SEMEDO, Alvaro


SEMEDO, Alvaro Histoire universelle du grand royaume de la Chine..

Paris, Chez Sebastien Cramoisy, et Gabriel Cramoisy, 1645


FIRST EDITION thus. pp. [xii], 367, [iii], last blank. ã4, *2, A-2Y4. Roman letter, some Italic. Title printed in red and black with engraved printer’s device, floriated woodcut initials and grotesque headpieces, typographical ornaments, C19th library stamp of ‘M Horson, avocat’ on blank margin of title. Age yellowing, some quires a bit browned, occasional minor spotting, light marginal water-stains in places. A good copy in contemporary vellum over thin pasteboards, a little soiled.

First edition of the French translation of Semedo’s seminal work on the China, dedicated to Cardinal Mazarin. Semedo, born in 1586, entered the Jesuit Novitiate in 1602 and in 1608 departed for Goa where he completed his studies. He arrived in Nangking in 1613 and remained in the south of China throughout his many years of residence. In 1636 he was sent back to Europe to secure further assistance for the mission and new recruits. Between 1640 and 1644 he visited Lisbon, Madrid and Rome and published this work to further those aims. It was first published in Portuguese in 1641, then translated, rearranged and republished at Madrid in 1642. It was from this text that the work was then translated and published in Italian (1643) French (1645) and English (1655). He returned to China where he occupied the important post of vice-provincial of the China mission, remaining in Canton until his death in 1659. The generally sympathetic manner in which Semedo presented China to European readers shows this work was part of the Jesuit policy of accommodation in China. It is divided into two parts; the first, occupying two thirds of the book, deals with the temporal state of China and includes a great variety of topics. The second treats the spiritual state of China and is really a history of the Jesuit mission since the arrival of Francois Xavier in 1552. Semedo describes ia. the geography of China, its people and their habits, language, education and examination system, degrees, books and sciences, banquets, games, marriage, funerals, religions, superstitions and sacrifices, weapons, nobility, government, prisons and punishment, as well as the Moslems, Jews and other nationalities resident in China and the history of Christianity before the arrival of the Jesuits. Although Mendoza’s and the Ricci-Trigault histories had contained brief descriptions of the language, Semedo’s greatly expanded on these with much new material. His 23 year residence had given him considerable fluency in Chinese. He stressed the great antiquity of the Chinese language considering it to be one of the languages created at the destruction of Babel, and noted its relative grammatical simplicity, suggesting that it would be a good model for constructing a universal language, and gave a brief description of the composition of Chinese characters. His detailed descriptions of such things as the literati examinations, degrees, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians and Eunuchs reflected a broad range of contact with Chinese society. His descriptions have a ring of authority and his attitude was markedly sympathetic to the Chinese and was far less critical of Chinese religions. He presented a very sympathetic, almost idealised portrait of Chinese education, noting the early role of moral teaching, good manners and obedience, and accurately stated the role of calligraphy and composition in the traditional Chinese curriculum. His description of the Eunuchs in China was equally colourful and detailed, describing their broad distribution in Ming Society and their specific roles in palaces, colleges and tribunals. He gave a very favourable assessment of Confucius and his teachings, describing his works in detail, and the tripartite division of Confucian cosmology. A good copy of this most interesting work, one of the first genuine and sympathetic pictures of China presented to an occidental audience.

BM STC Fr. C17. S595. Cordier Sinica I, 24.
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