In 1687, five Royal Mathematicians (皇家數學家), dispatched as missionaries by King Louis XIV, arrived in China. Among them were Joachim Bouvet (白晉) and Jean-François Gerbillon (張誠), who were invited to stay in the court as Imperatorial Study Servants (御前侍讀), as the Kangxi Emperor was particularly fond of western scientific knowledge. From that same group, Jean de Fontaney (洪若翰), Louis le Comte (李明) and Claude de Visdelou (劉應) were given permission to preach across China. After this first mission, the number of French Jesuits coming to China increased, gradually becoming a significant missionary force. These individuals also made great contributions to the level of cultural exchange between China and France. They brought gifts selected by Louis XIV, and Joachim Bouvet, Jean de Fontaney and others returned to France with gifts for King Louis from the Kangxi Emperor, subsequently connecting these two famous monarchs. Furthermore, the missionaries introduced numerous western scientific technologies to China, which broadened China’s knowledge of France. Their letters—such as the widely circulated Lettres édifiantes et curieuses (耶穌會士書簡集)—and publications that include Louis le Comte’s Nouveau mémoire sur l'état présent de la Chine (中國近事報道) introduced Chinese society and culture to France and the whole of Europe. This development also had significant influence on the waves of French Chinoiserie and on the work of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire (伏爾泰) and Montesquieu (孟德斯鳩).
Shenwen Li is Professor in history and Director of the Centre d'études Québec-Chine at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, and Visiting Professor at Nankai Univesity in Tianjin, China. He specializes in Chinese history and in the multifaceted relationships between China and the Occident during the 17th and 18th centuries. He is a specialist of Jesuit culture and has published extensively on socio-cultural history of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.