Father Johann Adam Schall: China's Jesuit Astronomer
Father Johann Adam Schall gained access to the upper reaches of the Qing court through his impact on the dynasty's calendar
By Sheila Melvin
Of the 920 Jesuits who served in the China mission between 1552 and 1800, only the Italian Matteo Ricci (Li Madou) remains well known. This is understandable – it was Ricci who first gained permission for the Jesuits to live in Beijing and who established the example of respect for Chinese traditions and adaptation to Chinese customs that came to characterize their mission. (The Kangxi Emperor called this "Ricci's tradition," and obliged all missionaries to follow it.) Ricci introduced Western music, math, and science to China and Chinese philosophy, history, and culture to Europe. He spoke and wrote fluent Chinese and seems to have been beloved by all who knew him. Nowadays, he is effectively the secular saint of sinology – and, indeed, is under consideration for actual sainthood by the Vatican.
But while Ricci is the role model to whom our better selves might all aspire, Father Johann Adam Schall von Bell (Tang Ruowang) is perhaps the Jesuit it would have been most fun to be. Schall lived a life so epic - spanning the Ming and the Qing, encompassing war, charges of sexual impropriety, a death sentence – that it cries out for a Hollywood or Beijing film studio biopic.