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Encounter with Spain in the Forbidden City

admin / November 21, 2020

Maria Kwak

In the year 1611, the funeral of Matteo Ricci took place at Zhalan on All Saint’s Day. Ricci was the first European to enter the Forbidden City in 1601 upon the invitation of Emperor Wanli (r. 1572-1620). Just like a picturesque three-fold panel, the Jesuits witnessed the dedication and opening of the Zhalan compound being commemorated on the same day. At that time, the foreigners were only allowed to be buried in Macau. However, Ricci was put to rest in peace on imperial grounds in Beijing. The benevolence that Ricci received from the emperor is credited to a Spanish Jesuit missionary who was behind the scene. Diego de Pantoja (1571-1618), known as 龐迪峨 in Chinese, had accompanied Ricci to Beijing. Through the correspondence with Guzmán, the Provincial of Toledo, he recorded the list of the engravings that he and Ricci had presented to the emperor. The Carta consisted of 133 sheets both front and back, mostly written in Castilian with some in Portuguese. The letters were compiled and published in Seville, 1605, under the title List of the entry of some fathers of the Society of Jesus into China, and particular incidents that they had and the notable things that they saw in the same kingdom (Original: Relación de la entrada de algunos padres de la Compañía de Jesús en la China, y particulares sucesos que tuvieron y de cosas notables que vieron en el mismo reino). It became one of the Jesuits’ widely read letterbooks in the seventeenth century.


The young Jesuit novice Diego had an access to the Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reino de la China (The History of the Great and Mighty Kingdom of China and the Situation Thereof). It was the first book about China written in the Spanish language in 1586 by Juan González de Mendoza. Inspired by his superior Luis de Guzmán in Alcalá, he left Madrid to make a long journey to China. From Madrid to Lisbon, then arriving on a ship in Goa, 1596, he finally reached Macau with other Jesuits in April, 1597. He also spent two years studying theology at the College of St Paul before heading to Beijing. With another missionary,  Cattaneo, they travelled north to reunite with Ricci, finally reaching Beijing on January 24, 1601. Diego de Pantoja who provided us with the meeting with the emperor was the first Castilian man to enter the Forbidden City. During his 17 years in Beijing, he dedicated himself to cultural exchange with Chinese in various subjects. After his expulsion from the court in 1617,  he spent the last two years of his life completing the second part of Ricci’s True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven. He died on July 9, 1618, here in Macau.


Although the initial curiosity over the Western world began with a clock, this scientific curiosity further developed into a dialogue of cultural-spiritual knowledge between the West and the East. Pantoja’s Carta dated March 9, 1602 to Luis de Guzmán, SJ reveals that Wanli was very curious about the Spanish monarchy and their cultural customs. Pantoja wrote that the Ming emperor often sent the eunuchs to ask about their land. Upon this request, Ricci and Pantoja presented the engraving of the Escorial whose construction the Spanish King Philip II (r. 1556-1598) initiated during his reign.

The San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a vast building complex of a monastery, basilica, and royal palace near Madrid. This vast architectural complex was conceived with the spirit of the Catholic monarch’s commitment to the Counter-Reformation against the Protestant movement in Europe. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is still the largest Renaissance building in the world. The astonishment that the building may bring was no exception in their era. In 1584, Philip II also received guests from thousands of kilometers away: Japanese ambassadors guided by the Portuguese Jesuit. Upon their visit, the Japanese princes commented, “So magnificent a thing, whose like we have never seen or expected to see.” However, whether the print of the palace-monastery of the Escorial has impressed the emperor or not remains a question.


By the time they entered the Forbidden City, the news of the death of Philip reached them from Spain. Philip II passed away on September 13, 1598, at the Escorial. Consequently, the news became the subject matter between Wanli and the Jesuit missionaries. What is so intriguing about their dialogue concerning “mortality” was that it had profoundly inspired Philip on the other end of the continent before his death. Near the end of his life, he had a strong curiosity about the decomposition of the corpse and life after death. Known as el Prudente (English: the prudent one), Philip even ordered the position of his burial in the same way that Carlos V of Holy Roman Empire is laid in the tombstone. Mortality was a deeply emotional and spiritual matter for both father and son. His deceased Father Carlos V never overcame melancholia from the death of his Queen Isabel of Portugal. Due to the sadness, he arranged his son Philip and Duke of Gandia to accompany the corpse of the queen to her burial place in Granada. Apparently, this incident transformed the life of the fourth Duke of Gandia who decided to recluse from the court affairs. He eventually joined the Society of Jesus, later to become St Francis of Borgia.

For the court of the Ming dynasty, it was an encounter with the Spanish Empire for the first time. The printed image of the Spanish palace was an introduction of the Spanish monarchy and the ecclesiastical predominance of Catholic Spain. What Ricci and Pantoja brought to the court in Beijing were not just some artworks, but the cultural commodities to connect the West to the East. (Image 1: El Escorial by Perret in 1589, courtesy of the Library of University of Seville. Image 2: Emperor Wanli)