Let me recommend…

slow

I have mentioned this before, but there are new reasons to revisit. Do explore. The video downloads are not too big, and there’s a range there that should give you something you just want to see.

spence

One of those fascinating forgotten byways of history.

I see this invitation to give the Jefferson Lecture as being an opportunity to present some thoughts concerning an earlier period of Chinese history, one in which concepts of cultural change were very much present. Westerners and Chinese in the late seventeenth century were able to share certain beliefs and priorities that show how the idea of a “Meeting of the Minds” could be a genuine force for exploration and possible change, but also for harmony and adaptation.

The particular meeting of the minds that I am exploring this evening occurred in the 1680s. That was just a century after the pioneering Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (whom the Chinese still refer to by his Chinese name of “Li Madou”) had crossed the border between Macao and China and rented a small house in Guangdong province. As a conversation piece, he placed on the wall a print of a world map made in the West, with the names of the main continents and countries spelled out in the Western alphabet. Some of the Chinese who came to visit were vexed, other were intrigued. It was those Chinese with the greatest interest in getting at the truth who persuaded Ricci to make an enlarged version of the world map with the names identified by Chinese characters, and with the cartography somewhat adjusted so that China was closer to the center of the map, rather than being stuck on the periphery (as had been the case with the original map). In following these Chinese requests, Ricci further revised and enlarged the map with descriptive passages (in Chinese) which gave commercial and political details of many countries in both Europe and East Asia, along with descriptive references to some aspect of the Catholic states, the role of the papacy, and the nature of Chinese relations with its neighbors…

Thus I would like to start our search for the meeting of the minds not only in the later seventeenth century, but with a most unassertive source, an apparently simple letter of introduction written by a scholar in England, at Oxford University, dated July 26, 1687. Though the language of the letter is rather formal, even neutral in tone, if we read it carefully we notice that the range of topics covered in a short space is unusual, and can serve as a useful guide to the kinds of issues that in the seventeenth century served to bring people of different ages, races, and backgrounds into a common dialogue.

The writer of this late July letter in 1687 was a historian and linguist named Thomas Hyde, fifty-one years old at the time, a scholar of wide interests, who conducted his researches in a variety of “Oriental” languages, including Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac. In his youth, Hyde had found employment in the “publick library” at Oxford, completing a catalogue of the enormous benefaction later known, from the name of its principle donor Thomas Bodley, as the Bodleian Library. With that project now safely behind him, and the catalogue completed except for the tracking of certain Chinese titles, Hyde felt free to delve more deeply into his own scholarly interests, including the learning of the Chinese language.

The man on whose behalf Thomas Hyde was writing his letter of introduction was a Chinese traveler, called Shen Fuzong, who had arrived in England that March…

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