynasty forced a reconciling of indigenous culture and catholic theology through cultural adaptation rather than military conquest as was the case in the colonization of the Americas and Africa.

Matteo Ricci's arrival and settlement in Beijing in 1601 was a turning point for the Jesuit missions in China. By his pioneering the cultural adaptation or accommodation strategy, Matteo Ricci established a successful missionary enterprise in the Ming China. During his stay in China, he translated into Chinese quite a number of important books of the West, including the Chinese edition of Euclid's Elements. The Chinese Euclid's Element is the collaborative result between Ricci and Xu Guangqi (徐光启1562–1633), a celebrated Chinese scientist. Many other Jesuits also contributed to the dissemination of Western learning to China and among them were Sabbathin de Ursis (熊三拔1575–1620), Diego de Pantoja (庞迪我1571–1618), Giulio Aleni (艾儒略1582–1649), Alfonso Vagnoni (高一志1568–1640), Nicolas Trigault (金尼阁1577–1629), Johannes Schreck (邓玉函1576–1630), Philippe Couplet (柏应理1623–1693), Johann Adam Schall von Bell (汤若望1592–1666), and Ferdinand Verbiest (南怀仁1623–1688).

From the start of their missions in 1687, the French Jesuits played a dominating role in translating and disseminating Chinese scientific texts. Not only did they engage themselves in the continued transmission of Western learning to China, but also they concentrated their efforts on the dissemination of Chinese classics and books of Chinese science and technology to the European society. Their texts of Chinese studies gave rise to the emergence of Sinology in France. On the basis of these Chinese classics introduced to the West, in 1813, Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat (1788–1832) [Figure 1] published the Dissertaio de Glosso-semeiotice, sive de signis morborum quae è lingua sumuntur, praesertim apud Sinenses, and in the subsequent year, he was appointed to be the first chaire de langues et littératures chinoises et tartares-mandchoues, a chair devoted to sinology in Europe at the Collège Royal which later became the Collège de France, and served as such from 1814 to 1815.
Figure 1: Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat (雷慕沙1788–1832)

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In addition, contrary to the previous Jesuits who sought only to preach Catholicism, the French Jesuits in China were commissioned with the task of scientific investigation which covered the fields of history, literature, science, anatomy, astronomy, botany, and folklore. They became the de facto earliest Sinologists, and their information about the Chinese society exerted great influence on profound thinkers of the era of Enlightenment in Europe. Among these French Jesuits were Joachim Bouvet (白晋1656–1730), Jean-Francois Foucquet (傅圣泽1663–1739), Joan-Baptiste Régis (雷孝思1663–1738), Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare (马若瑟1666–1736), Francois-Xavier d'Entrecolles (殷弘绪1664–1741), Joseph-Francois–Marie-Anne de Moyriac de Mailla (冯秉正1669–1748), Antoine Gaubil (宋君荣1689–1759), Michael Benoit (蒋友仁1715–1774), and Jean Joseph Marie Amiot (钱德明1718–1793). Dominique Parrenin (巴多明1663–1741) was the first Westerner and the only Jesuit missionary to complete a comprehensive study of China's issues with scientific and technological achievement, and this achievement of his was about 200 years earlier than Science and Civilization in China, the masterpiece written by Dr. Joseph Needham (李约瑟1900–1995). Parrenin's study helped reduce the European prejudice against China's achievements of science and technology and his study also refuted the prejudice of Eurocentrism that was upheld by the prevailing European scholars of the day.

  Michal Boym's Translation of Chinese Medicine Knowledge Top

Although the Jesuits' translation and publication centered on Chinese classics such as the Four Books: Da Xue (《大学》The Great Learning), Zhong Yong (《中庸》Doctrines of the Mean), Lun Yu (《论语》The Analects), and Meng Zi (《孟子》Mencius), they also publicized Chinese science and technology in the European society. Michal Boym (卜弥格1612–1659) [Figure 2], a Polish scientist, explorer, and Jesuit missionary, is most notable among the Jesuits for being one of the first Westerners to travel within the Chinese mainland. Boym was the author of numerous works on Chinese fauna, flora, and geography. His books include those which were the earliest European writings on Chinese plants (e.g., Flora Sinensis), the bilingual Atlas of China (Chinese–Latin), and the pioneering book on Chinese medicine. The best known Boym's work is Flora Sinensis (literally Chinese Flora) published in Vienna in 1656. The book was the first description of an ecosystem of the Far East ever published in Europe. Boym emphasized the medicinal properties of Chinese plants. His translation of Zhongguo Maijue (Medical Doctrine of the Pulse), written by a renowned Ming dynasty doctor, was among the first book on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) translated into Latin-based languages. His other works include Les Secrets de la Médecine des Chinois, Consistant en la Parfaite Connoissance du Poudls (The Secrets of Chinese Medicine, Which Consists in a Perfect Understanding of the Pulse) [Figure 3], Specimen medicinae Sinicae (Chinese Medicinal Plants) [Figure 4], and Clavis medica ad Chinarum doctrinam de pulsibus (Key to the Medical Doctrine of the Chinese on the Pulse) [Figure 5], and in these books, he described TCM and introduced several methods of healing and diagnostics previously unknown in Europe, particularly the measurement of the pulse.
Figure 2: Michal Boym (卜弥格1612–1659)

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Figure 3: Les Secrets de la Médecine des Chinois, Consistant en la Parfaite Connoissance du Poudls (The Secrets of Chinese Medicine, Which Consists in a Perfect Understanding of the Pulse)

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Figure 4: Specimen medicinae Sinicae (Chinese Medicinal Plants)

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Figure 5: Clavis medica ad Chinarum doctrinam de pulsibus (Key to the Medical Doctrine of the Chinese on the Pulse)

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Michal Boym is one of the first Europeans to inform the Western world of China's scholarly medicine. His achievements are monumental, and his translations laid early foundation for the spread to Europe of Chinese medical practice and learning later. He was a prolific author, leaving behind a multitude of writings on a variety of topics including the transcription and translation of the Nestorian Stele and Chinese botany, fauna, flora, medicine, geography, and cartography. It is remarkable that he accomplished all these translations and writings in extreme hardships amid the chaos, unrest, and turmoil that the Chinese society underwent. He also continued his translation of TCM while returning to Europe from China and later during his journey back to China. The publication of Boym's works was further complicated by the strained relations at the time between the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Jesuits. The question of Boym's medical manuscripts is also complicated by his later relationships. From the early 18th century on, there had been debates about the authorship of the three works on TCM published in Europe. Some scholars contend that these publications in the 1680s in Europe were in fact a sometimes fractious but collaborative effort. They believe that the Jesuits in China worked with the Dutch and German medical employees of the VOC in Asia and their local informants over a period of at least two decades. The significance of Boym's role in this regard has therefore also been discussed by TCM scholars. Evidence suggested that Boym wrote those chapters on drugs. The extraordinary plates in the text are the reprintings of rare Chinese medical illustrations with newly engraved Latin captions, appearing to have been printed on paper from China or the East Indies. In 1658, Boym entrusted his manuscript to his fellow Jesuit Philippe Couplet for shipment to Batavia, the then Indonesia, and then to Europe for printing. The VOC, however, suppressed Boym's name, believing that the Jesuits in Peking were responsible for the VOC's failed mission to China. Andreas Cleyer (1634–1697/98) the editor, a Dutch physician and botanist who was attached to the VOC in Batavia, used some of the same Chinese medical works as well as Boym's work for his own Clavis medica ad chinarum in 1686.

  TCM in the Tradition of Natural History in Europe Top

From De Historia Plantarum [Figure 6] by Theophrastus (372 BC-287 BC), through De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40 BC–c. 90 BC), and to Naturalis Historia [Figure 7] by Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23–79) [Figure 8], natural history is one of the two knowledge systems in the European scientific tradition that can rival natural philosophy and can be distinguished from metaphysics and mathematics. Natural history is traditionally understood to encompass a wide range of subjects that Aristotle included in the physical sciences. To facilitate people's identification of plants, European natural history books pay special attention to selecting plant illustrations.
Figure 6: De Historia Plantarum

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Figure 7: Naturalis Historia

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Figure 8: Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23–79)

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Beginning in the 15th century, the Age of Exploration greatly enriched people's understanding of species and took all kinds of novel flora and fauna to Europe, thereby widening the horizons of the naturalists. The Age of Exploration also aroused great interest in global colonial expeditions and gave birth to a visible and invisible “plant route.” This route of global plants circulation connecting America, Asia, Africa, and Europe integrates plants, planting culture, knowledge, ideas, ecological environment, and the geo-economic politics that depend on them globally, thereby changing the world entirely. Botanists in the Renaissance began to search, identify, and describe various plants, combining new knowledge to annotate and review ancient authoritative works. Since then, the meticulous study of the natural forms and characteristics of plants has become important to botanical studies. From that time on, naturalists began to emphasize the acquisition of natural knowledge through on-site research. With the improvement of specimen preparation techniques, naturalists began to produce more specimens of animals and plants. Thus, plant classification began to show results, and botany as a discipline began to shape.

Before being influenced by the Western science and culture, China had developed a natural history system represented by Materia Medica. To be specific, the Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》Compendium of Materia Medica) is the Chinese masterpiece that is closely equivalent to the natural history knowledge system in the European scientific tradition. Charles Darwin (1809–1882) rated Compendium of Materia Medica as “an encyclopedia of ancient China.” Joseph Needham (1900–1995) regarded its author Li Shizhen (李时珍) as a naturalist and believed that the core value of the Compendium of Materia Medica lies in natural history rather than medicine. In other words, the Compendium of Materia Medica was of great appeal to the European scientific community because it was a masterpiece of natural history rather than a pharmacopeia.

The European Jesuit missionaries who entered China in the late Ming dynasty were very clearly “plant hunters” and this is especially true of the French Jesuit missionaries who came to China after 1687. They inherited and carried the tradition of European natural history research out of their own interests, as is evidenced by their research on Chinese culture. This research did not confine itself to the Four Books and Five Classics, but it expanded its exploration of many fields including history, folklore, literature, crafts, science and technology, animals, plants, and mineralogy. Being well aware of the compatibility between Chinese medical classics and the tradition of natural history in Europe, the Jesuit missionaries in China investigated and studied Chinese plants, especially medicinal plants, thus promoting the spread of Chinese medicine to the West, enriching the European natural history research as well as paving way for the birth of Sinology.

The book entitled China Illustrata (Amsterdam, 1667) is recognized as a masterpiece of early European Sinology. Later on, another three books came out, and they are recognized as the major masterpieces of European Sinology in the 18th century, namely, Lettres edifiantes et curieuses ecrites des missions etrangeres, Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise [Figure 9], and Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, etc., des Chinois, par les missionnaires de Pekin. In terms of their content, these books are more like scientific works that fall in line with the European naturalistic tradition. Whether it is Michal Boym's Flora Sinensis, his three books of translations on Chinese medicine (whose authorship disputes have not yet been settled), or the introduction of Chinese medicinal plants by the French Jesuit missionaries Dominique Parrenin (1663–1741), Pierre Jartoux (1668–1720), and Francois-Xavier d'Entrecolles (1662–1741) as recorded in the Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise, the texts sufficiently demonstrated that research on the spread of Chinese medicine to the West should have shed light on the European tradition of natural history.
Figure 9: Lettres edifiantes et curieuses ecrites des missions etrangeres, Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise

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  Conclusions Top

Beginning with Matteo Ricci, the Jesuits who came to China during the late Ming and early Qing period played a monumental role in promoting the European understanding of China and publicizing Chinese culture, science, and technology in the West. Their favorable comments on Chinese civilization exerted a profound impact on the Enlightenment of the 18th century, creating “Chinoiserie,” a period of almost fanatical infatuation in Europe over all things of the Chinese. The Jesuits were very active in transmitting Chinese knowledge to Europe. The reports of scientific investigation, the observation notes, and the letters sent home by the Jesuits, in particular the French Jesuits, were the chief source of information about China in 17th and 18th century Europe. Meanwhile, the Jesuits made efforts to translate Western mathematical and astronomical works into Chinese and aroused the interest of the Chinese scholars in these scientific fields. Conversely, the Jesuits were very active in transmitting Chinese knowledge to Europe. Through the correspondence of these Jesuit missionaries, European scientists for the first time came to learn about Chinese science and culture.


This research was financed by the National Philosophy and Social Science Foundation of China (No.17FZS039).

Ethical approval

The author has no ethical conflicts to disclose.

Conflicts of interest



  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6], [Figure 7], [Figure 8], [Figure 9]


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