Many people are familiar with European missionaries like Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) who served as cultural bridges between China and the West. Not only did they bring Western knowledge and Christianity to China, translating with Chinese literati important works of philosophy, theology and science. They also brought knowledge of China to the West, through letters, reports, books about China, and notably through their Latin translation of the Confucian books in the “Confucius Sinarum Philosophus” (1687).
In the last 30 years, scholarship has come to stress the role of Chinese individuals and local communities in this cultural transmission. I would like to highlight here the life and role of Fan Shouyi 樊守義 (1682–1753), a Chinese Christian who lived and studied in Europe for ten years (1708–1718), who became a priest in Europe and was the first Chinese person to write impressions of Europe and the Americas. With his double identity as a Chinese subject of the Emperor Kangxi and as a Jesuit priest, he made efforts to fulfill his religious and political duties at the difficult time of the rites controversy.1
Fan Shouyi and his Family Background
Fan Shouyi was born in 1682 in the city of Jiangzhou 絳州 (today Xinjiang 新絳) in the prefecture of Pingyang平陽, in the southern part of the province of Shanxi 山西. Jiangzhou was the center for the evangelization of Shanxi and Shaanxi 陝西 provinces, and is associated with the work of the Italian Jesuit Alfonso Vagnone (1566–1640) who worked there from 1624 until his death in 1640.
Due to a lack of information about Fan’s family background and early life, it is often assumed that he converted to Christianity thanks to the Piedmontese Jesuit Antonio Provana (1662–1720).2
However, a Western report on the Chinese mission currently in the Archives of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (APF), in Rome, gives us precious information about his family, his Christian background and his early life.3