Xu Guangqi: Shanghai’s unlikely Jesuit

Xu Guangqi: Shanghai’s unlikely Jesuit

Although Christmas is often thought of as a foreign holiday in Shanghai, one unlikely local Jesuit left an indelible mark on the city
 Click the "Historic Shanghai" banner above to see more articles in Shanghai's storied past.

Historic Shanghai -- Xujiahui historyAlthough Xu never was able to see the grand Xujiahui, his birthplace at 234 Qiaojia Lu still remains.Xu Guangqi was born beside a creek in Shanghai in 1562, during the reign of Emperor Jialing. He became one of the most influential Chinese Christians in history, Shanghai’s favorite, and most holy son.

Humble beginnings

Xu was born poor, the son of a vegetable farmer.

Although Xu spent half his life slowly climbing the career ladder of a Ming Confucian scholar, his hard work paid off when his well-connected teacher brought him into the circles of Shanghai gentry.

Xu’s erudition and good manners kept him there.

By the age of 33 though he still hadn't secured a position or won his degree -- and then, the breakthrough. Xu received the highest academic degree, got appointed to the Hanlin Academy in Beijing -- and met with a Jesuit missionary.

Entering the fold

It was mathematics that brought Xu into the fold of the Catholic church.

At the time, many Ming scholars lamented the decadent state of Chinese arts and science. But Xu believed that the great achievements of Chinese thought, especially in geometry, astronomy and agriculture, could be revivified with the help of foreigners.

It was mathematics that brought Xu into the fold of the Catholic church. Together with the venerable Jesuit Matteo Ricci, Xu translated Euclid’s great geometry treatise.

He became the first man in China to collaborate with a European on a scientific project.

The blend of Confucian social conscience and Christian philanthropy became a model for Chinese converts. Dr Paul (Xu’s adopted name) was a renaissance man and he partook in the renaissance passion for scientific experiment.

Xu returned to Shanghai and retired as a country gentleman.

Land and the legacy

Xu’s descendants were influential gentry and avid Catholics.

When Shanghai was opened to foreigners in 1843, they bequeathed their entire estate in west Shanghai, today's Xujiahui, to the Society of Jesus. Xujiahui became a Jesuit township, studded with convents, schools, cemeteries and an observatory.

In 1906, St. Ignatius Cathedral was crowned with its famous gothic spires and pronounced by many as the grandest church in east Asia.

(Article continues below photo)

historic shanghai -- Biblioteca ZikaweiBiblioteca Zikawei's famous facade.Biblioteca Zikawei, the colonnaded library next to the church, actually benefited from communist rule, although much of the church did not. The library became the default repository for all private libraries abandoned by fleeing foreigners.

Today, Biblioteca is a place to fondle the original bindings of curious old books: from great translations of Euclid’s Elements to the “Unexpurgated Diary of Shanghai Baby.”

Shadows in the old town

Xu’s legacy is not limited to Catholic Xujiahui.

His birthplace still exists: a squalid wooden house at 234 Qiaojia Lu.

Xu’s father worked his vegetable patch nearby, outside Shanghai's South Gate. More than four centuries later people still scrape their living here: these days, repairing odd motorcycles.

Across the road, at 250 Guangqi Nan Lu (whose name honors Xu, naturally), is the ancestral hall built in the 1620s by Xu’s children. Although earnest Catholics, Xu’s family was still Chinese: they maintained this shrine to pay tribute to their ancestors and burn paper money.

The cavernous hall has been stripped of its decorations.

Centuries-old wooden pillars extrude beneath the flaking layers of whitewash. As an odd echo of the Chinese printing tradition -- so beloved by Xu and so readily employed by Jesuits to spread the gospel -- the hall now houses a printing workshop. An old mechanical hand press prints coupons and form letters.


Katya Knyazeva is a journalist and fine artist born in Siberia.
Read more about Katya Knyazeva