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Ferdinand Verbiest learned the Chinese language and dressed like the Chinese (© Wikimedia Commons).
Did you know that a West Fleming made it to court astronomer and personal tutor to the Chinese emperor in the 17th century? We are talking about Ferdinand Verbiest, who was born in Pittem 400 years ago. An ideal opportunity for our embassy in Beijing to highlight this important Belgian as a symbol of friendship and exchange between China and Europe.
On 9 October 1623 – exactly four centuries ago – Ferdinand Verbiest was born in Pittem. A diligent student of exact sciences such as geometry and astronomy, he nurtured a dream: joining the Jesuits to become a missionary in South America. But his destination was eventually to become the mysterious China. After a heroic boat ride of a year and a half, he arrived in one piece in Macao, then a Portuguese trading post on the Chinese coast.
The aldermen of Pittem (with the mayor in the middle) visiting the old observatory where their fellow villager was once director (© FPS Foreign affairs).
Armillary spheres and altazimuths
He then succeeded in convincing the Chinese emperor Kangxi of his astronomical knowledge. For example, he could perfectly predict where a sundial's shadow would fall at a given hour. He became court astronomer and a close friend of the Chinese emperor, who realised that he could learn from Europe in the fields of mathematics, physics, astronomy and geography.
Among other things, Verbiest became director of the Beijing Observatory and made numerous ingenious devices there. These included armillary spheres – three-dimensional representations of our solar system, altazimuths – instruments that can measure both the altitude and azimuth of stars – and a celestial globe.
As a Jesuit, he genuinely showed great interest in Chinese thought. He learned the language and wanted to understand Chinese history and culture. He also had great respect for Chinese traditions, such as ancestor worship.
Mysteries of the heavens
400 years after his birth, our embassy in Beijing organised an international symposium there to commemorate this historical figure. The seminars took place at prestigious institutions such as the Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies and the Yale Centre. Theme: exploring the mysteries of the heavens – innovative dialogue with China through science.
The symposium was attended by a diverse group including astronomers, religious scholars, historians and scientists from various universities and think tanks. The speakers included a number of Chinese and Belgian experts, in addition to Belgian Ambassador to Beijing Bruno Angelet and West Flanders Governor Carl Decaluwé.
Participants also had the opportunity to visit the old Beijing Observatory where Verbiest was once director. There, they were introduced to the still-impressive devices that Verbiest developed at the time.
A small, specially designed exhibition displayed a selection of exceptional maps and books from the Verbiest Collection and the Ron Anton Library. The latter boasts one of the largest collections of English-language books on China and offers a unique starting point for getting to know this ancient country better.
Group photo on the stage of the commemoration event, including the aldermen of Pittem, the Belgian ambassador (3rd from left) and the governor of West Flanders (4th from right) (© FPS Foreign affairs).
Humility and empathy
The Chinese press reported on the event, and the Macau Ricci Institute – co-organiser of the symposium – will devote a bilingual academic issue to it. The Macau Ricci Institute aims to build bridges between China and the West and was named after the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who laid the foundation for the Jesuits' empathetic way of working in China.
Indeed, as Ambassador Angelet mentioned in his speech, he was "the first to say that priests working in China should do so in a spirit of humility and empathy, with deep respect for Chinese civilisation. They had to learn Chinese and behave and dress like Chinese people, offering the Chinese intellectuals and the emperor what they were looking for: science and innovation."
Mutual interest and curiosity
The symposium allowed our embassy to pay tribute to this remarkable mathematician and astronomer who became a symbol of friendship and exchange between China and Europe. The seamless collaboration between four Chinese institutions made for an unforgettable celebration that faithfully reflected Verbiest's legacy and impact.
China also still looks back positively on Ferdinand Verbiest's time at court. The country still considers this first meeting between East and West as an example of how relations between East and West should proceed, which is to say based on mutual interest and curiosity.
Watch the coverage at the VRT (only in Dutch)