PROFESSOR ALBERT KOENIG – To discover something new is a labor of love

– Robaird O’Cearbhaill
Hong Kong Correspondent

Despite the well known areas of science brought to early modern age China by Jesuit missionaries, one crucial area, water distribution technology on which agricultural economies depend, was, until recently, almost ignored. One of Prof Albert Koenig’s missions in his upcoming seminars is spreading that valuable historical knowledge and the missionaries dedication to China.

From an era of low scientific technology – from the 16th and 17th centuries – the technical knowledge and science of Europe was brought into China by Jesuits with success. Thus the Order enjoyed high esteem in the Ming dynasty court.

The Ming empire was overthrown by the Qing Manchurians successful invasion in 1644, but the Jesuits’ scientific knowledge won favor again with the new regime.

“While in the 16-19th centuries scientific contributions in astronomy, calendar making, mathematics, and mechanical engineering (for example clock making and cannon engineering) have been extensively investigated, the impact on hydraulic engineering in China has received little attention so far,” Prof. Albert Koenig declares.

Groundbreaking European science and, for the first time, books on world geography were published in China by the Jesuits from 1623 to  1640.  Their importance, long forgotten, was unearthed when the books were rediscovered. Why are they important?

One reason: they educated Chinese scholars about the globe; they were given their first complete world map. They were given knowledge of unknown countries, continents of the world and their boundaries. This planet’s lands and seas had been much established around 1500, after the first earth circumnavigation by Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan. The second reason was to show how the treasure of substantial water management improvements were given freely by the Jesuits.

Water, after all, was paramount in all pre-industrial civilizations: livelihood depended on it. Of course water, aside from rainfall or floods, is under the level of farmed soil, so raising it has always presented challenges.

At first only humans and animals could carry the water to the crops in containers. This low efficiency output was succeeded by river water pressure, through pulley systems and seasonal flooding. Then in rich urbanized societies, underground canals brought water through             gravity over long distances from higher ground to lower.

These systems were established in the Middle East: Syria, Iraq and Iran and Jordan, also in Egypt, thousands of years ago and then in  the Greek and Roman empires. They were impressive but only in limited areas. New technology developed in Europe, such as large aqueducts and    pumps, expanding water distribution in a dramatic way. But until the Jesuits arrived in China in the 1500 from Macau they were absent in the empire.

Albert Koenig, an Austrian senior environmental engineering  professor at the University of Hong Kong and Chu Hai College Hong Kong, talked to O Clarim about these recovered Jesuit discoveries, which he will bring up in his seminars, this month and next. He also opens up, humbly, about how his work affects him, travel – he has been around the world lecturing at conferences – and about being a Catholic.

Why have you been and are so impressed with the Jesuits’ missions and scientific support for hydrology and geography to China, Korea and Japan? You are launching a seminar this month and next month on that, at the University of Hong Kong. Significantly you were lecturing this year at an important conference in Beijing about transfer of scientific and technical knowledge between Europe and China in the Early Modern period.

The Jesuits were dedicated. No time to go home, and China was so different for them. Tough 30-year stay in the emperor’s court. No personal letters, Just reports sent to Rome to the Jesuit headquarters. But whilst their contributions to astronomy, calendar making, mathematics, geography and mechanical knowledge have been extensively investigated, their impact on hydraulic engineering in China has received little attention so far. As a case in point, Giulio Aleni SJ published in 1623 Zhifang Waiji 職方外紀 [Chronicle of Foreign Lands], the first detailed world geography in Chinese, wherein he briefly described several famous Western hydraulic engineering works.

Which were these astounding systems?

Namely the water-lifting machine of Toledo (brought water uphill to 100 metres – much admired in Europe), the 15 km aqueduct of Segovia, the [most complex multi-storied] fountains of the Villa d’Este (which  powered a self playing organ), mechanical singing birds, the aqueducts of Rome, the water cities of Venice and Mexico, and the Archimedean screw pump. The importance and significance of these works will be shown within its contemporary context, using historical drawings and maps, possible reasons for selecting these works as well as their potential impact on China. 

How did this impulse emanate?

After the first Jesuit missionaries entered China in 1582 they soon discovered, in particular Matteo Ricci, S.J. (1552-1610), that to be successful in China, it was not just theology, religion. You need to give them  science.

One of your objectives is honouring, until recently unknown, world geographer book publisher, scientific writer, scholar Aleni ?

The objective is to describe the importance and significance Giulio Aleni, S.J. (1582-1649). He used to be ignored now Aleni is considered one of the most distinguished and successful Jesuits in China, with a large number of important religious and scientific works to his name, all written in Chinese. Aleni’s life has become the subject of academic study only recently. He spent his career in the provinces outside Peking and never served any emperor as astronomer, surveyor, clock-maker, diplomat or court painter, hence he has been overlooked in the past.

Why and how are you Catholic?

In Austria we don’t think about it. There was no other religion. It was part of school. After leaving I remained a Catholic and still am because I want to stay part of the Church, to grow old in a healthy world. Nobody wants to be alone but part of the Catholic community.

Why become an esteemed professor, after getting Ph.D. at the US top Ivy League University, Cornell, lecturing around the world? 

I enjoyed learning. It’s not to make money. It’s a labour of love, to discover something new. I was in the corporate world but had what HKU wanted, but had to learn about solid waste engineering.

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