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A Jesuit Astronomer in a Qing Emperor’s Court

How Johann Adam Schall Shaped China’s Imperial Calendar

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.

Like many an ambitious young man of his era, Schall got his start at the College of Rome—the vibrant Jesuit learning center at which the theories of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galilei were then being tested and taught—where he learned philosophy, mathematics, and science while studying for the priesthood. After joining the Society of Jesus, he became fascinated by Ricci's accounts of China, sought permission to join the mission, and reached China in 1662. For the first few years, Schall moved between Beijing and Xi'an, doing missionary work, but in 1631 he was called to Beijing to work with the renowned official and Catholic convert Xu Guangqi (Paul Xu) on reform of the Chinese calendar.

Schall was especially talented at astronomical calculations—the precise prediction of lunar eclipses was a specialty—which was of tremendous importance in imperial China. The Chongzhen Emperor honored Schall for his work, giving him a placard in his own calligraphy. This imperial favor allowed Schall to proselytize freely and, aided by a Catholic eunuch, he converted enough palace personnel to establish an entire congregation. In 1642, with the Ming under siege by Li Zicheng, the palace asked Schall to help make cannons to defend Beijing. He quickly learned how, dictating a book called "Essentials of Gunnery" even as he oversaw the production of 10 heavy and 500 light cannons. Unfortunately, the weaponry was of little help—when the Chongzhen emperor tried to flee the city, passing Schall's house on his way, corrupt eunuchs turned the cannons on the imperial party. They missed, but the emperor, unable to escape, turned back to the city and hung himself from a tree atop Coal Hill. "So this monarch," wrote a saddened Schall, "almost the greatest in the world and second to none in the goodness of his character, with no companion and abandoned by all, through his imprudence perished by an unworthy death at the age of 36. And the name of the empire Da Ming, after it lasted 276 years… was extinct."

The collapse of the Ming was a calamitous time and Schall was ordered to leave Beijing by superiors who feared for his safety. He refused, opting to stay and protect the city's Catholic community. When the Manchus arrived, they ordered everyone to move from the neighborhood in which Schall happened to live, but he again refused, unwilling to abandon his 3,000-book library. Instead, he offered his services to the new Qing Dynasty. On September 1, 1644 he predicted a solar eclipse to the minute—Chinese astronomers were off by half an hour and Muslim astronomers by an hour—and by year-end the Shunzhi Emperor had named Schall head of the Bureau of Astronomy.

Schall's relationship with the Shunzhi Emperor was extremely close for a time. In 1650, the young sovereign gave him land to build the Southern Cathedral; the Nantang, as it is known, was rebuilt several times but serves Beijing's Catholics to this day. Three years later, Shunzhi bestowed on Schall the poetic title "Master of Mystery" (an allusion to his ability to predict eclipses) and declared that he no longer had to kowtow. Shunzhi called the European priest "Mafa," or Grandpa, and visited Schall in his home 24 times. Schall got to know the Empress Dowager, too, who was grateful to him because he cured her niece of a serious illness. In a thank you note for a gift of land for a graveyard, Schall told Shunzhi, "Living in China and so far away from my homeland in Europe, I was very fortunate to obtain this favor from the good emperor. He not only gives me glory in my lifetime, but is also ready to arrange everything for my death. The friendship between us is like the relationship between a fish and water."

Schall seems to have had a compassionate and emotional nature; he was known for ministering to the poor and for sobbing as he gave sermons. He was good at making things—as his colleague, Father Verbiest put it, "he proceeded a step at a time, making haste slowly rather than being careless or precipitous." He had little patience with those who exaggerated their understanding of astronomy and frequently fired non-performing officials. Schall's high status job and closeness to the throne naturally excited envy; even his fellow priests sometimes complained that he was arrogant, sarcastic, and lived in a princely manor in his private house. There were also rumors about the nature of his relationship with his servant, Pan Jinxiao, with whom he rode together on horseback and whose son Schall legally adopted. In 1657, when Schall decided to dissolve the entire Muslim Department of the Bureau of Astronomy, he began to make real enemies. Chief among these was Yang Guangxian, a life-long xenophobe and anti-Catholic whose statement, "We would rather have an imperfect calendar in China than have Westerners around us" remains synonymous with conservatism and ignorance. Yang opposed anything Western, including science—he refused to believe the earth was round, writing "If the huge earth was a big ball, then the people above and people below would live feet to feet. The people below would suffer from hanging over."

When the Shunzhi Emperor died unexpectedly in 1663, Yang blamed Schall, saying the Astronomical Bureau led by the Jesuit had chosen an inauspicious day for the burial of the emperor's infant son, thus causing the emperor's death. He charged the Jesuit with heresy, treason, and inaccurate calendrical calculations. The elderly Schall was arrested and, in his words, brought to trial "with chains on my neck and my head bowed to the ground as an accused criminal extending bound hands in supplication." The sentence was delivered on April 14, 1665: death by dismemberment.

Several Chinese Catholics were arrested with Schall and beheaded. But before Schall's more severe sentence could be carried out, a series of earthquakes rocked Beijing. This was seen as an omen and the death sentence was lifted though Schall remained in jail. However, when the deceased Emperor's mother learned of the priest's incarceration, she angrily ordered his release. Schall was allowed to return to his house, albeit ill and in disgrace. Schall wrote a confession in which he accused himself of "excessive indulgence toward my servant, who has been a source of scandal to almost everyone," "wastefulness" that "offended the vow of poverty," and "imprudence…in adopting as my nephew my servant's son." Then, on August 15, 1666 at 4:15 p.m. (the Feast of the Assumption), he died. More than 500 people attended his funeral and his fellow priests mourned the loss of a brilliant and passionate, if occasionally difficult, man.

The Kangxi Emperor was then a young boy, with power held by regents, but as soon as he assumed the throne, Schall's colleagues petitioned for his rehabilitation. Kangxi launched a thorough investigation and determined that Schall had been right and his enemies wrong. Wang Yongxian was spared death because of his age, but sent back home as a commoner. Kangxi gave Schall a state funeral, contributed to an elaborate tombstone, and sent a letter to the gravesite that read, in part: "I deeply mourned his sudden death… Oh! His glory will live forever, and his reward will be very rich. If he knows in heaven how much he is being given here after his life in the world, he would be very happy."

Schall's tomb still stands, right next to Ricci's, in the Zhalan Cemetery on the grounds of the Beijing Administrative College.