‘Confucius, known throughout China [,…] planted golden morals’ two thousand years ago, according to Joost van den Vondel’s play Zungchin (1667), set in Beijing’s Forbidden City.1 This praise echoed a history of philosophy of 1655 by the Harderwijk professor Georg Horn, who claimed that ‘the entire Chinese Empire is ruled only by Philosophers’ and extolled Confucius as ‘surpassing many of the pagans in morals and judgements’.2 Admiration for Chinese philosophy was the rule rather than the exception in the Netherlands. By 1705 the antiquarian Gijsbert Cuper opined that Confucius had been ‘a great man who acknowledged but a single God’; it was ‘only after his death that brutal idolatry ha[d] arrived in that beautiful and exquisite [China] […] at the same moment when the Greeks had Socrates, the Chinese had Confucius: but the latter had more followers and is still being held in great esteem.’3

When, in the seventeenth century, Europe was confronted with Eastern philosophy, Confucius (believed to have lived 551–479 BC) was the protagonist. The Jesuit missionaries and their learned publications were instrumental in this process: ‘Confucius’ is their Latinization of the original Chinese title Kong Fuzi (), literally ‘Master Kong’. As one historian has put it, ‘by one of the stranger ironies of history, Europe first learned of Confucius from Jesuits who had been sent out to convert the “heathen” Chinese.’4 From the late sixteenth century onwards the missionaries, as the only Europeans with access to the Forbidden City, had played a crucial part in the exchange of knowledge between China and Europe. The Jesuits realized that the Middle Kingdom could be changed only from within: they had to incorporate local cultural and philosophical traditions into their preaching of Christianity, whereby the ‘supposed compatibilities between Chinese and Christian concepts justified the accommodation strategies of the missionaries.’5

The missionaries tried to identify essential tenets that Chinese philosophy shared with Christianity, on which a project of mass conversion could be based. To defend this approach for a European audience, they decided on a publication in Latin of Confucius’s main works. Their edition, Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, appeared in Paris in 1687. This was a seminal historical moment on a global scale: as the Dutch sinologist Kristofer Schipper emphasizes, Confucius was the world’s ‘first philosopher to become famous outside his country, in other continents and civilizations’. Arguably the impact of this ‘most influential thinker in human history’ on the cultures of Asia is ‘as big as the combined influence of Socrates and Jesus on that of the West’.6

In spite of such grand statements, Confucius’s original writings have not survived (only the records of his disciples have, which were compiled much later, during the Han dynasty), many historical details about his life remain unclear, and it is uncertain when, and whether, there was a coherent philosophical school that can be called ‘Confucianism’. Modern scholarship has debated whether the Jesuits in their translation effort may have ‘invented’ or ‘manufactured’ Confucianism.7 The present article intends to shed new light on this ‘invention’ by discussing some of the non-Jesuit actors involved in the process of translating, editing, publishing, explaining, and criticizing the Confucian writings. The focus will be on the Low Countries, where Jesuits interacted with a variety of people who were only indirectly related to the mission and often did not share their Catholic motivation. It was a ship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that brought Europe manuscripts for Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, which the authors intended to publish with a Protestant firm in the Dutch Republic. The first translation of the Analects – containing the essence of Confucius’s moral philosophy – in one of the European vernaculars, was actually in Dutch, predating the more famous Latin version by twelve years. Incidentally, it showed no traces of the Jesuit agenda. The well-known Jesuit depiction of Confucius on the title page of Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (fig. 1) can therefore be compared with an earlier image, published in 1670 in Olfert Dapper’s report of a VOC mission to China (fig. 2). In contrast to the missionaries’ portrayal of Confucius as a European-style philosopher in a library, Dapper’s ‘Konfut’ appears with an aureole in a devotional setting, paying his respects to the Buddha.8 The print is a mirrored version of an ancient frontispiece to a Buddhist sutra printed in 1340. Although Dapper was wrong in identifying the central figure in front of the Vairocana Buddha as Confucius, the philosopher is in fact depicted in the back row of the audience (third from left), in his standard iconography with bushy beard and black hat.9

Fig. 1 

Portrait of Confucius, engraving, in: P. Couplet and others, Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, Paris 1687, University of Amsterdam, Special Collections.

Fig. 2 

The Vairocana Buddha flanked by a general and three bodhisattvas (including Manjus´ri and Samantabhra), with Emperor Huizong (Toghon Temür) and Empress Danashri, the Jade Emperor, Confucius, the Guanyin bodhisattva, and four Daoist spirit-generals. Seventeenth-century Dutch copy of a Chinese original dated 1340, engraving, in: O. Dapper. Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Oost-Indische maetschappye, op de kuste en in het keizerrijk van Taising of Sina, Amsterdam 1670, facing p. 106, University of Amsterdam, Special Collections.

To complicate the Jesuit picture even further, one could point at a third portrait of Confucius, overlooked by modern scholarship. It was published in Leiden in 1660 by the Lutheran theologian Gottlieb Spitzel, who had studied Oriental languages with Jacob Golius, the first Dutch sinologist (fig. 3).10 This lifelike bust portrays a bare-chested man with no Asian physiognomy and without a beard. Only the long nails and the sash, decorated with scribbles, reference Chineseness. Spitzel explained, quoting a text by Nicolas Trigault printed in Leiden in 1639, how literati and students paid homage to such statues in temples devoted to Confucius, were mandatory in every Chinese city.11 In contrast to the benevolently smiling sage of the Jesuits, Spitzel seems to draw Confucianism in the context of idolatry.12

Fig. 3 

Idol of Confucius, engraving, in: G. Spitzel, De re litteraria Sinensium commentarius, Leiden 1660, p. 119, British Library London.

This article will focus on the Netherlandish encounter with Confucius to make clear that ‘manufacturing Confucianism’ was a variegated, multi-confessional, European project – in fact, one of global importance, integrating Latin and vernacular scholarship, European and Asian expertise. The following will trace the role of the Low Countries in the different translation and publication projects that preceded the Confucius Sinarum Philosophus before exploring the book’s agenda and casting a quick look at its afterlife.

The first Latin translations

The texts that were compiled in Confucius Sinarum Philosophus were written over almost a century by at least seventeen missionaries from Austria, Italy, the Low Countries, and Portugal, assisted by numerous Chinese interlocutors.13 First attempts at publication involved printers in China and India. When, subsequently, a European audience was envisaged, the importance of the Netherlands for the publishing industry made itself felt.

According to Thierry Meynard’s recent overview, for Confucius Sinarum Philosophus ‘the Jesuits accumulated one hundred years of expertise in reading the Four Books and their commentaries’.14 Only three volumes of the Four Books (Sishu), as the core of the Confucian canon, were translated into Latin: the Great Learning (Daxue), the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong), and the Analects (Lunyu).15 The missionaries’ involvement with Confucius had initially been a practical one. They had started translating the Four Books for the immediate purpose of teaching the Chinese language to fathers newly arrived in the country. They had recognized that the education of the Chinese elite began with the Confucian canon. Without mastery of at least some of these texts, Europeans would fail in converting the literati.16

Owing to such practical purposes, few of the early translations have survived; the oldest one (at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Rome) is by the Italian Michele Ruggieri, who arrived in China in 1579.17 Only a fragment was printed in 1593 in a book on Jesuit education.18 A second, extant translation was made between 1659 and 1662 by the Portuguese missionary Inácio da Costa and the Italian Prospero Intorcetta. Their work on the Great Learning and the first half of the Analects was published in 1662 as Sapientia Sinica by a Chinese printer in Jianchang (a prefecture around Nanchang in Jianxi province). This book interspersed Chinese characters with a romanized phonetic transcription, the Latin equivalent, and Jesuit commentary.

Intorcetta proceeded to translate the Doctrine of the Mean, with an expanded biography of Confucius, which was finished under the title Sinarum scientia politico-moralis in 1667. Yet the complete book – a bilingual Chinese-Latin edition – would only be published two years later. The first half was printed in Guangzhou in 1667 and the second in Goa (India) in 1669, while Intorcetta was travelling back to Europe. One of his tasks there was to prepare a combined publication of the Confucius translations, intended for a Western readership, outside the context of linguistic education.

At this point it was hard to avoid Europe’s main center of book production: the Low Countries. Da Costa’s original collaborators in China had included François de Rougemont from Maastricht and Philippe Couplet from Mechelen, who suggested to involve the Amsterdam publisher Johan Blaeu. They had become acquainted with Blaeu just before their departure for China, when they awaited a VOC ship in Amsterdam, staying in the covert yet condoned Jesuit mission post (inoffensively named ‘The Sunflower’). In 1663, having safely arrived in the Middle Kingdom, De Rougemont and Couplet sent Blaeu their greetings via a VOC official.19 Five years later, De Rougemont mentioned the Amsterdam publisher again as his preferred choice for publishing the Confucian texts.20

Even though they were Protestants, Johan Blaeu and his father, Willem Jansz, were an obvious choice: their renowned firm was responsible for many publications by Jesuits, including the first atlas of China published in Europe.21 Based on Chinese cartographic sources, Martino Martini’s Atlas Sinensis (1655) was noteworthy for its detail and accuracy. Afterward, Blaeu continued to act as a dependable middleman, enabling the Jesuits to send letters to and from China via the VOC. In turn, he counted on the privilege of being the first in Europe to publish important Chinese sources and studies.22

Yet when Intorcetta returned to Europe in 1671, he came under the protection of the formidable polymath Athanasius Kircher, based at the Jesuit College in Rome, who took control of the publication of the Confucian texts. Kircher, frustrating the plans of the ‘Padri fiamenghi’, ‘did not want Blaeu to withhold’ the manuscripts and proposed that another Amsterdam publisher, Johannes Janssonius van Waesberge, take on the project. This was probably part of a business deal: Van Waesberge had paid Kircher 2,200 scudi for the publishing rights to all of his works.23

After Intorcetta left in 1672 another Jesuit from the Netherlands, Godfried Henskens, considered printing the translations, but Kircher again intervened and had all the texts transferred from Amsterdam to Rome. The reasons for this shift remain unclear. Meynard speculates that it may have had to do with the current Dutch war with France and Britain, or that Kircher himself wanted to supervise the publication.24 The first option seems plausible, were it not that Kircher continued sending his own manuscripts to Amsterdam during this period.25 Owing to his old age and eventual death, the manuscript would remain in Rome for over a decade. Couplet and the Antwerp-born librarian of the Vatican, Emmanuel Schelstrate, were the first to discuss publication again.26

In the meantime, a copy of Intorcetta’s translation had fallen into the hands of the Italian philosopher Lorenzo Magalotti, who gave it to Melchisédech Thévenot. This eminently connected scholar was working on a large book about the non-European world, Relations de divers voyages curieux. Its fourth volume (1672–1673) incorporated Intorcetta’s Latin translation of the Doctrine of the Mean, printed without the Chinese characters but including the biography of Confucius in both Latin and French.27 The Relations, counting 1,700 pages in total, also included French translations from Martini’s Chinese atlas and Dutch sources, such as Willem Bontekoe’s popular East-Indian travelogue and the report of a VOC embassy to Beijing by Johan Nieuhof. Apparently Christiaan Huygens had sent Thévenot clandestine excerpts from the VOC account in 1662 – three years before its publication in Dutch.28 Within this large and multifaceted publication, the Confucian text was thus presented for the first time outside the missionary context to a wider European readership.

The 1675 Dutch edition

What purported to be a translation of the complete Analects appeared first in a Dutch translation by Pieter van Hoorn. Van Hoorn, an Amsterdam gunpowder manufacturer, had been appointed a member of the VOC’s Council of the Indies and left with his family for Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1662. In 1666 he led an embassy – the third of its kind – to the imperial court in Beijing to gain right of trade. While the journey proved a political and economic bust, Van Hoorn’s reports stood as the basis of the aforementioned book by Olfert Dapper, which would come to exert substantial influence on European images of China.

After his return to Batavia, Van Hoorn composed a verse translation of parts of Confucius’s Analects entitled Eenige voorname eygenschappen van de ware deugdt, voorsichtigheydt, wysheydt en volmaecktheydt (Some principle characteristics of true virtue, prudence, wisdom, and perfection).29 This small book in quarto contains only three gatherings on inexpensive paper, without illustrations, which is probably why historians have all but ignored it; in the words of the famous sinologist Wilt Idema, ‘it is highly questionable whether Van Hoorn’s faint echo of the nation’s enthusiasm for China has ever riveted into patria.’30 The forgotten booklet raises many questions.

Notably, Van Hoorn’s translation was printed in Batavia – not necessarily a center of book production, but the Dutch had operated a small printing press there for some time. Supplies of printers’ ink, the lye bath, plates, and paper all had to be ordered from Europe. The output of the Batavian press consisted mainly of treaties, regulations, and notices as well as some dictionaries, wedding poems, and catechisms.31 In 1674–1675 Johannes van den Eede – formerly of Middelburg – was printing for the VOC in the Princestraat under the imprint ‘De Batavische Mercurius’.32 He printed only two other publications besides the Confucius translation during that time, which is in line with the general output of the Batavian press.33 Because the publication of Confucius does not fit within the usual Batavian corpus of publications, it is possible that Van Hoorn paid for the publication out of his own pocket. This would also explain why he dedicated the work to his family instead of, as was the usual practice, to the VOC or its board of directors.

Van Hoorn’s own explanation focused on the concept of virtue. He believed that Confucius’s instructions on how to lead a virtuous life, which begins with self-reflection, were more adequate than any Western work: ‘much has been written about virtue […] But it seems to me that the Chinese Confucius has expressed and depicted it with words better and clearer than any European author.’34 His open-mindedness towards Confucius went so far as to – according to one scholar – ‘attempt to bridge the gap between ethical, social and societal principles propounded by the Chinese thinker and his own Christian culture.’35 What is more, Van Hoorn’s engagement with Chinese thought was markedly different from that of his contemporaries. Nowhere does he make the explicit comparison between Confucius and Christ or the Biblical prophets, which was popular among the Jesuits. In fact, even Europeans who were skeptical of the Jesuits did not hesitate to portray the Chinese philosopher as a kind of Christian saint.36 By contrast, Van Hoorn lets the Confucian texts speak for themselves; he indicates that the author lived before Christ, but allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

Earlier historians suggested that Van Hoorn used a translation made by the Jesuits. This cannot have been the printed Sapientia Sinica, which translates only the first half of the Analects whereas Van Hoorn included passages from the whole text.37 He may, however, have had access to a manuscript version of Couplet’s complete translation.38 Relations between VOC officials and Jesuits have been amply documented. Missionaries often travelled on Dutch ships, which also carried their mail. Martini, for instance, stayed for half a year in Batavia in 1653, and so did Couplet for thirteen months in 1682–1683. Governor-General Johannes Maetsuyker, a Catholic, was even suspected of actively supporting the Jesuits.39 Van Hoorn likewise befriended Philippe Couplet, but he nurtured no evident sympathies towards Catholicism.40 He may therefore have been interested in Confucius for very different reasons.

What indications do the different texts provide? A complicating factor is that in the seventeenth century, Confucius’s statements were available in editions with elaborate commentaries.41 Perhaps Van Hoorn and the Jesuits used different editions. In James Legge’s modern translation, the opening lines of the Analects read:

The Master said, ‘Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?’ […] Tsze-hsia said, ‘If a man withdraws his mind from the love of beauty, and applies it as sincerely to the love of the virtuous; if, in serving his parents, he can exert his utmost strength; if, in serving his prince, he can devote his life; if, in his intercourse with his friends, his words are sincere: although men say that he has not learned, I will certainly say that he has’.42

Van Hoorn’s verse translation:

When you learn and follow the trail of the wise

And remain constantly focused in this study

Overcoming difficulties through practice,

This will be of benefit to you and make you beloved;

Yea if you want to obtain wisdom from hard work

Then you can expect friends and companions

Chosen from faraway countries and honored

To be taught by you in the education of wisdom.

[…] When someone is so devoted to men

Of piety and virtue – just like the senses desire and love

Something that brings beauty and sweet delight –

And he devotes all his power, without diminishing it,

To obeying his parents with all due respect,

And he does not spare his own life for his country or prince,

And has learnt faith and truth in his words,

Then I think he has studied enough.43

The same passage in Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (in Meynard’s English) follows:

Confucius asked: ‘Will it not be a pleasure to strive to imitate the wise and to train constantly oneself in this effort of imitation? […] After you have successfully cultivated yourself with this kind of effort and perseverance, then followers and friends will come from afar in order to consult you and to transmit your teaching’ […] The disciple, Zixia,44 says: ‘If someone is delighted by honest and wise people, changing and transferring into them his love for things which are beautiful and agreeable to see – this means that a youth should desire virtue and wisdom with the same ardor and intensity of sensual love, since this period of life is usually controlled by the pleasure of the senses; similarly, if he is resolute in fulfilling his duty as an honest son toward his father and mother, exhausting all his energy; moreover, if he is resolute in fulfilling his duties as a subject toward his ruler or prince, not hesitating to risk his own person and life whenever needed; finally, if he makes promises to comrades and friends with whom he has good relationships, always keeping his promises with a shining trust and truthfulness; whoever is like this, even though some may say that he has not yet studied, I myself shall always say that he had studied.’45

It is not difficult to see that both the Dutch and the Latin translations were in some measure faithful to the original Chinese, even though the Dutch verse text demonstrates more poetic license. The Dutch text also omits all proper names, which would have provided essential clues as to the translator’s knowledge of the Latin version. Yet the fragments quoted here contain an indication that the Dutch version may have been concerned with the original Chinese. Van Hoorn’s translation does not include the italicized sentence in the passage above that, in fact, was not in the Chinese original; Meynard states that it was an addition by the Jesuits on the basis of Western moral literature.46

Van Hoorn would not have been capable of translating the original Chinese text directly; among Europeans, only the missionaries had mastered this skill. Yet by the time his text was printed, he had lived for over a decade alongside a sizeable community of Chinese traders, craftsmen, and laborers who were permitted to reside in the walled city. ‘[T]he whole upkeep of Batavia’ depends on the Chinese, noted a minister in 1625, ‘because without them there would be held no markets here, and no houses, no works would be built.’47 By the end of the century the number of Chinese (almost 3,700) was more than twice that of Europeans.48 Historians have portrayed Batavia as de facto ‘a Chinese colonial town under Dutch protection […] a cornerstone of the Chinese trade network in Southeast Asia.’49 As governor-general, Van Hoorn must have had frequent contact with his Chinese majority, depending on Chinese interpreters for serious business-related translations. During the Dutch trade embassies to Beijing, negotiations and elaborate diplomatic documents, including letters to the emperor, were also mediated by interpreters; Van Hoorn’s difficulties were sometimes attributed to errors of translation. A complicating factor was that most of the Chinese in Batavia, hailing from Fujian, would have spoken Hokkien dialect rather than the Guanhua variant used at the court in Beijing.50

Although most of the Batavian Chinese would have been illiterate, those who could read and write would have learnt on the basis of the Confucian texts. This seems to have inspired the minister Justus Heurnius to make, with help of a schoolmaster trained in Macao, a word-by-word translation into Latin of the first chapters of the Analects, a copy of which, complete with the Chinese characters and phonetic transcription, he sent to his brother Otto in Leiden (fig. 4). He attached a number of translations of Christian works into Mandarin, such as the Ten Commandments, and a Dutch-Latin-Chinese dictionary.51 Although Heurnius adopted some of the religious terminology coined by the Jesuits, his texts were clearly intended for a Protestant context in which trade was paramount.52 The bundle of translations begun with a set of ‘expressions for buying and selling’ Chinese goods such as silk and porcelain; Heurnius wrote that his efforts would ‘be of great usefulness to posterity, as soon as the Chinese trade is opened, as we hope.’53

Fig. 4 

‘Confucij Doctrina Moralis’ (Chapter 1 of the Analects), Chinese text with Latin translation by Justus Heurnius, in: Compendium Doctrinae Christianae, Batavia 1628, Leiden University Library, Special Collections, Acad. 225, fol. 11b.

Did Van Hoorn’s translation of Confucius fit a similar pattern – was he assisted by the Chinese in Batavia? If so, this would echo a common practice in Dutch literature: foreign texts were first translated into prose before a third party would put them into verse.54 What lends particular credence to this hypothesis is that Van Hoorn’s son proved to be able to have a complex Chinese literary text translated into Dutch. Johan van Hoorn, who had succeeded his father in Batavia as governor-general, received around 1700 an image of an inscribed Chinese mirror from the Amsterdam mayor Nicolaas Witsen. The mayor’s learned European network, which included missionary scholars in Rome and Paris, had been unable to translate the ancient inscription, and he asked Van Hoorn to consult his Chinese community. Van Hoorn asked an ‘interpreter in Batavia’, but nobody could fully decipher the mirror’s inscription in ancient seal script.55 He therefore had the request forwarded to more literate Chinese on the mainland, possibly in Guangzhou, which had relatively common trade dealings with Batavia.56 In 1705 Witsen recounted how he had ‘sent [the image of] the mirror to Batavia where there are more than ten thousand [sic] Chinese. No one understands it, but the Governor-General [Johan van Hoorn] had it brought to China to show to learned Chinese asking them for an explanation, and so it happened.’57 The ‘geleerde Sinesen’ transcribed the ancient seal script into contemporary characters; the Dutch translation that followed was incorrect but certainly an attempt at accuracy. Incidentally, a faulty transcription of a single character resulted in the poem being read as a monotheistic paean, which fitted Witsen’s argument that the ancient Chinese had been similar to Christians.58 He concluded that his mirror dated to the time of Confucius: ‘It is remarkable that these letters are more than a thousand years old and the common man cannot read them. This is a device or symbol from […] around the time of the so learned and pious Confucius of whom was said, with more reason than was said once about Plato and Seneca, “O Saint Confucius!”?’59 Witsen’s translation only survives in Dutch, but there may have been other languages involved in the process, such as Malay or Portuguese.60 In any event, this exchange proves that Chinese-Dutch collaboration on translating sophisticated Chinese literary texts was possible. A similar collaboration may have resulted in 1675 in the Dutch version of the Analects, which was, in fact, dedicated to Johan van Hoorn and his siblings.

Until late in his career, Johan van Hoorn referred to Chinese civilization when fashioning his professional identity. At the tender age of twelve he had been appointed a junior VOC official to accompany his father on the 1665 embassy to Beijing. Owing to his ‘intimate as well as businesslike’ contacts with the Chinese of Batavia, he became the richest man in the Indies.61 When, after spending thirty years in Asia, he returned to the Netherlands, he filled his Amsterdam mansion with staggering amounts of high-quality Asian – specifically Chinese – arts and crafts. His inventory included porcelain (570 sets of cups and saucers), furniture, and lacquerware, some of it customized for his children with the family’s coat of arms, as a material expression of the manner in which three generations had managed to negotiate the melting pot of cultures that was Batavia, the Dutch-ruled Chinese city.62

The Confucius translation, which Van Hoorn senior had dedicated to his wife and children, may have been a similar customized piece of Chinese civilization to express the family’s identification with Asia: he called it ‘something beautiful that I have brought you from China, and if you use it well this will be better than if I had carried large treasures from that country’.63 The family’s intimate relationship to the Chinese comes into closer view only in documents relating to their return to the Netherlands in 1709. Johan van Hoorn, now of ailing health, was accompanied by a Chinese medical doctor, Zhou Meiye (). He seems to have been a personal friend, who could ‘read and write everything in Chinese’ while also being able to speak Dutch ‘zo goed als een Hollander’.64 During the long journey, the doctor held forth about the three Chinese ‘sects’ of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and explained to the governor-general the capital virtues outlined by ‘den Chineesen leermeester Confutius’.65 Dr. Zhou, however, did not stay long in the Netherlands: after only six weeks in Amsterdam he took the first ship back to China.

The 1687 Latin edition

After Van Hoorn’s book it would take twelve more years for the Latin translation to appear. In 1683 Philippe Couplet, travelling on a Dutch ship, arrived in Enkhuizen to advertise the Jesuit mission on a European tour. He brought with him four hundred Chinese Christian books donated by a converted noblewoman and was accompanied by a young Chinese, son of Christian converts from Nanjing, Michael Shen Fuzong ().66 Thoroughly educated in the Confucian texts, he was to help with the publication of the Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, which was intended to include Chinese characters.67 Copies of the Chinese editions of Confucius with Shen’s Latin annotations remain in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.68

During their lengthy stay in the Dutch Republic, Couplet and Shen worked on an introduction to the book and in the meanwhile, it seems, discussed the matter with local scholars.69 Yet this time Blaeu or another Dutch publisher was not an option. They looked to Paris instead where Thévenot, who had been appointed royal librarian, managed to acquire printing permission, and even financial support, from the French king. In August 1685 Couplet began sending his manuscripts to Paris, where he himself arrived half a year later. On 29 April 1687, the royal censor granted permission to publish. The honor fell to a Dutchman who had only recently converted to Catholicism: Daniel Horthemels of the rue St. Jacques. Printing, carried out by Andrea Cramoisy, was finished within a month. The book did not include the Chinese characters that Couplet had planned, even though the notation numbers for these had already been set in type in the first few chapters.70

Couplet’s extensive preface to this book merits attention as it explains the rationale behind the fraught translation and publication process that had taken a century to complete. To quote Meynard, ‘the Confucian classics were called upon to testify to the legitimacy of the Jesuit missionary policy’ in the eyes of the European ecclesiastic authorities, political powers, and the Republic of Letters in general.71

The preface essentially frames the translation as a philological project similar to those dealing with the Latin and Greek classics of Europe. Chapter one establishes the Confucian texts’ ‘First Authorship’. It places Confucius in his historical context and laments the difficulty in reconstructing ancient Chinese history owing to the paucity of written documents. A next chapter is on additional ‘Evidence Drawn, Not from the Modern Interpreters, but, as Much as Possible, from the Original Texts’. By including comments from other Chinese authors, Couplet highlights that his interpretive work is confirmed by Chinese authorities. He emphatically tries to separate the oldest text from later additions.72 Apparently Couplet adheres to the ‘principle of the oldest source’ in philology, even though he uses stylistic and biographical arguments rather than those of stemmatic philology.73 For one, he attempts to explain differences in style by connecting them to different periods in Confucius’s life.74 This leads to the hypothesis that the sage himself had planned to write an elucidation, but his death had prevented it. ‘Such ancient obscurity and such obscure antiquity!’75 Couplet portrays the later Taoists and Buddhists as bad interpreters of Confucius because they failed to use the right sources in the right manner; their false religious assumptions apparently derived from false philological practices.76

To support his approach, Couplet quotes Chinese writers who have themselves criticized the corrupt Buddhist interpreters. This enables him to argue that Confucius Sinarum Philosophus presents pure Chinese thought. He emphasizes not only that the interpretation of Chinese philosophy should depend on the oldest Chinese sources, but also that the Chinese themselves are the best interpreters of Chinese philosophy:

I assure you that the most learned Chinese Doctors […] have always shared the same opinion: we missionaries should not pay any attention to the commentators of the ancient books, but should adhere only to the ancient texts.77 We should work on the basis of the ancient texts alone, and if we find something unclear, hopefully we will be able to find among the Chinese […] some men of prime erudition and authority who can explain to us the most difficult passages.78

The ideal missionary apparently excels in linguistic prowess and philological rigor:

A prudent man [...] [w]hen he has reached the region where he wants to convert the natives to Christ, if that people has many records of literature and wisdom inherited from their ancestors, then he should not decide for or against them by a quick and rash decision, nor should he blindly condemn or approve the interpreters, whether foreigners or locals, of their ancient books. […] [B]esides asking for God’s support, he should first try to carefully master their language and literature. Then, he can continually read the most important books as well as their interpretations, and examine and evaluate them thoroughly. Meanwhile, he can zealously investigate whether the sincerity and truth of the ancient text is confirmed, or, on the other hand, whether it has been corrupted by the mistakes and negligence of the later interpreters. He can investigate again whether those who work as interpreters have steadily followed the steps of their ancestors or whether they have distorted their teaching and twisted it to fit their errors [...] Finally he should judge whether it was the unanimous mind and doctrine of all, or whether they contradicted themselves and fought each other.79

By presenting his book emphatically as a work of philology, Couplet intends to legitimize the Jesuit missionary work as something firmly grounded in the European humanities. Apparently, only the philological search for the oldest sources can uncover the hidden yet fundamental connection between Christian and Confucian texts. Couplet’s reasoning depends implicitly on an invalid syllogism: ‘All Christian books are pure; Some Chinese texts are pure; Therefore some Chinese texts are Christian texts.’ This twisted reasoning allows the author to call on the authority of the Chinese themselves to plead for the similarities between Confucius’s original writings and Christianity. He concludes that every missionary should focus on those elements in the Chinese texts that correspond to Christian teaching:

if [the missionary] realizes that nothing firm and true can be found in the above mentioned books and records, he should not touch them and should not make mention of them. But if on the contrary the kings and teachers of the ancients, led by nature, have reached many things which are not opposed to the light and truth of the gospel, but are even helpful and favorable so that it seems that they open the way for the early dawn of the Sun of Justice, then surely the preachers of the gospel [...] will not despise these things at all but shall use them regularly, so that they can instil in the tender minds of the neophytes, the foreign ambrosia of a heavenly teaching with the original sap of native teaching.80

This stress on philology seems to have been directed not just at prospective missionaries themselves, but also at the Republic of Letters in Europe. Couplet, by claiming that philology had allowed him to unveil Christian elements in Chinese philosophy, gave Confucius the same status as some of the Greek and Roman authorities. Humanists in Europe would have recognized this strategy: it was identical to how pagan antiquity had been incorporated in Christian scholarship. As had been argued, some pagan texts had even prophesied the New Testament. Allegedly, the authors had had knowledge of prisca philosophia, primeval Christian wisdom before Christ’s actual birth. Confucius could now be given a place in the same typology, on a par with the Hebrew prophets or, more radically, with the pagan Sibyls, the female soothsayers from places outside the Middle East who had preceded Moses.81

Even though Couplet himself did not explicate these ultimate conclusions,82 it is clear that he tried to fit Confucius into the scholarly framework that linked the philological principle of the oldest source to the quest for the most ancient wisdom. In fact, Couplet’s most original addition to standard humanistic practices in Europe was not his search for proto-Christian elements but his stress on the Chineseness of his account. This latter emphasis was obviously a central aspect of his visit to Europe, envisaged as a display of authenticity with his cargo of Chinese books and the presence of Chinese assistants, one of them the aforementioned Shen Fuzong.

The route to Europe on a Dutch ship involved a stop in Batavia, where they first showed their copy of the Confucius manuscript to Willem ten Rhijne, a medical doctor in VOC service. He immediately wrote to a Protestant minister in the Dutch Republic, warning him against a topic as ‘dangerous’ as Chinese philosophy and against the author:

there comes a Jesuit father, Philippe Couplet, the collector of this work about which he will undoubtedly boast highly, in the company of two young Chinese, one of whom has some knowledge of the basics of medicine, which will seem a miracle in Europe […] [Couplet] will go to Rome to report on his business and the state of the Roman church in China […] [O]n the whole he is very affable and, if he will stay for a while in Amsterdam, you will surely be entertained in his company, for which my business with him will provide sufficient occasion; but in one word, he is a Jesuit.83

Despite such anti-Jesuit sentiment, the missionary propaganda proved not without success in Protestant circles. Rembrandt’s pupil Godfried Kneller portrayed Shen full-length in his Chinese robes. Although displayed at Windsor Castle, the painting was discussed in the Netherlands too.84 One of the Dutchmen who were impressed by the Jesuit performance was Nicolaas Witsen, who spoke to Couplet in Amsterdam in 1683, while Shen Fuzong helped him with a Chinese map for his monumental book on Tartary (Siberia and Northeast Asia).85 The missionaries gave Witsen an ancient Bible, found in China and purportedly testifying to ancient indigenous Christians, and the manuscript of the Latin Confucius translation (which probably circulated in several copies). Witsen apparently had occasion to peruse it in detail, which awoke his interest in Chinese wisdom through the Jesuit lens:86 as discussed above, by 1705 he connected the ancient Chinese mirror in his collection to the teaching of ‘Saint’ Confucius. He had shipped from Batavia a set of Confucian writings in Chinese, fourteen volumes in total, for his friend Gijsbert Cuper.87 In 1710 he arranged another meeting with a Chinese man, the doctor who had accompanied Johan van Hoorn to the Netherlands. They discussed the chronology of the Chinese dynasties and traditional medicine. Witsen lamented that, had Dr. Zhou not departed so soon, he would have been able to learn much more;88 he apparently tried to set up a correspondence and in fall 1713 received a letter from Zhou.89 Yet after the Van Hoorns’ departure from Batavia, cultural exchange with the Chinese seems to have waned. Witsen wrote, ‘it is only money and no knowledge that our people are searching there, which is a pity.’90

In the Netherlands, Chinese wisdom continued to attract a handful of scholars such as Cuper’s friend Adriaen Reland, who made a few annotations in a handwritten book with phrases from the Analects in Chinese – it is unclear how he acquired it (fig. 5).91 Philippe Masson, a minister at the Walloon Church in Utrecht, bought a copy of the aforementioned manuscripts by Justus Heurnius, including a transcription and translation of the first four chapters of the Analects.92 But as these scholars’ actual knowledge of Chinese was very limited, their speculations shunned philosophy and remained focused on the nature of the language and its script.

Fig. 5 

Quotations from the Analects with notes in Latin by Adriaan Reland, 1676–1718, in: Sententiae quaedam ex operibus Confucii conlectae. Hadriani Relandi, Leiden University Library, Special Collections, Acad. 223.

Conclusion and aftermath: Confucius and Spinoza

The first European translations of Confucius involved printers in Amsterdam, Batavia, Goa, Jianchang, and Paris; missionaries from Austria, Italy, the Low Countries, and Portugal; and a variety of intermediaries from Godfried Henskens in Antwerp to Athanasius Kircher in Rome. This global dimension is not surprising in the light of the seminal role of the Jesuit order, which drew members from a variety of European and non-European countries. Yet the fact that the Dutch Republic, an area of serious missionary concern, features so prominently in this network suggests that the Jesuit agenda of propagating the True Faith was not the full story. The order needed logistical support from Protestant intermediaries, traders, and publishers for such an unprecedented publication. Moreover, the Jesuits were not the only Europeans interested in Confucius.

Owing to the liberties Pieter van Hoorn took in translating Confucius from prose to verse, it is probably impossible to establish whether he worked from one of the Jesuits’ Latin manuscripts or from a Chinese source. Yet to assess the importance of this Dutch edition one should take account of the symbiosis between the Dutch and Chinese in Batavia, and the manner in which the Dutch connected their self-image as a global trading power to Chinese material culture – not just in the Indies but also in the Dutch Republic, where tens of millions of pieces found their way to households of different social classes. This must have had its intellectual impact – from Vondel’s play, quoted above, that was the first European literary work set entirely against a Chinese background, to the Amsterdam humanist Isaac Vossius’s unique Utopian description of Chinese art, science, and politics, published in 1680.93

The Dutch involvement suggests that Confucius was a point of multi-confessional concern for Europeans, something that seems to be confirmed by the reception of the translations. Although the original Sapientia Sinica of 1662, written for the benefit of missionaries in China, was extremely rare in Europe, it (or the Sinarum scientia politico-moralis of 1667–1669) may have been the source for the London-based Dutch merchant James Boevey, whose manuscript ‘Life of Cum-fu-zu’ has, unfortunately, not survived.94 A scholar at Cambridge, Nathaniel Vincent, acquired the Sapientia Sinica from ‘an ingenious Merchant, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who hath put into the hands of one of his Collegues [sic], several of CUMFUSU’s Books, brought from Siam [sic], where they were printed, in order to [make] an English edition of them, […] and to [discover] a new World of Learning.’95 In 1674 Vincent himself translated a few fragments to be ‘sent abroad […] out of a just respect to the worthy Owner of the only Copies in this part of the world.’96 Within the Dutch trading company, the only documented reader of the Sapientia Sinica was the German medical doctor Engelbert Kaempfer, based in Japan.97 His elaborate notes, mostly concerning Asian medicine, contain four pages of remarks about Confucius and Chinese philosophy, but they left little trace in Kaempfer’s posthumously published History of Japan.98

The afterlife of Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, published with European readers in mind, was much more momentous. It was never reprinted, but the initial print run must have been sizeable considering the number of copies still found in European libraries.99 A number of Dutch-based journals in French, catering to a European-wide audience, all published reviews, as would the Philosophical Transactions in London, the Journal des sçavans in Paris, the Giornale de’letterati in Parma, the Acta eruditorum in Leipzig, and the Monatsgespräche in Halle. In August 1687 the book was first announced in Pierre Bayle’s Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, indicating that copies were to be acquired at Henri Desbordes in Amsterdam (incidentally also the publisher of the Nouvelles).100 A month later the first real review was published in the Rotterdam-based Histoire des ouvrages et de la vie des sçavans. In December Amsterdam’s Bibliothèque universelle et historique followed suit.101

The reviews printed in the Netherlands of Confucius Sinarum Philosophus recognized the Catholic slant the Jesuits gave to their translation (‘le P[ère] Couplet [...] mêle peut-être un peu trop d’idées Chrétienne[s] aux expressions Chinoises’),102 but did not bother to deconstruct this interpretation or Couplet’s false syllogism that suggested Chinese texts contained a Christian message. Criticism focused instead on a very different suspicion with potentially radical consequences. To some reviewers, the book pointed at an analogy between Confucianism and libertine tendencies in current Dutch philosophy, including atheism and the identification of God with nature. The Histoire des ouvrages et de la vie des sçavans, remarking on the Chinese people’s ‘extreme attachment’ to Confucius, deemed the teaching of his followers (the Neo-Confucians) comparable to that of a Spanish heretic, Michael Servetus, who had denied the Christian trinity and ‘argued against Calvin that God was a stone in a stone, and a tree trunk in a tree trunk’.103 Even more outspoken was the Bibliothèque universelle’s sixty-eight-page review by the Amsterdam-based Calvinist scholar Jean le Clerc, who gave a precise summary of the views of Confucius and his followers, including passages translated from the Latin into French.104 He highlighted the similarity between modern Dutch radicalism and the corrupted philosophy of the Neo-Confucians, ‘which is not very different from the system of the Spinozists, if they have one.’ This philosophy, apparently shared in the East and West, holds that there is nothing but

a certain void and a real nothing […] [and that] we, all the elements and all creatures, are part of that void; that there is in fact nothing but a same and single substance, which is different in the particular beings because of the individual figures, of their properties, or their internal configuration; a bit like water, which is always water in its essence, regardless of whether it takes the form of snow, hail, rain, or ice.105

The comparison between Chinese and Spinozist doctrines in terms of their alleged monism would be taken up by others in the Netherlands; most striking was Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1702), which discussed Spinoza in its entries on East Asia.106 This raises the question of the extent to which praise of Confucius became something libertine and radical around the turn of the century. In 1705 the aforementioned Gijsbert Cuper, who waxed lyrical over an abbreviated French translation of Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, seemed unaware of any association with radical philosophy.107 Yet for some contemporaries it must have been so evident as to need little explanation. By 1708 the Zwolle surgeon Hendrik Smeeks, in a fantastic novel, The Mighty Kingdom of Krinke Kesmes, referenced Confucius as the source of inspiration for a political experiment in the uncharted Australian territories. This Utopian state was apparently guided by Confucius’s favorite student, Krakabas.108 Echoing Georg Horn’s description, quoted above, of China as ruled by a Platonic philosopher-king, in Krinke Kesmes a board of philosophers keeps watch over the sovereign. The kingdom is so radical as to even house a women’s university.109 Against this imagined Oriental background, the novel’s central theme is a plea for the religious, political, and societal freedom of citizens in the face of worldly and ecclesiastical authorities. Unsurprisingly the author was, on the basis of this Chinese-inspired Utopia, suspected not of Jesuit sympathies but rather of Spinozism.110

As the Netherlandish context clarifies, the ‘Confucian moment’ in Europe around 1680 was not solely a Jesuit affair, and not even a Catholic one. The process of transmitting, translating, publishing, explaining, and judging Confucius presented a challenge for Europeans from different backgrounds and allegiances. At this key moment in intellectual history, when Asia’s main philosopher was introduced in the West, increased global connectedness clearly resulted in new mental horizons – which tested traditional wisdom more explicitly, it seems, in the Dutch Republic than elsewhere. Eventually, when the Antwerp Jesuit Daniël van Papenbroeck conveyed a copy of Confucius Sinarum Philosophus to the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the fulcrum of the debate would shift from the Low Countries to the German states.111 The German interest in Confucius in the early eighteenth century culminated in Christian Wolff’s famous defense of the Chinese as rational beings who had no need of the Christian god. In 1723 Wolff was condemned as an atheist and expelled from Prussia under penalty of death. To Jonathan Israel, this was ‘one of the most formative cultural confrontations of the eighteenth century’; but that is a different story.112