Joseph-Marie Amiot's arrival in China and the last flowering of Jesuit scholarship at the Imperial Court in Beijing

Amiot, Joseph-Marie, French Jesuit missionary, translator, and musicologist at the Imperial Court in Beijing (1722-1788). Autograph document signed.

Macau, 27. VIII. 1750.

Oblong 8vo. 1 p. In Latin.


An oath renouncing the practice of the Chinese rites, taken by the prominent Jesuit as required by the Papal Bull "Ex Quo Singulari" (1742). The oath was sworn on the Bible, and a signed autograph ("manu propria") of the formula had to be produced as evidence. Most of these documents are co-signed by church officials or superior friars as witnesses to an oath sworn in their presence ("in manibus meis"), in this case an unidentified vicar.

This important document dates back to the very beginning of Joseph-Marie Amiot's mission in China; it is written and signed less than a month after his arrival in Macau on 27 July 1750. The Qianlong Emperor ordered Amiot and two other new arrivals, including the important Portuguese Jesuit and astronomer José d'Espinha, to Beijing, where they arrived on 22 August 1751. Amiot would spend the rest of his life at the Imperial Court and is considered one of the most important disseminators of Chinese knowledge and culture in 18th century Europe through his vast network of correspondents, translations of important Chinese texts such as Sun Tzun's "Art of War", musicological and linguistic publications, and his monumental 15-volume memoir. Furthermore, Amiot conducted scientific experiments, especially with electricity and magnetism, collected weather data, provided the first calculation of the Chinese total population, and coordinated the astronomical observations of the likes of Ferdinand von Hallerstein, Anton Gogeisl, and Antoine Gaubil in Beijing with those of Esprit Pézenas, an important Jesuit astronomer in Marseille. With his treatise on ancient and modern Chinese music that was published as part of his memoir in 1776, and his unpublished "Divertissements ou concerts de musique chinoise", Amiot wrote the first European musicological texts on Chinese music. He is also credited with introducing Chinese sheet music and traditional instruments like the Sheng to Europe; his (by his own admission, flawed) translation of Li Guangdi's treatise on music was referenced by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Despite these important achievements, Amiot's life was overshadowed by the increasing persecution of Catholic missionaries and converts in China, the banishment of the Jesuits from France in 1764, the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, and the upheavals of the French Revolution. In reaction to the ban of 1764, Amiot put his connections and prestige to use and not only managed to secure an exemption for the French Jesuit mission in China but also the commitment of King Louis XVI to personally finance it. In 1773, Amiot reached an agreement with the Lazarists to take over the mission, thus enabling him and his colleagues to continue their work even after the Papal suppression of the Jesuits. However, the French Revolution delivered the final blow to the French mission in Beijing, and from 1791 Amiot was the last representative of this once important mission established by Jean de Fontaney and four of his brothers in 1688 by order of King Louis XIV. Joseph-Marie Amiot died on 8 October 1793, the day the news of the execution of Louis XVI in Paris reached him.

During the early years of their mission to East Asia, the Jesuits led by Matteo Ricci accommodated Catholicism to Chinese customs and Confucian practice in important ways, both for political reasons and in hopes of attracting more converts. Criticism of this syncretism is as old as the Chinese rites themselves, and Ricci's direct successor Niccolò Longobardo attempted to change course, which led to his replacement as provincial. When Dominican and Franciscan missionaries entered China, they reported to Rome critically on the Jesuit practices. A first condemnation was decreed by Pope Clement XI in 1704 and confirmed in the 1715 Bull "Ex Illa Die". In reaction to the condemnation, the Kiangxi Emperor, who initially tolerated the Christian missionaries and had especially good relations with the Jesuits, officially forbade Christian missions in China. In 1721, Carlo Ambrosio Mezzabarba, the Latin Patriarch of Alexandria, was sent as a Papal legate to Macau and Beijing. Despite the concession of "eight permissions" regarding the practice of the Chinese rites, officiated in a pastoral letter to the missionaries from 4 November 1721, the Emperor did not revoke the ban. Finally, in "Ex Quo Singulari", Pope Benedict XIV re-affirmed the Bull of 1715 and required all missionaries in the region to take the oath renouncing the practice of Chinese rites.

A transcription and translation of the document are available on request.


Well preserved.


Adam Parr, The Mandate of Heaven: Strategy, Revolution, and the First European Translation of 'Sunzi's Art of War' (Boston 2019). Camille de Rochemonteix, Joseph Amiot et les derniers survivants de la mission française à Pékin (Paris 1915).

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