Joachim Bouvet: the History of Cang-Hi, the Present Emperor of China

engraving of Joachim Bouvet, SJ

Joachim Bouvet, SJ, from Bouvet’s French history about Kangxi / Cang-hy and contained in Du Halde’s French encyclopaedia.

Joachim Bouvet was born in Le Mans, France, on July 18, 1656. In 1673, he entered the Society of Jesus in hopes going on a China mission. His wish was granted when King Louis XIV sent him and five other Jesuits to Beijing in 1685. The Cang-Hi Emperor welcomed the Jesuits and Bouvet, along with a fellow Jesuit, Jean-Francois Gerbillion, remained in the imperial court and taught European sciences. In 1679, the Cang-Hi Emperor sent Father Bouvet back to France with a gift of forty-nine Chinese volumes for King Louis XIV and to retrieve new missionaries. During his time back in France, Bouvet published two works about China, one of which is The History of Cang-Hi, the Present Emperor of China, held by Burns Library in the Jesuitica Collection. Father Bouvet returned to China in 1699 with ten new missionaries and a collection of engravings from King Louis XIV for the Cang-Hi Emperor. Father Bouvet became the interpreter to Cang-Hi Emperor’s son, the heir-apparent. Bouvet would stay in China until his death on June 28, 1730.

Title Page of History of Cang-Hy

Title Page. Bouvet, Joachim. History of Cang-Hy the present emperor of China. London : Printed for F. Coggan, 1699

Bouvet composed The History of Cang-Hi, the Present Emperor of China to King Louis XIV shortly after he returned to France from China. In the letter, Bouvet describes his experiences in China in detail, focusing on his interactions with the Emperor, Cang-Hi. He describes the Emperor as, “Well-proportioned in his limbs, and pretty tall, the features of his face very exact, with a large and brisk eye. He is a little crooked nosed, and pitted with the small-pox, but not so as to be in the least disfigured by them”. Bouvet greatly praises the Cang-Hi Emperor’s intelligence, stating that, “His natural genius is such as can be paralleled but by few, being endowed with a quick and piercing wit, a vast memory, and great understanding”. He also presents the Emperor as extremely capable in archery and talented in musical instruments. In his letters, Bouvet calls the Cang-Hi Emperor “the most potent Prince in the World,” and “a declared Enemy of a Lazy and Idle Life, for he never go’s (sic) to bed but very late, and rises early.” During his contact with the Emperor, Bouvet also developed great respect for the Emperor’s sons, brothers, and court officials.

The Cang-Hi Emperor believed a strong education to be crucial for a successful kingdom and sought out ways to increase his own knowledge in hopes that his subjects would follow his example.  In his letter, Bouvet recounts how he and the other Jesuits translated Euclid’s Elements of Geometry into Tartarian, which highly delighted the Cang-Hi Emperor. The Emperor then personally wrote a preface for the translated versions of the Euclid, printed a great number of them, and distributed them widely throughout China in both languages. The Emperor was also deeply fascinated with the scientific and mathematical instruments brought by Bouvet and spent a great amount of time examining their uses.

Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Court Dress, late Kangxi period

Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Court Dress, late Kangxi period

Toward the end of his letter, Bouvet compares the Cang-Hi Emperor to King Louis XIV, stating, “I will make bold to say, that in so many respects he resembles your Majesty, that like you, he would be one of  the most accomplished monarchs that ever wore a Crown.” However, in order for the present Cang-Hi Emperor to achieve the same happiness as King Louis XIV, he must “embrace the Christian Faith, and profess it with the same sincerity as you.” Because the Cang-Hi Emperor allows his subjects the freedom of religion, Bouvet is optimistic and believes that many Chinese can be converted to Christianity in a relatively short amount of time; especially if the Emperor himself becomes a Christian. Due to China’s large population, Bouvet writes, “we may promise ourselves all the hopes for success from those sent into China, which alone are more valuable than all the rest together, because they are likely to bring a greater number of infidels to the church, than may be expected from all the other parts of the world.” Bouvet appears to have enjoyed his time in China and, based on his experiences and observations, asks King Louis XIV to send him back to China with more missionaries.

Kangxi-Jagd

The Kangxi-Emperor in armor

During his time in Beijing, China, Joachim Bouvet wrote several mathematical treatises and also served as the Chinese emperor’s envoy to France. Bouvet also made huge improvements in the field of map-making and mathematics. His efforts greatly advanced the interest of Christianity and facilitated the entrance and the labors of other missionaries.

  • Lilly Sun, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Boston College, Class of 2020

Works Consulted:

Bouvet, Joachim. History of Cang-Hy the present emperor of China. London : Printed for F. Coggan, 1699

MENTAG, J. V. “Bouvet, Joachim.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 2, Gale, 2003, p. 571. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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One Response to Joachim Bouvet: the History of Cang-Hi, the Present Emperor of China

  1. J.B. Walsh says:

    Well done!

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