« Back to Menu

G: Giuseppe Castiglione

Giuseppe Castiglione

The significance of 1793

The year 1793 saw the French king (Louis XVI) executed and revolutionary France declare war on Britain. But far beyond Europe there were diplomatic overtures going on that would soon have far more global ramifications.

That was the year that a British government envoy named Lord Macartney arrived at Emperor Qianlong’s court in an encounter that proved to be a curtain-raiser for China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’ (see U for Unequal Treaties). Qianlong was famously dismissive of Macartney’s embassy, leading commentators to later point to the costs that China incurred back then for being unreceptive to free trade and some of the West’s more liberal ideals. But was the Qing empire really as conservative and isolationist as has often been suggested?

A more outward looking view can be found in Qianlong’s iconic portrait – which was painted by Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit.

Who was he?

Born in 1688 in Milan, Castiglione was part of the Jesuit order – a Catholic body that sought to convert non-Christians by sending its members abroad. The Milanese missionary arrived in China in 1715 and would never see his native land again before his death in 1766. Prevented from preaching his faith, he spent most of his life in the Forbidden City as a portrait painter for three Qing emperors, including Qianlong.

Going by the local name of Lang Shining, Castiglione stood out for combining Chinese painting styles with Western techniques (such as the use of perspective and realism). The latter enabled him to outdo the efforts of Chinese painters and win the patronage of influential members of the royal family (such as Qianlong’s concubines). As a result most of the images of the early Qing emperors were painted by the Italian. His work also offers precious insights into life in the Forbidden City.

Was he the only expatriate hired by the Qing?

In the latter half of the nineteenth century British diplomat Robert Hart was another outsider – this time serving as inspector-general of China’s customs, the most lucrative department in the government thanks to booming foreign trade. Hart served the Qing for almost 50 years.

Yet long before his time, it was not uncommon to see expatriates taking on key roles for the Qing court. For the two centuries spanning the late Ming era to the early part of the Qing Dynasty, nearly 500 Jesuit missionaries worked in China. Their long term – and ultimately unsuccessful – goal was to convert one of the emperors. But the Qing rulers were less interested in theology than keeping them close as ‘foreign teachers’ to educate them about Western ideas and technologies.

After taking control of China in 1644, the Qing rulers even appointed the German Jesuit Adam Schall von Bell as the director of the Imperial Observatory. This was an important posting in terms of calculating the Chinese calendar – a vital task in an agrarian economy (and a dangerous profession too – Schall von Bell was once sentenced to death by “a thousand cuts” for one of his calculations, and only saved when an earthquake struck Beijing, earning him a reprieve).

Foreign experts such as Schall von Bell were retained at the Imperial Observatory till the dynasty fell in 1912.

Probably the most famous of the early Jesuits was Matteo Ricci, who arrived in China in 1583. He produced Chinese versions of the latest maps from Europe – which offered far more accurate depictions than any the Chinese had produced. These gave the local aristocracy better insights about the ‘Ten Thousand Countries’ (the term the Chinese used for ‘the rest of the world’ beyond their own Middle Kingdom), plus a sense of the groundbreaking knowledge being accumulated beyond China.

Ricci also introduced sophisticated Western musical instruments to the court as a means to debunk Chinese ideas that European civilisation was more backwards than their own.

Lots of Jesuits but no deal with the Vatican?

Despite its long history, the Middle Kingdom has never developed a religion of its own (Buddhism was imported from India). And despite the many centuries of contact with Catholic missionaries, the modern-day relationship between Beijing and the Vatican is fraught with tension too.

The Communist Party broke ties with the Vatican in 1951 and six years later it set up the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which doesn’t recognise the Pope as the head of its church.

The Vatican turned to Taiwan in the same year and became one of the island’s most crucial diplomatic allies.

The Holy See and Beijing signed a provisional agreement in 2018 on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops. Reportedly it gives the Chinese authorities a bigger role in identifying candidates for the episcopacy, albeit subject to papal approval. This has been seen as a breakthrough towards the eventual establishment of full diplomatic relations. Should this happen, China’s long history of accepting Jesuit guests will likely be referred to in the joint communiqué.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.