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Shen Fuzong: the first Chinese visitor to Oxford

In 1687 a young Jesuit convert from Nanking became the first Chinese visitor to Oxford, a city that now sees around 13,000 Chinese visitors a year. Michael Shen Fuzong, as he was known, spent six weeks as the guest of Thomas Hyde, the Bodleian’s Librarian, helping him to catalogue and translate the library's Chinese books and manuscripts

Michael Alphonsus Shen Fuzong by Sir Godfrey Kneller, commissioned by James II, on loan from Royal Collection Trust. Photo by David Fisher.

Shen Fuzong had travelled to Europe with a Flemish Jesuit, Father Philippe Couplet, as part of a campaign to gain support for the Jesuit missions in China, to which James II, as a Roman Catholic, was keen to show his favour. Their two-year long journey to Europe was followed by a round of audiences, including Louis XIV at Versailles in 1684, and Pope Innocent XI in Rome in 1685. Arriving in England in March 1687, Shen soon became a familiar figure at the court of James II - and the first Chinese visitor to England to be known by name.

Much taken with the young scholar, the King commissioned a life-size portrait of him from court painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller. The King later told Hyde that 'he had his picture to the life hanging in his roome next to the bed chamber'.

The painting, loaned from the Royal Collection, is now the centrepiece of a fascinating exhibition at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford, focusing on the working and personal relationship between Shen Fuzong and Thomas Hyde.

You may, like me, be familiar with the painting from reproductions or exhibitions (most recently in the Queens Gallery exhibition on Charles II), but also not know the backstory. It was one of the many interesting things I picked up from this small show in the college’s China Centre Building.

In this magnificent painting, Kneller (1646-1723), born in Lubeck, studying with Rembrandt in Amsterdam, and working in England by 1676 where he painted seven British monarchs in all, portrays Shen in Chinese robes, holding a crucifix and looking towards the light; the illumination on Shen’s face suggesting spirituality.

Horace Walpole remarked, ‘Of all his works, Sir Godfrey was most proud of the converted Chinese at Windsor’.

At work in Oxford, the two men learnt from one another. They conversed in Latin, a language Shen had begun to learn only during the long journey out. And now too, Hyde, an expert in Oriental languages (in addition to Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit), began to learn the language of his visitor - becoming the first Englishman to receive lessons in Chinese. One of the first phrases Shen taught him was: ‘I am a librarian’.

Together they worked on more than 70 Chinese books in the collection, purchased as curiosities over the previous century - which for the first time were now being read and understood. As they examined the books together, Shen wrote the titles on the outer covers, and Hyde would add a brief note of the contents in Latin, the language they had in common. Hyde used a system of accents to approximate the sounds he was transcribing.

Many of the treasures shown, such as a copy of perhaps the most famous of all Chinese books, the Book of Changes, Yi Jing (I Ching), illustrate the sort of books they were cataloguing and the topics discussed. The ancient Chinese text was originally used for divination. Other exhibits are more personal.

Loans from the British Library and Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, include this scrap of paper on which Shen provided Thomas Hyde with the words for morning, midday and evening meals, as well as 'snack', 'feast' and 'wine'. Photo by Theresa Thompson

A dozen or so scraps of paper on view illustrate what amounts to Hyde’s crash course in Chinese culture. Examples include, for instance, their exchange of words for the foods they shared - always a good topic for getting to know another culture - Shen providing words for morning, midday, and evening meals, ‘punctum cordis’ or ‘a prick for the stomach’ or snack, and wine, rice and so forth.

A mass of jottings on another sheet gives delightful glimpses into the wide ranging conversations they enjoyed: from talking about compass points, to characters for ‘brandy’ and ‘beer’, to expressions for the new year and new moon, as well as the twelve animal names of the cycle of calendar years.

Hyde was enormously proud of his friendship with Shen. They shared breadth of interest, scholarship and commitment. In the earliest letter from Shen to Hyde, written in 1687 before they had met, rather charmingly we learn that Hyde’s first question was about the names of chess pieces.

They made mistakes, of course. The vagaries of grammar of Latin and Chinese sometimes tripped them up, as when in a 1536 book dealing with the vital organs, in making a literal translation Shen inverted the word order, which Hyde then corrected.

Loans from Trinity College, Oxford and the British Library. The lower item in the case (from British Library), is Shen's copy of a scroll map. He concentrates on the Great Wall of China, supplying the pronunciation of all of the towns along its length. Photo by David Fisher.

But they complemented each other, it seems. On a map on view, Shen’s copy of the scroll map of The Great Wall of China (displayed), Shen supplied the pronunciation of all the towns along the wall, while Hyde ringed the most important in red. On another, a scroll map of China c. 1600-1640, showing the 15 provinces of the Ming administration, Shen wrote the pronunciations of the names of the provinces in a strip below the map.

History, science, art, culture... there is a lot in this small exhibition. As the curators say, “Together, the exhibits give as vivid and intimate an insight into the mind of Restoration England as the Diary of Samuel Pepys.”

Pleasingly, for today’s Chinese visitors to Oxford, the exhibition display texts are written in both English and Mandarin.


Shen Fuzong: the first Chinese visitor to Oxford

The Dickson Poon University of Oxford China Centre Building, St Hugh’s College, Oxford

Until 14 December 2018

For more information CLICK HERE


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