A Forgotten Friendship: How a French Missionary and a Manchu Prince Studied Electricity and Ballooning in Late Eighteenth Century Beijing

Alexander Statman


After the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773, the French missionary Joseph-Marie Amiot, last of the great Jesuit scholars of China, befriended the Manchu prince Hongwu 弘旿, court artist and cousin of the Qianlong emperor. Hongwu became the most enthusiastic local patron of the ex-Jesuits still living in Beijing, helping them with research and providing them with information. Together, Amiot and Hongwu discussed new developments in natural philosophy, from electrical medicine to gas balloons. They conducted experiments in the Jesuit’s quarters at the North Church and in the prince’s nearby mansion, drawing on European and Chinese traditions alike to explain them. In the end, they concluded that their investigations were socially and politically dangerous, so they decided to keep them secret. It has generally seemed that the missionaries who remained in Beijing toward the end of the eighteenth century had few local encounters and failed to communicate contemporary natural philosophy; the story of the friendship between Hongwu and Amiot is a notable exception, revealing that cross-cultural exchange remained possible.

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