An interesting work of intellectual history by NII Yōko 新居 洋子 of the University of Tokyo has just been published by Nagoya University Press. Its title is The Jesuits and the Universal Empire: The Translation of Civilisation by Missionaries in China. イエズス会士と普遍の帝国 – 在華宣教師による文明の翻訳. In my translation, Dr. Nii’s presentation of her book on the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia website reads:
“There was an exchange of ideas between China and Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. In this period, it was Jesuit missionaries working in China who took on the role of translators between the two sides. This book focuses on the latter half of the 18th century, which was the last stage of the Jesuit mission in China and the time when Sinology began to be established as a formal field of study in Europe. It does so by examining the Jesuit Jean Joseph Amiot, who served the Qianlong Emperor. Amiot took on the challenge of translating the enormous Chinese civilisation, not only from his own observations but by consulting the length and breadth of a variety of both European and Chinese intellectual sources. The Chine that emerges from his translations was in itself a product constructed from 18th century intellectual interaction between East and West.”
Missionary scholarship, especially by members of the Society of Jesus, has been tremendously important in the historical reception of East Asian thought in the West. To this day, Christian missionaries are among the most influential transmitters and interpreters of East Asian thought and research on Japanese philosophy, for instance, is more often than not .carried out in religious studies departments and in church-affiliated universities rather than in philosophy departments. And as this book shows, the first sustained intellectual engagement and attempts to think by drawing on both the East Asian and European traditions were by missionaries like Amiot. For better and worse, this historical legacy continues to influence the way Western scholars approach East Asia and its intellectual traditions. Studying the origins of what today travels under the name of comparative philosophy, as Dr Nii has done with this book, is therefore important and she has to be congratulated on her achievement.
For more details, including a table of contents, please visit University of Nagoya Press.