Galileo and China

Exhibit GuideGalileo’s World at a Glance
Gallery at the Exhibit Website
Location: Bizzell Memorial Library, 5th floor Exhibit Hall.

How did European and Chinese astronomers collaborate in the world of Galileo?

The Silk Road. The Forbidden City. The Great Wall. Asia has long held a fascination for Europeans. Science then and now plays a key role in cultural exchange. Schreck, one of Galileo’s friends, went to China and taught astronomy. Schall, a student of Schreck, became an advisor to the Emperor and was honored with official status as a mandarin. At the same time, Europeans were taking pride in “new discoveries” that were long known to the Chinese. Stories like these illustrate premodern cultural exchange between Europe and China, and also the circulation of scientific ideas throughout Asia.

Introductory video:  Letter from Galileo’s Daughter

Section 1: Jesuits in China

During Galileo’s early telescopic observations, his friend Johann Schreck assisted him. Schreck was inducted into the Academy of the Lynx, an early scientific society, only a week after Galileo. A few years later, Schreck joined the Jesuits and went to China where he trained the astronomer Adam Schall. Schall instigated a joint publishing effort between Jesuit and Chinese astronomers which continued for the rest of the century, constituting a high point of international relations between Europe and China.

  1. Matteo Ricci, De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas (Lyon, 1616), “On the Christian Expedition to China,” ed. Nicolaus Trigault.
  2. Johann Schreck, Ensei kiki zusetsu rokusai (Japan, 1830), “Wonderful Machines of the Far West.”
  3. Adam Schall, Historica narratio, de initio et progressu missionis apud Chinenses (Vienna, 1665), “Historical Narration of the Origin and Progress of the Mission to China.”
  4. Athanasius Kircher, China monumentis (Amsterdam, 1667), “Monuments of China.”
  5. Athanasius Kircher, Chine… Illustrée de Plusieurs Monuments (Amsterdam, 1670), “China, Illustrated with Many Monuments.”
  6. Alvaro Semedo, History of that Great and Renowned Monarchy of China (London, 1655).
  7. Louis Le Comte, Memoirs… made in a late Journey through the Empire of China (London, 1698), 2d ed.
  8. Pierre-Marie-Alphonse Favier, Peking: Histoire et Description (Beijing, 1897), “Beijing: History and Description.”
  9. Giacomo Cantelli, Il Regno della China (Rome, 1682), map; “The Kingdom of China, before now called Cathay and Mangin.”
  10. Vincenzo Coronelli, Parte Occidentale della China… Parte Orientale della China (Venice, 1696), map; “The Western and Eastern Parts of China divided into their Provinces.”
  11. J.B. du Halde, General History of China (London, 1741), trans. Richard Brookes, 3d ed., vols. 1, 3 and 4.

Section 2: Science in Asia

Francis Bacon championed the new era of modern scientific discovery by pointing to three supreme novelties: printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. The richness of Asian science is evident in the irony that each of these “modern European discoveries” came to Europe from Asia, unbeknownst to Bacon. Asia boasts a rich history of science and technology, even before the Scientific Revolution of early modern Europe.

  1. Chinese dragon, George and Cecilia McGhee Collection.
  2. Confucius, Sinarum philosophus (Paris, 1687), “The Philosopher of China.”
  3. John Williams, Observations of Comets from B.C. 611 to A.D. 1640, Extracted from the Chinese Annals (London, 1871).
  4. J.B. du Halde, General History of China (London, 1741), trans. Richard Brookes, 3d ed., vol. 2.
  5. Dou, Guifang, Shinkan Kotei meido kyukyo (Japan, 1659), “The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Moxibustion.”
  6. Yin-Yang medallion (ca. 1960).
  7. Johann Nieuhof, Legatio Batavica ad magnum Tartariae Chamum Sungteium, modernum Sinae imperatorem (Amsterdam, 1668), “The Dutch Embassy to the Grand Tartar, Chamum Sungteium, Modern Emperor of China.”
  8. Antoine Gaubil, “A Description of the Plan of Peking, the Capital of China,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (London, 1748).
  9. Baba, Nobutake, Shogaku tenmon shinansho (Osaka, 1706), “Introduction to Astronomy.”
Further reading:
  • Qiong Zhang, Making the New World Their Own:  Chinese Encounters with Jesuit Science in the Age of Discovery, Scientific and Learned Cultures and Their Institutions, ed. Mordechai Feingold (Leiden: Brill, 2014).
  • Florence Hsia, Sojourners in a Strange Land:  Jesuits and Their Scientific Missions in Late Imperial China (Chicago, 2011).
  • Benjamin A. Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China 1550-1900.
Curators: Kerry Magruder and Brent Purkaple. Links are to the Exhibit Guide, also available from the iBook Store. Open Educational Resources are available at and ShareOK.
This entry was posted in Galileo and China, Galileo's World and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.