Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Jesuits in Asia : Chinese baroque music

This antique Chinese print depicts St Francis Xavier dying in 1552, or in Chinese the 32nd year of the Jaijing emperor of the Ming dynasty. He was the "Apostle to the Indies", who converted hundreds of thousands in Goa and Japan, but wasn't allowed into China. Basically, the Chinese didn't need Christianity and at that time were powerful enough to keep outsiders at bay.

Macau was far too small to be a threat to Beijing, so it was tolerated. In 1557 it received a charter from Lisbon declaring it a city with equal status to the ancient university city of Evora. Extravagant, perhaps, but trade was mainly between Japan and Goa, and Macau became instead the epicentre of Jesuit studies in Asia. Their library here was reputedly better than most in Europe, but uniquely, Macau was where Europeans came to learn about China.

The Jesuits were able to develop a radical new approach to Asia because they were a new order, and one which valued education. They immersed themselves in Chinese literature and philosophy. They took Chinese names, spoke the language, treated the culture with reverence. Thus they gradually connected to the Chinese system, where scholars were the elite. Eventually the Jesuits established a toehold in Beijing where they dutifully served the Qing Emperors. Jesuits had backgrounds in science, art and literature. They built scientific instruments and clocks, translated and even wrote books in Chinese. Apart from their religion, they lived as Chinese, wearing Chinese clothes, living with Chinese etc. Some lived 50 years in China, with little contact with other foreigners.

This is a Chinese painting of St Matteo Ricci who came to Macau in 1578 and moved to China when he'd mastered the language. He compiled the first Western Chinese dictionary, and drew the first western-style map of China. Notice the clavichord in the background and the astrolabe. Besides literature, Ricci did music and astronomy. The Jesuits were quick to appreciate how western and Chinese music might connect. The clavichord, for example, sounds a lot like the Chinese quqing, the pipa like a lute. At least three Jesuits composed music in the Chinese style, adapting the Catholic mass to Chinese aesthetics.

Track down the recording Messe des Jesuites de Pekin: Joseph-Marie Amiot. The CD came out to great acclaim in 1998, and has been reissued. It combines western liturgical music with Chinese song and declamation, this latter working surprisingly well with the way the Latin Mass used chant. A few years ago, in Germany, I saw another recording, a boxed set with tracks of western baroque and Asian music of the same period.

This painting looks Chinese but in fact it was painted by an Italian, Guiseppe Castiglione, known by his Chinese name Lang shi ning. What the kids are building in the snow! One of Lang's paintings is a scroll 37 metres long, depicting thousands of Manchu soldiers massed in formation before the Emperor, a bit like the Terracotta Army. Another of his paintings, using Chinese techniques, shows the Kangxi emperor astride a horse, in the manner of Louis XIV, his almost exact contemporary.

The Chinese did things on such a grand scale that they could out-baroque the European baroque anytime. One of the small items (easily missed) in the V&A exhibition is a book about Lang's designs for the Yuanmingyuen, the "summer palace" outside Beijing, built in the manner of Versailles. Not bad for a holiday cottage. Spectacular as it was, it was dwarfed by things like Tienanmen, the Ming tombs and the Great Wall. If the tomb of the First Emperor is ever excavated it could be a wonder of the world. The Terracotta armies are just the prelude. "Louis XIV", said Professor Jessica Rawson, the eminent art historian, "doesn't even come into the radar" in comparison.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Fascinating, Anne. What you've written opens a new door in history, one that had formerly been closed to me. I was not aware of the Jesuits in China. The painting by Castiglione
fooled me -- I've recently been reading Chinese poetry illustrated with Chinese paintings and his work has the same feeling. The Chinese vision in art is so original and views the world from an entirely different perspective than Western art. Many thanks for sharing this valuable information and for opening a new world to me.

Pam Blevins