The Emperor's right-hand man


Scroll down the many lists of "Famous Belgians" on the internet and the name of Father Ferdinand Verbiest is frequently nowhere to be seen. His absence is a travesty, because Verbiest's achievements should see him firmly established in the top 20

Flemish Jesuit missionary Father Ferdinand Verbiest’s close friendship with the Kangxi Emperor opened up 17th-century China to Christianity. But that was only one of Verbiest’s achievements

Scroll down the many lists of "Famous Belgians" on the internet and the name of Father Ferdinand Verbiest is frequently nowhere to be seen. His absence is a travesty, because Verbiest's achievements should see him firmly established in the top 20

Over two decades, this humble Jesuit missionary from Pittem, near Kortrijk , was the Chinese Emperor’s trusted advisor and companion. Never before had someone from the West enjoyed such a privileged position with a Chinese Emperor. Verbiest’s influence in the royal court transformed Jesuits in China from objects of scorn and persecution to highly respected members of society. Verbiest also brokered the first peace talks between China and Russia , and introduced European advances in astronomy to the Far East . As if that were not enough, in his spare time Verbiest designed and built the first steam-powered car.

Born in 1623, the young Verbiest’s thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. He studied humanities in Bruges and Kortrijk , philosophy in Leuven, and theology in Rome and Seville . In 1641 he joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and was ordained a priest in 1655. His call was to the Far East, so in 1658 Verbiest set sail from Lisbon, bound for China, where he took up his first posting in Shanxi. These were testing times for Jesuits in China . The death of the Shunzhi Emperor in 1661 left his seven-year-old son Kangxi on the throne. The country was run by four regents, who didn’t merely dislike Jesuits, they actively persecuted them.

The most serious setback came in 1664 when the Chinese astronomer Yang Guangxian challenged Father Adam Schall von Bell, the German head of the Jesuits, to a public astronomy competition. Yang won and Schall von Bell and the other Jesuits – including Verbiest – were accused of teaching a false religion, sentenced to death, and thrown into prison. Christianity was virtually forbidden in the empire. Fortunately for the Jesuits, three inexplicable natural events occurred the following year: an earthquake, a meteor strike and a fire. They were seen as an omen and the Jesuits were released, although Christianity was still banned.

By 1669, the Kangxi Emperor was old enough to take power, and discovered serious errors in the following year’s calendar, which had been drawn up by the Jesuits’ old adversary Yang Guangxian. Another public test was held to compare the merits of European and Chinese astronomy, and it was Verbiest’s turn to go face to face against Yang. The test was to predict the length of the shadow thrown by the arm of a sundial of a given height at noon on a certain day; the absolute and relative positions of the sun and the planets on a given date; and the exact time of an anticipated lunar eclipse. Verbiest had a trick up his sleeve; the latest updates on Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables of the stars and planets. He succeeded in all three tests, the calendar was amended (a superfluous month was removed), and Yang was put to death.

Verbiest had saved his own life – and those of his Jesuit colleagues – but the consequences were even more far-reaching. “Verbiest gained the young Emperor’s trust, and his lunar calculations and predictions supported the legitimacy of the Manchu dynasty in China,” says Professor Noël Golvers from the Verbiest Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven. “As a token of his appreciation and a mark of his friendship, the Kangxi Emperor reinstated the Jesuit missionaries. Under the Emperor’s protection, Christianity spread spectacularly throughout China .”

The friendship between Verbiest and the Emperor lasted for 20 years, until Verbiest’s death. The Jesuit was frequently summoned to talk with the Emperor in the

Forbidden City , where he taught him geometry, philosophy and music, and accompanied Kangxi on his travels through his empire.

Verbiest’s next accomplishment was to compose a table of all solar and lunar eclipses for the next 2000 years. Delighted, the Emperor awarded him complete charge of the imperial astronomical observatory. Verbiest not only relocated and rebuilt it, but designed and constructed six new large-scale astronomical instruments, including a quadrant, an azimuth compass and a sextant, which are still visible in Beijing today. Based on these achievements, Verbiest is often considered to be an eminent astronomer, but Golvers refutes this claim: “Verbiest was certainly a keen observer of the stars, but he would never have called himself an outstanding astronomer. He didn’t discover new stars, constellations or comets.”

An area in which Verbiest definitely excelled was engineering. He constructed an aqueduct, designed a new gun carriage, cast 300 cannons of various types for the imperial army, and even designed what has been described as the first working steam-powered vehicle. At around 60 cm in length it was too small to carry a human passenger, but was nevertheless a remarkable invention.

Another of Verbiest’s talents was diplomacy. “Verbiest played a key role in the peace talks between China and Russia that ultimately resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk a year after his death,” says Golvers. “The treaty w as the first between Russia and the Qing Empire and resolved the Russian-Manchu border conflicts which had been running for the past 50 years.”

Verbiest died in Beijing in 1688 from injuries sustained after falling off a horse. He was buried alongside two other famous Jesuits – Father Matteo Ricci and Father Adam Schall von Bell – and was succeeded as the chief mathematician and astronomer of the Chinese empire by another Belgian Jesuit, Antoine Thomas. Verbiest may not be a household name in his native Flanders, but he is highly regarded in

China , where he is known by his Chinese name Nan Huairen ( 南懷仁 ).

The Emperor’s right-hand man

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