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Père du Halde: Teaching Science to the Manchu Emperor, c. 1680

THIS nation, naturally proud, looked upon themselves as the most learned in the world, and they enjoyed this reputation without disturbance because they were acquainted with no other people more knowing than themselves; but they were undeceived by the ingenuity of the missionaries who appeared at court. The proof which they gave of their capacity served greatly to authorize their ministry and to gain esteem for the religion which they preached. The late emperor, Cang hi, whose chief delight was to acquire knowledge, was never weary of seeing or hearing them. On the other hand, the Jesuits, perceiving how necessary the protection of this great prince was to the progress of the Gospel, omitted nothing that might excite his curiosity and satisfy this natural relish for the sciences.

They gave him an insight into optics by making him a present of a semi-cylinder of a light kind of wood. In the middle of its axis was placed a convex glass, which, being turned toward any object, painted the image within the tube to a great nicety. The emperor was greatly pleased with so unusual a sight, and desired to have a machine made in his garden at Peking, wherein, without being seen himself, he might see everything that passed in the streets and neighboring places. They prepared for this purpose an object-glass of much greater diameter, and made in the thickest garden wall a great window in the shape of a pyramid, the basis of which was towards the garden, and the point toward the street. At the point they fixed the glass eye over against the place where there was the greatest concourse of people; at the basis was made a large closet, shut up close on all sides and very dark. It was there the emperor came with his queens to observe the lively images of everything that passed in the street; and this sight pleased him extremely; but it charmed the princesses a great deal more, who could not otherwise behold this spectacle, the custom of China not allowing them to go out of the palace.

Père Grimaldi gave another wonderful spectacle by his skill in optics in the Jesuits' Garden at Peking, which greatly astonished the grandees of the emperor. They made upon the four walls four human figures, every one being of the same length as the wall, which was fifty feet. As he had perfectly observed the optic rules, there was nothing seen on the front but mountains, forests, chases, and other things of this nature; but at a certain point they perceived the figure of a man well made and well-proportioned. The emperor honored the Jesuits' house with his presence, and beheld these figures a long time with admiration. The grandees and principal mandarins, who came in crowds, were equally surprised; but that which struck them most was to see the figures so regular and so exact upon irregular walls that in several places had large windows and doors. It would be too tedious to mention all the figures that seemed in confusion, and yet were seen distinctly at a certain point, or were put in order with conic, cylindric, pyramidal mirrors, and the many other wonders in optics that Père Grimaldi discovered to the finest geniuses in China and which raised their surprise and wonder.

In catoptrics they presented the emperor with all sorts of telescopes, as well for astronomical observations as for taking great and small distances upon the earth; and likewise glasses for diminishing, magnifying, and multiplying. Among other things, they presented him with a tube made like a prism having eight sides, which being placed parallel with the horizon, presented eight different scenes so lifelike that they might be mistaken for the objects themselves; this being joined to the variety of painting entertained the emperor a long time. They likewise presented another tube wherein was a polygon glass, which by its different facets collected into one image several parts of different objects, insomuch that instead of a landscape, woods, flocks, and a hundred other things represented in a picture, there was seen distinctly a human face or some other figure very exact.

There was also another machine which contained a lighted lamp, the light of which came through a tube, at the end whereof was a convex glass, near which several small pieces of glass painted with divers figures were made to slide. These figures were seen upon the opposite wall of a size proportioned to the size of the wall. This spectacle in the nighttime or in a very dark place frightened those who were ignorant of the artifice as much as it pleased those who were acquainted with it.

On this account they have given it the name of the magic lantern.

Nor was perspective forgotten. Père Bruglio gave the emperor three drafts wherein the rules were exactly kept. He showed three copies of the same in the Jesuits' Garden at Peking. The mandarins, who flock to this city from all parts, came to see them out of curiosity, and were all equally struck with the sight. They could not conceive how it was possible on a plain cloth to represent halls, galleries, porticoes, roads, and alleys that seemed to reach as far as the eye could see, and all this so naturally that at the first sight they were deceived by it.

Statics likewise had its turn. They offered the emperor a machine the principal parts of which were only four notched wheels and an iron grapple. With the help of this machine, a child raised several thousand weight without difficulty, and stood firm against the efforts of twenty strong men. With respect to hydrostatics, they made for the emperor pumps, canals, siphons, wheels, and several other machines proper to raise water above the level of the spring; and among others, a machine which they made use of to raise water out of the river, called the ten thousand springs, and to carry it into the ground belonging to the emperor's demesnes, as he had desired.

Père Grimaldi also made a present to the emperor of a hydraulic machine of a new type. There appeared in it a ceaseless jet d'eau or cascade, a clock that went very true, the motions of the heavens, and an accurate alarm. The pneumatic machines also did no less excite the emperor's curiosity. They caused a wagon to be made of light wood about two feet long. In the middle of it they placed a brazen vessel full of live coals, and upon that an aeolipile, the wind of which came through a little pipe upon a sort of wheel made like the sails of a windmill. This little wheel turned another with an axle-tree, and by that means set the wagon in motion for two hours together; but lest room should be wanting to proceed constantly forward, it was contrived to move circularly in the following manner: To the axle-tree of the two hind wheels was fixed a small beam, and at the end of this beam another axle-tree, which went through the center of another wheel somewhat larger than the rest; and according as this wheel was nearer or farther from the wagon, it described a greater or lesser circle. The same contrivance was likewise fixed to a little ship with four wheels. The aeolipile was hid in the middle of the ship, and the wind proceeding out of two small pipes filled the little sails and made it wheel about a long while. The artifice being concealed, there was nothing heard but a noise like a blast of wind or like that which water makes about a vessel.

I have already spoken of the organ which was presented to the emperor; but as this was defective in many things, Père Pereira made a larger one, and placed it in the Jesuits' church at Peking. The novelty of this harmony charmed the Chinese; but that which astonished them most was that this organ played of itself Chinese as well as European airs, and sometimes both together. It was well known, as I have elsewhere mentioned, that what gave Père Ricci a favorable admission into the emperor's court was a clock and a striking watch of which he made him a present. This prince was so much charmed with it that he built a magnificent tower purposely to place it in, and because the queen-mother had a desire for a striking watch, the emperor had recourse to a stratagem to disappoint her by ordering the watch to be shown her without calling her attention to the striking part, so that she, not finding it according to her fancy, sent it back.

They did not fail afterwards to comply with the emperor's taste for great quantities of curious things were sent out of Europe by Christian princes, who had the conversion of this great empire at heart, insomuch that the emperor's cabinet was soon filled with various rarities, especially clocks of the most recently invented and most curious workmanship. Père Pereira,who had singular talent for music, placed a large and magnificent clock on the top of the Jesuits' church. He had made a great number of small bells in a musical proportion and placed them in a tower appointed for that purpose. Every hammer was fastened to an iron wire which raised it and immediately let it (all upon the bell). Within the tower was a large barrel upon which Christian airs were marked with small spikes. Immediately before the hour the barrel was disengaged from the teeth of a wheel, by which it was suspended and stopped. It then was instantly set in motion by a great weight, the string of which was wound about the barrel. The spikes raised the wires of the hammers, according to the order of the tune, so that by this means the finest airs of the country were heard.

This was a diversion entirely new both for the court and city, and crowds of all sorts came constantly to hear it; the church, though large, was not sufficient for the throng that incessantly went backward and forward.

Whenever any extraordinary phenomena, such as a parhelion, rainbows, etc., appeared in the heavens, the emperor immediately sent for the missionaries to explain their causes. They composed several books concerning these natural appearances, and to support their explanations in the most sensible manner they contrived a machine to represent the effects of nature in the heavens. It was a drum made very close and whitened on the inside. The inward surface represented the heavens, the light of the sun entering through a little hole passed through a triangular prism of glass and fell upon a polished cylinder. From this cylinder it was reflected upon the concavity of the drum and exactly painted the color of the rainbow. From a part of the cylinder a little flattened was reflected the image of the sun; and by other refractions and reflections were shown the halos about sun and moon, and all the rest of the phenomena relating to celestial colors, accordingas the prism was more or less inclined towards the cylinder.

They also presented the emperor with thermometers to show the several degrees of heat and cold, to which was added a very nice hygrometer to discover the several degrees of moisture and dryness. It was a barrel of a large diameter, suspended by a thick string made of catgut of a proper length and parallel to the horizon. The least change in the air contracts or relaxes the string, and causes the barrel to turn sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, and stretches or loosens to the right or left upon the circumference of the barrel a small string which draws a little pendulum and marks the several degrees of humidity on one, and on the other those of dryness.

All these different inventions of human wit, till then unknown to the Chinese, abated something of their natural pride and taught them not to have too contemptible an opinion of foreigners; nay, it so far altered their way of thinking that they began to look upon Europeans as their masters.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Volume I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 155-162.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, October 1998

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