A Sage Embellished with Elements of “Chinoiserie”: The Making of Jesus in the Jesuit Figurist Translations of Chinese Classics

Visiting Scholar Talks

Feb 23, 2024 | 11:30 AM - 1:00 PM

Common Room (#136), 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA,


Sophie Ling-chia Wei | Associate Professor, Department of Translation, Chinese University of Hong Kong; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2023-24


James Robson | James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University

Co-sponsored with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

When Christianity was introduced to China in the Ming and Qing dynasties, translations of sacred texts and stories of biblical figures were employed for the purpose of proselytization. The Jesuit Figurists’ translations took on lives of their own, going on to create impact through new and interesting parallels between Chinese mythological figures and the image of Jesus Christ. The making of Jesus in the hands of the Jesuit Figurists revealed their intention of establishing a communal space between Christianity and Chinese history and culture.

Differing from the Jesuits before them in the late Ming dynasty, the Jesuits Figurists in the early Qing dynasty, including Bouvet, Foucquet and Prémare, followed the Hermetic tradition, associating the numbers, images, and interpretations of the Yijing 易經 (the Book of Changes) with stories in the Old Testament as a support for proselytization in China. In the Figurists’ re-interpretation, the Yijing was Christianized and infused with different types of Jesus Christ, in the sense that mythological and historical events in Chinese texts acted as symbols for later events—in other words, scriptural types. His emergence was also parallelled with Chinese mythological creatures, and a new Chinese image of Jesus emerged out of several branches—a representation of the Dragon in the hexagrams, a Confucian sage with ethical emotions, and a local deity depicted in a missionary vernacular novel.

Each Figurist, in investigating Figurism and interpreting the Yijing, had his own identity, focus, and trajectory. Thus, this paper also showcases each Figurist’s signature approach in making a “new Jesus.” The Figurists’ translations of the Yijing and the Dao made a lasting impact and constitute a link in the genealogy of early Sinologists, with a focus on Dao re-interpretation. This led to a greater desire in the people of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries for more in-depth understanding and discussion of the Yijing and the Dao.