The first Chinese visitor

Michael Shen Fuzong by Sir Godfrey Kneller © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Michael Shen Fuzong by Sir Godfrey Kneller © Her Majesty the Queen

Nick Austin SJ and Frank Turner SJ were guests at a recent dinner at St Hugh’s College in Oxford, marking the opening of an exhibition about the life of Michael Shen Fu-Tsung, described as “the first Chinese visitor to Oxford”.

Shen, a highly educated convert to Catholicism, was brought to Europe by a Walloon Jesuit, Philippe Couplet, a noted scholar of Confucian philosophy and Procurator of the China Jesuit Missions, in 1682, as part of a campaign to gain support for the Jesuit missions in China, which the Roman Catholic King James II was keen promote.

Shen also has the distinction of being the first recorded, named Chinese man to visit Britain.  He was presented to King James II who was apparently so delighted with him that he commissioned a portrait from Sir Godfrey Kneller, which then hung in his bedroom. This portrait, known as ‘The Chinese Convert’, is a significant one in James II’s short reign, and a key image in the growing fascination with China in the west.

Shen spent six weeks in Oxford with Thomas Hyde, Bodley’s Librarian. They inspected the Library’s collection of more than seventy Chinese books, purchased as curiosities over the previous 100 years, which were now, with his help, able to be read, understood and catalogued for the first time. Shen allegedly showed the librarian the correct way to hold a Chinese book, starting with which way was up. As Shen was brought up a Catholic they were able communicate in Latin. Hyde, already an expert in Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit, thus became the first Englishman to receive lessons in written and spoken Chinese.

“Shen was a fascinating character” observed Fr Turner, “he arrived in Oxford after calling in on the way to see Louis XIV, an opportunity suggesting a diplomatic environment not quite today’s: apparently he demonstrated to the Sun King how to write Chinese characters -- and use chopsticks. He was even favoured by James II in what one of the exhibition panels describes as James’s 'precipitate rashness' in promoting Catholicism.”

Shen left England to go to Lisbon, where he joined the Jesuit novitiate in 1688. In 1691, returning to China, he died of a shipboard fever somewhere near Mozambique, aged 32-33. 

Focusing on the six weeks Shen spent in Oxford with Thomas Hyde, the exhibition features the Kneller portrait, part of the Royal Collection, alongside exhibits from leading collections and archives brought together for the first time. “Together, the exhibits give as vivid and intimate an insight into the mind of Restoration England as the Diary of Samuel Pepys,” claims the St Hugh’s publicity material.

The exhibition, in the Dickson Poon China Centre Building at St Hugh's, Oxford, continues till December 14th Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm, free entry.