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Sojourners in a Strange Land

Jesuits and Their Scientific Missions in Late Imperial China

Though Jesuits assumed a variety of roles as missionaries in late imperial China, their most memorable guise was that of scientific expert, whose maps, clocks, astrolabes, and armillaries reportedly astonished the Chinese. But the icon of the missionary-scientist is itself a complex myth. Masterfully correcting the standard story of China Jesuits as simple conduits for Western science, Florence C. Hsia shows how these missionary-scientists remade themselves as they negotiated the place of the profane sciences in a religious enterprise.

Sojourners in a Strange Land develops a genealogy of Jesuit conceptions of scientific life within the Chinese mission field from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Analyzing the printed record of their endeavors in natural philosophy and mathematics, Hsia identifies three models of the missionary man of science by their genres of writing: mission history, travelogue, and academic collection. Drawing on the history of early modern Europe’s scientific, religious, and print culture, she uses the elaboration and reception of these scientific personae to construct the first collective biography of the Jesuit missionary-scientist’s many incarnations in late imperial China. 

296 pages | 23 halftones, 5 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: Asian History

History of Science

Religion: Religion and Society


“In this ingenious and erudite book, Florence Hsia explores the multiple routes along which the Jesuit missionaries took their message to seventeenth-century China. She shows how their attempted self-depictions as ‘missionary-scientists’ and ‘Jesuit mandarins’ ultimately backfired amidst the harsh realities of Qing dynasty court politics, European rivalries, and the intellectually competitive French Academy. By artfully combining history of science with intellectual history, religious studies, the history of publishing, and group biography, she brings new perspectives to this absorbing period of Sino-Western history.”

Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China

Sojourners in a Strange Land is a game-changing book that gives us a significantly refigured account of the last important phase of the Jesuit mission to China. Beginning in the 1680s, a small group of French Jesuits, supported by Louis XIV and the Académie, went east to China as men of science as well as Christian missionaries. Instead of merely transmitting established knowledge, their charge was to acquire new, scientific knowledge on their voyages to and sojourns in the strange land on the other side of the world. This book demonstrates for the first time the particular historical circumstances in which missionary-scientists, through their formal, ‘curious’ letters, educated Europeans more than they did the learned men of the Qing empire.”

Willard J. Peterson, Princeton University

“During the seventeenth century the Jesuits—renowned for their technical expertise and envied for their ability to gather data all over the world—emerged as an important voice in the early modern scientific community. In the eighteenth century they ceased to have this sort of intellectual authority and ultimately ceased to be a religious order. Sojourners in a Strange Land reconstructs the fascinating story of the place of science in the French Jesuit missions in China. Florence Hsia’s book offers a thoughtful and stimulating account of the politics of science and faith in the early modern world. She creatively reconstructs a culture of long-distance collaboration and conversation in the making of knowledge between Europe and China.”

Paula Findlen, Stanford University

“This admirable book is more than the most comprehensive study of the scientific contributions of the French Jesuits in Qing China; it is also an insightful analysis into the cultural productions of the Jesuit missionary enterprise in late imperial China.”

R. Po-chia Hsia, Pennsylvania State University

“This fascinating book analyzes how the Jesuit scientists on the China mission presented themselves and their labors to the world at large and how that self-presentation was received. It at the same time assesses with a cool eye the Jesuits’ scientific accomplishments and describes the controversies they provoked.  Sojourners in a Strange Land provides a fresh look at a subject often obscured by myth.”

John W. O’Malley, Georgetown University

"Hsia’s scholarship is wide, and runs deep as well.”

Joseph Dauben | Times Higher Education

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



1  Who Was that Masked Man?

2  Writing Missions

3  Telling Missionary Lives

4  Making Jesuit Science Travel

5  Reading Jesuit Voyages

6  Jesuit Academicians

7  Observational Fortunes

8  Familiar Letters and Familiar Faces






Berkshire Conference of Women Historians: Berkshire Conference of Women Historians First Book Prize

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