Kircher’s China

Kircher, Athanasius (1602-1680)

Athanasii Kircheri E Soc. Jesu China Monumentis Qua Sacris quà Profanis, Nec non variis Naturæ & Artis Spectaculis, Aliarumque rerum memorabilium Argumentis Illustrata, Auspiciis Leopoldi Primi Roman. Imper. Semper Augusti Munificentissimi Mecænatis.

Amsterdam: Apud Jacobum `a Meurs, in fossa vulgo` de Keyfersgracht, 1667


Folio: 31 x 21 cm. *4, **4; A-Z4; Aa-Hh4. (*1 is the engraved title page)

FIRST MEURSIUS EDITION (a counterfeit of the Jannson-Weysberg edition of the same year).

Complete with the engraved title page, a full-paged portrait of Kircher, 2 large folding engraved maps of China, 59 text engravings, and 23 full-paged engravings (one of which is a large folding reproduction of the "Nestorian Stele"), including some executed by the artist Willem van der Laegh. This is a very fine copy, bound in contemporary stiff vellum. Very mild ocassional toning, two plates with minor staining in the gutter.

"In 1667 the learned German Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher, published his ‘China Illustrata’ at Amsterdam. Gathering his materials from the works of other members of the Society travelling and resident in Asia, Kircher wrote one of the century’s most influential treatises on China.

Kircher included a sizeable description of China (and other parts of Asia), drawn from eyewitness accounts (some previously unpublished). For example, in a section devoted to the various routes to China and the history of Christianity in China, he sketched all the old overland routes, including that of Johann Grueber and Albert d’Orville from Agra to Peking, as well as giving a description of Tibet. He traced the activities of Christians in China from the earliest accounts to the reports of Michał Piotr Boym (who arrived at the Ming court in 1659) about the conversions at the Ming pretender’s court, and Adam Schall's (known in China as "Tang Ruowang" 湯若望) experiences at the court of the Shunzhi Emperor. Kircher described the religions of China, Japan, and India. His extensive discussion of Hinduism and the Mogul Empire derived from the letters of Heinrich Roth (1620-68), his fellow Jesuit. There are several chapters on government, customs, geography, fauna, flora, and mechanical arts of China, and a very interesting scholarly discussion of the Chinese language, which indicates that Kircher had made considerable progress in it. There is a long Latin-Chinese dictionary, and Finally Father Johann Grueber’s (1623-80) responses to a long series of questions posed by the duke of Tuscany. Kircher’s volume contains several beautiful pictures taken from Chinese and Mughul originals which Grueber brought back to Europe with him in 1664." (Lach pp. 485-486)

""China Illustrata" was frequently used or cited as a source of information by later writers. Some of the information contained in it, for example the text of the Nestorian monument, Roth’s description of Hindu religion, and Grueber’s description of Tibet, had not appeared in print before. "Roth’s contribution to Kircher’s work includes a description of the ten transformations (avatars) of Vishnu and several illustrations of Indian provenance, as well as a discussion of the Sanskrit language which is illustrated with five plates presenting examples of Sanskrit writing. Roth returned to Europe in 1662 accompanied by Grueber, who with Father Albert d’Orville had journeyed overland from Peking to Agra by way of Lhasa. In the busy years after his return to Europe, Grueber evidently tried to write a description of Tibet and of his journey across the Himalayas. Apparently he never finished it. He may have sent parts of it to Kircher, however; he wrote several letters to Kircher and apparently sent him some of his sketches, all of which formed the basis for a description of Tibet and of Grueber and d’Orville’s journey in the "China Illustrata"-probably Europe’s earliest account of the Tibetan capital. Kircher’s account also contains eleven very interesting plates made from Grueber’s sketches, including one of the Dalai Lama and one of the Potala Palace in Lhasa which was frequently reproduced and served as Europe’s only glimpse of Lhasa for the following 250 years."(Lach pp. 527-528)

"China Illustrata'' was in many ways [Kircher's] most significant work historically, being the first publication of important documents on oriental geography, botany, zoology, religion and language. Kircher admits in the preface that his main concern was to preserve the fruits of his colleagues’ efforts, collected with so much effort and privation, and sometimes at the cost of their very lives. Foremost among his sources were Johann Adam Schall; Bento de Goes, who in 1602 had left from the Jesuit station in Agra, north India, to find a land route to China and seek the fabled land of Cathay; Kircher’s former pupil Martin Martini, appointed mathematician to the Chinese Imperial Court and author of ‘Novus Atlas Sinensis’ (1655); and the trio of intrepid explorers Johann Grueber, Michael de Boym and Heinrich Roth, who all returned to Rome in 1664. Grueber, whose return journey had taken three years, and led him through Tibet, modern Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, was an accomplished draughts man and supplied the originals for many of ‘China’s’ topographical engravings. Boym provided those of Chinese flora, and transcription of Chinese characters that enabled Kircher to publish the first vocabulary of the language. Roth, who traveled with Grueber, had already become adept in Sanskrit, of which he compiled a dictionary. Here again, Kircher’s ‘China’ included the first reproduction in the west of the Sanskrit alphabet and grammar." (Godwin)

Merrill 20 ("Constitutes the first Chinese vocabulary ever printed in the West. He includes a Sanskrit grammar and vocabulary ... the first printing of a Sanskrit grammar in Europe"); De Backer Sommervogel IV 1063, 24; Cordier 26; Caillet 5774; Brunet III, 666-667; Reilly #23; Lach "Asia in The Making of Europe", Vol III, Bk I, pp. 485-486, 527-528.