Philippe Couplet

Last updated

Chinese name
Confucius, Philosopher of the Chinese, or, Chinese Knowledge Explained in Latin (1687), produced by a team of Jesuits led by Philippe Couplet.
Bai Yingli
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese

Philippe or Philip Couplet (1623–1693), known in China as Bai Yingli, was a Flemish Jesuit missionary to the Qing Empire. He worked with his fellow missionaries to compile the influential Confucius, Philosopher of the Chinese, published in Paris in 1687. As his works were in Latin, he is also sometimes known as Philippus Couplet.



Early life

Philippe Couplet was born in Mechelen in the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium) [1] in 1623. He entered the Jesuit Order in 1640.

In China (16561681)

The map of China in the Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, with Couplet's notes about Chinese demographics. Paradigma XV Provinciarum et CLV Urbium Capitalium Sinensis Imperij.jpg
The map of China in the Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, with Couplet's notes about Chinese demographics.

Couplet's interest in China was aroused by a lecture by Martino Martini, a former Jesuit missionary there. [1] Couplet initially left for China in 1656, in a group of new Jesuit recruits led by Michał Boym, who was returning to China with the Pope's response to the Southern Ming's Yongli Emperor plea for help. [2] Couplet took various responsibilities throughout China, but had to take refuge in Canton during the 1665–1670 persecutions. [1]

Couplet worked closely with Candida Xu (Chinese :徐甘第大, Xu Gandida; 1607–1680), a granddaughter of Xu Guangqi and a devout Christian herself. Under her patronage, he was able to establish a number of new churches throughout Jiangnan. [2]

In Europe (16811693)

Philippe Couplet brought with him one of the first known Chinese men to visit Europe: Michael Shen (Shen Fuzong). Shen Fo-tsung.jpg
Philippe Couplet brought with him one of the first known Chinese men to visit Europe: Michael Shen (Shen Fuzong).

Couplet was sent back to Europe in 1681 as Procurator of the China Jesuits in Rome. His mission was to obtain papal agreement for the liturgy to be sung in Chinese. [1] On his visit to the Papal States, he gave the Pope a library of Chinese translations of Christian books. [1] While in Europe, his visit to Louis XIV triggered plans for the dispatch of five Jesuit mathematicians to the Chinese Court. [1]

Upon his return to Europe in 1685 Couplet brought with him two Chinese converts, including Michael Shen (Shen Fuzong), one of the first Chinese men known to visit Europe; they saw Italy, France, and England. [3] [4] Soon after, Couplet and Shen answered questions about the nature of the Chinese language posed by linguists in Oxford, [5] Berlin, and Vienna. [3]

In 1686 Couplet published in Paris Tabula chronologica monarchiae sinicae, a "chronological table of the Chinese monarchy", in an attempt to show that there was agreement between the Septuagint and the Chinese chronological records. [3] To prove his point he had to add 1400 years to the time period that existed between Creation and the birth of Abraham. [3] This however did not satisfy the European intelligentsia or the missionaries in China. [3] His work nevertheless had a major impact in other areas of European science. [6] Leibniz, for example, was able to establish, after communicating with the Jesuits, that the binary system he had invented also existed in the Yijing. [6]

In 1687, leading Prospero Intorcetta, Christian Wolfgang Herdtrich, and François de Rougemont, Couplet published Confucius Sinarum Philosophus ("Confucius, Philosopher of the Chinese"), an annotated translation of three out of the Four Books of the Confucian canon. [7] The work—parts of which had appeared earlier in separate, little known, editions—built upon the efforts of several generations of Jesuit missionaries [8] and was dedicated to Louis XIV. [3] [9] The preface to the translation [10] highly praised the works of Confucius:

"One might say that the moral system of this philosopher is infinitely sublime, but that it is at the same time simple, sensible, and drawn from the purest sources of natural reason... Never has Reason, deprived of Divine Revelation, appeared so well developed nor with so much power."

Preface to Confucius Sinarum Philosophus. [11]

Although wanting to return to China, he had to wait until a dispute between the vicars apostolic of the Asian missions (to which he had taken an oath of obedience) and the Portuguese padroado system (his initial tutelary organization) was resolved. [1] After an agreement was reached eight years later, Couplet finally left for China. [1] As he was en route, however, a heavy chest fell on his head during a storm in the Arabian Sea, severely injuring the septuagenarian Jesuit. He died the next day, 16 May 1693, as his ship was about to reach Goa. [12]


See also

Related Research Articles

Chinese Rites controversy 17th–18th-century dispute among Roman Catholic missionaries

The Chinese Rites controversy was a dispute among Roman Catholic missionaries over the religiosity of Confucianism and Chinese rituals during the 17th and 18th centuries. The debate discussed whether Chinese ritual practices of honoring family ancestors and other formal Confucian and Chinese imperial rites qualified as religious rites and were thus incompatible with Catholic belief. The Jesuits argued that these Chinese rites were secular rituals that were compatible with Christianity, within certain limits, and should thus be tolerated. The Dominicans and Franciscans, however, disagreed and reported the issue to Rome.

This article contains information about the literary events and publications of 1687.


Figurism was an intellectual movement of Jesuit missionaries at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, whose participants viewed the I Ching as a prophetic book containing the mysteries of Christianity, and prioritized working with the Qing Emperor as a way of promoting Christianity in China.

Joachim Bouvet French Jesuit active in China

Joachim Bouvet was a French Jesuit who worked in China, and the leading member of the Figurist movement.

Zhang Juzheng Chinese Grand Secretary (1525-1582)

Zhang Juzheng, courtesy name Shuda, pseudonym Taiyue, was a Chinese politician who served as Grand Secretary in the late Ming dynasty during the reigns of the Longqing and Wanli emperors. He represented what might be termed the "new Legalism," aiming to ensure that the gentry worked for the state. Alluding to performance evaluations, he said "Everyone is talking about real responsibility, but without a clear reward and punishment system, who is going to risk life and hardship for the country?" One of his chief goals was to reform the gentry and rationalize the bureaucracy together with his political rival Gao Gong, who was concerned that offices were providing income with little responsibility. Taking the Emperor Hongwu as his standard and ruling as de facto Prime Minister, Zhang's true historical significance comes from his centralization of existing reforms, positing the reformative agency of the state over that of the gentry - the "Legalist" idea of the sovereignty of the state.

Martino Martini Italian Jesuit missionary, cartographer and historian (1614-1661)

Martino Martini was an Italian Jesuit missionary, cartographer and historian, mainly working on ancient Imperial China.

Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare was a Jesuit missionary to China. Born in Cherbourg, he departed for China in 1698, and worked as a missionary in Guangxi.

Jean-Baptiste Du Halde French Jesuit historian specializing in China

Jean-Baptiste Du Halde was a French Jesuit historian specializing in China. He did not travel to China, but collected seventeen Jesuit missionaries' reports and provided an encyclopedic survey of the history, culture and society of China and "Chinese Tartary," that is, Manchuria.

Arcadio Huang, was a Chinese Christian convert, brought to Paris by the Missions étrangères. He took a pioneering role in the teaching of the Chinese language in France around 1715. He was preceded in France by his compatriot Michael Shen Fu-Tsung, who visited the country in 1684.

Christian Herdtrich Austrian missionary

Christian Wolfgang Herdtrich was an Austrian Jesuit missionary to the Qing Empire. As he wrote his works in Latin, he is also known as Christianus Herdtrich.

Michael Shen Fu-Tsung Chinese Jesuit

Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-Tsung, also Michel Sin, Michel Chin-fo-tsoung, Shen Fo-tsung, Shen Fuzong, was a Chinese mandarin from Nanking and a convert to Catholicism who was brought to Europe by the Flemish Jesuit priest Philippe Couplet, Procurator of the China Jesuit Missions in Rome. They left Macau in 1681 and visited together Flanders, Italy, France, and England. He later became a Jesuit in Portugal and died near Mozambique while returning home.

<i>The Chinese Convert</i> 1687 painting by Godfrey Kneller

The Chinese Convert is a famous 1687 painting by Godfrey Kneller depicting the Chinese man Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-Tsung.

Artus de Lionne French missionary

Artus de Lionne (1655–1713), abbé and Bishop of Rosalie in partibus infidelium, in Turkey, was a French missionary of the Paris Foreign Missions Society. He was a son of Louis XIV's Foreign Minister, Hugues de Lionne.

Jean de Fontaney (1643–1710) was a French Jesuit who led a mission to China in 1687.

Prospero Intorcetta Italian Jesuit missionary

Prospero Intorcetta (1626–1696), known to the Chinese as Yin Duoze, was an Italian Jesuit missionary to the Qing Empire.

Jean-François Foucquet French historian

Jean-François Foucquet S.J., also Jean-François Fouquet, was a Burgundy French Jesuit, bishop and scientist who was active in the Jesuit China missions for 22 years. He also served as Titular Bishop of Eleutheropolis in Macedonia (1725–1741).

Angelo Zottoli (1826–1902) was an Italian Catholic priest and missionary in China and a sinologist. He was born in Acerno. In 1843, he joined the Jesuits. In 1848, he passed an Imperial examination as one of the first Europeans. From 1853 he taught, and was headmaster, in St. Ignatius College for Chinese Christian students founded in 1849. He wrote a Latin textbook of Chinese Language Cursus litterae sinicae neo-missionariis accommodatus in five volumes in octavo. He translated very well, to Latin, some classic works of Chinese literature (Confucius); he wrote a Chinese-Latin dictionary and also many theological texts in Chinese.

Jesuit China missions

The history of the missions of the Jesuits in China is part of the history of relations between China and the Western world. The missionary efforts and other work of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, between the 16th and 17th century played a significant role in continuing the transmission of knowledge, science, and culture between China and the West, and influenced Christian culture in Chinese society today.

François Noël was a Flemish Jesuit poet, dramatist, and missionary to the Qing Empire.

Candida Xu Chinese Christian patron of early Qing

Candida Xu was a Chinese Catholic. She has been called "arguably the most influential Chinese Christian woman of the seventeenth century."



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Gerald H. Anderson, Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, p. 155
  2. 1 2 Mungello, David E. (1989). Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 253–254. ISBN   0-8248-1219-0.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Lach, Donald F (1973). "China in Western Thought And Culture". In Wiener, Philip P (ed.). Dictionary of the History of Ideas. ISBN   0-684-13293-1 . Retrieved 2 December 2009.
  4. Ballaster, p.262
  5. See Nicholas Dew. Orientalism in Louis XIV's France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009 ( ISBN   978-0199234844), pp. 205–208.
  6. 1 2 University of Barcelona website
  7. Nicholas Dew. Orientalism in Louis XIV's France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009 ( ISBN   978-0199234844) has an entire chapter on the publication process of this work in Paris and the role of the royal librarian Thévenot in this enterprise.
  8. Mungello 1989 , pp. 17, 253–258
  9. The Dragon and the Eagle: The Presence of China in the American Enlightenment - Page 17 by Alfred Owen Aldridge (1993)
  10. See Urs App, The Birth of Orientalism, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010 ( ISBN   978-0-8122-4261-4), pp. 146–159, for a discussion of the important role of this preface in the Western discovery of Buddhism.
  11. Quoted in Hobson, p.194
  12. Mungello, p. 257