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China—Fr. Antoine Gaubil | Important autograph manuscripts on Chinese astronomy, and correspondence, 18th century

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China—Father Antoine Gaubil



i. Remarkable series of c.29 autograph letters signed ("Gaubil J."; "Ant. Gaubil J."), mostly to Father Souciet at Clermont, ABOUT HIS SCIENTIFIC WORK, WITH NUMEROUS ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATIONS AND DIAGRAMS [part of Phillipps MSS.17530 and 17533], mostly in French, some items in Latin, many of the letters long and highly detailed

...J'attans la carte du Japon. Quand j'aurois ainsi mes memoires sur les pays voisins de la Chine, je pretens les joindre à ceux que j'ai ramassés sur la Chine et l'une et l'autre Tartarie. Si j'avais le temps et le talent pour bien digerer le tout, j'en ferois un ouvrage [21 October 1726]...les patentes de mathématicien nous seroient ici absolument nécessaires. Je l'ai écrit, rien ne vient et tout se perd. Des Ephemerides astronomiques pour plusieurs années, un micromètre nous sont aussi absolument nécessaires. Je l'ai écrit et récrit, et rien ne vient, ainsi me voilà presque hors d'état de rien faire [10 November 1726]...nous sommes à la veille de voir périr notre mission françoise...priés, gémissés, mais agissés pour nous. Quelle honte pour les Jesuites de France si après avoir tant travaillé ici et à Paris pour un si bel établissement, on est obligé de l'abandonner d'une manière qui nous fait à tous tant de deshonneur [17 November 1726]...dans tout ce que je fais et que je vous envoye, je n'ai en vue que le bien general de la mission françoise. Ainsi je vous prie de communiquer à M[essieu]rs de l'Observatoire tout ce que je vous communique et communiquerai d'astronomie; on auroit beau m'alleguer que je j'ay à craindre qu'on ne me pille, qu'on ne se fasse honeur de ce que j'envoye, je renonce de tout mon coeur à un genre de gloire si peu solide et si incertaine, et je me contente de procurer à la mission des protecteurs en cas de besoin...

over 180 pages in all, plus blanks, various sizes, some letters with address leaves, many annotated by the recipient, with a letter in Latin by Ignatius Kögler (September 1726) and one by Jacques (24 October 1727), on guards, spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.1 in the present binding], Beijing, 1725-1728, a few small tears, some creasing

 The particular importance of these letters to Father Étienne Souciet (1671–1744), librarian in the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris, lies in the fact that it was to Souciet that Gaubil entrusted the manuscripts of many of his works. In one letter Gaubil refers to his Histoire abrégée de l'astronomie chinoise and to his Traité de l'astronomie chinoise (see below), which he tells Souciet he has sent to him, at the same time reassuring him that he has kept copies of all his manuscripts in case they be lost en route. He informs Souciet that an entire shipment of mail from Europe was lost one year, gives details of each packet that he sends him, and laments the difficulties of communication. Gaubil also describes current and future projects, asks him to pass on letters to Cassini and Maraldi at the Observatoire, requests maps and scientific instruments, which he urgently needs to pursue his work, thanks his correspondent warmly for sending a portrait of King Louis XV, noting that the mission is in need of such lofty protection, given its perilous situation, considers himself modestly first and foremost as a missionary, disclaiming all worldly honours for his scientific discoveries, and stating that everything he did was for the good of the mission. 

ii. Autograph manuscript of Gaubil's great work "Histoire abrégée de l'Astronomie chinoise", THE MANUSCRIPT USED BY FATHER ÉTIENNE SOUCIET FOR VOLUME 2 OF HIS OBSERVATIONS MATHÉMATIQUES, ASTRONOMIQUES (PARIS, 1729-1732), with extensive annotations and emendations by Souciet in the margin and on small slips of paper affixed to the page, c.160 pages (later pencil pagination of main text "[48]-303"), folio, alternate pages blank, on rice paper, with parts of the original wrappers for two of the sections, inscribed by Gaubil ("Astr. chin. 1er [...4e] Paquet. Au R. P. Etienne Souciet de la Compagnie de Jesus au college de Louis le grand à Paris"), spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.4 in the present binding], [1731], [part of Phillipps MS.17175], some of Souciet's annotations affected by ink corrosion  

The manuscript text of this celebrated work is complete, and most of the appendix is also present (up to Souciet's page 162), but the pages have been bound somewhat idiosyncratically: the beginning of the appendix precedes the main body of the text. Also preceding the text are eight pages headed "Eclaircissement sur les signes du Zodiaque et de l'Equator", and an account of the lunar eclipse of 21 November 1733 observed by the Jesuits in Beijing ("Eclipse...du 21 9.bre 1733 observée dans La maison des Jesuites François a Peking"). Bound with the manuscript is an important 4-page letter signed by Gaubil to Souciet, dated Beijing, 23 July 1734, informing him that he is sending to France Father Grimaldi's celestial charts, which he considers superior to those of Verbiest and Adam, and referring to Kögler's planisphere, which he thinks has already been dispatched; in the letter Gaubil also explains that he has not been able to make any observations himself for several months, as he has been translating the book Chou-king [Shujing], notes that he will send his translation shortly, and comments on the persecution of Christian missionaries, and on the relations between China and Russia. 

iii. Autograph manuscript of the "Histoire abrégée de l'astronomie chinoise", with an appendix in two parts (with autograph titles "1er Cayer" and "2d Cayer"), a few deletions and corrections, 56 leaves, [1], 20 and [1], 18 pages, plus blanks, folio, spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.3 in the present binding], [1731], [part of Phillipps MS.17478], the first section lacking leaves 19 and 20 

This manuscript corresponds to the version of the Histoire abrégée de l'Astronomie chinoise and the appendix as printed by Souciet in vol.2 of the Observations, as far as Souciet's page 173. The missing leaves 19 and 20 correspond to pp.43-48 in Souciet. The last nine pages of the second appendix are not present in Souciet, and the final pages of Souciet's second volume, comprising tables, do not feature in this manuscript, which is almost certainly a fair copy, probably a duplicate sent to Souciet in case the first manuscript went astray in transit.

iv. Autograph manuscript entitled "Histoire abrégée de l'astronomie chinoise depuis les yuen jusqu' au temps où les Jesuites Entrerent au tribunal", APPARENTLY UNPUBLISHED, a few deletions and corrections, 15 leaves, folio, versos blank, with additional later pencil foliation ("109"-"123"), annotated by the recipient ("Recu le 17e Aoust 1736"), bound with part of the original wrapper, spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.8 in the present binding], [1735]

This short manuscript, which essays a brief historical survey covering the period 1368 to 1644, forms a sequel to the Histoire abrégée de l'Astronomie chinoise (volume 2 of Souciet). Pfister (p.676) records that an unpublished manuscript bearing the title "Abrégé de l'histoire de l'astronomie chinoise depuis l'an de J.-C. 1368 jusqu' à l'entrée des Jesuites au tribunal des mathématiques" was sent to M. de Mairan in 1749, but it is evident from Souciet's annotation on the present manuscript that this is an earlier work on the same subject. 

v. Autograph manuscript of Gaubil's Traité de l'Astronomie chinoise, comprising "Examen de l'astronomie chinoise, 1ere Partie", in two sections, marked by Gaubil "3e Cayer" and "4e Cayer" respectively, with numerous tables and diagrams of eclipses of the sun and moon, and a section entitled "Eclipses du Tchun Tsieou", around 200 pages, plus blanks, folio and large folio, some later pencil paginations, on guards, spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.5 in the present binding], [1731], [part of Phillipps MS.17391]

 The present manuscript corresponds to the third volume of Father Souciet's Observations.

vi. Autograph manuscript of part of Gaubil's Traité de l'Astronomie chinoise entitled "Eclipses du Tchun Tsieou", corresponding approximately to pp.235-373 of Souciet's third volume, ANNOTATED BY SOUCIET FOR PUBLICATION, with a note by Souciet at head ("La Preface est Cahier 2.d p.10"), 44 pages, large folio, on rice paper, alternate pages blank, bound in reverse order, a diagram-leaf bound in before the first page, spine gilt, modern quarter morocco gilt [Vol.6 in the present binding], no date, some scattered spotting, partly cut along the pencil lines on one page

vii. Autograph manuscript of a catalogue of eclipses of the sun and the moon, preceded by a prefatory leaf headed by Gaubil "Pour le Catalogue des Eclipses de [sun symbol] Et de [moon symbol]", containing revisions and alterations to the corresponding section in Souciet's third volume (pp.239-373), annotated by Father Souciet at head ("Recu le 17 Aoust 1736"), a few deletions and corrections, [2], 52 pages, folio, later pencil foliation at foot ("126"-"152"), spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.10 in the present binding], no date, a few small stains, some creasing along folds  

viii. Autograph manuscript entitled "Examen de la Chronologie Chinoise", in three sections, the first being a plan of the work (annotated at head by Gaubil "Ceci n'est que le plan de l'ouvrage que je dois envoyer au R.P. General"), the work itself written in two parts, with the autograph heading "Examen et Verification de plusieurs Epoques de l'histoire chinoise 1ere [...2de] Partie", with charts and tables, a few deletions and corrections, 12 leaves, [1], 21, and 1, 19 pages, plus blanks, folio and 4to, with later pencil paginations in lower margins, partly on rice paper, the plan annotated on the first page by Father Souciet "recu le 10e Aoust 1729", spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.2 in the present binding], the plan dated Beijing, 3 November 1728 [part of Phillipps MS.17529]

The present manuscript was not printed by Souciet in his Observations, and is not listed by Pfister.

ix. Autograph manuscript entitled "Catalogue chinois des Etoiles", APPARENTLY UNPUBL ISHED, WITH 31 MAPS OF STARS AND CONSTELLATIONS, THE FIRST FIGURE A LARGE FOLDING DIAGRAM, with a 3-leaf section headed "Des figures chinoises pour les etoiles", some cancellations and corrections, 78, 3, 26, 1 leaves (versos blank), folio, on rice paper, bound in reverse order, spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.7 in the present binding], no date, [part of Phillipps MS.17531]

In this catalogue, which was not published by Father Souciet, Gaubil gives the Chinese names for stars and their relative position to the Pole, and surveys briefly the Chinese catalogues of stars up to the time the Jesuits entered the Mathematical Tribunal.

x. Autograph manuscript entitled "Catalogue pour la lune Et les 5 Planetes", APPARENTLY UNPUBLISHED, with a note at head by Gaubil ("voyés le Catalogue des constellations"), being a chronological survey of the movements and positions of the moon and the five planets from 147 B.C. to A.D. 1735, compiled, according a note near the end, from Chinese works ("...c'est de l'astronomie des dynasties que j'ay tiré les calculs ou observations qu'on voit dans ces 29 pages. Plusieurs chinois ont fait de ces sortes de recueils, mais ils sont sans choix, tronqués et pleins de fautes..."), 32 pages, folio, annotated at head by Father Souciet ("Recu le 17.e Aoust 1736"), later pencil foliation ("153"-"168") at foot, bound with part of original wrapper, spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.9 in the present binding], [1735], some creasing along folds

Not printed in Souciet. Pfister (p.686) records a work on a similar theme (but covering only the period from 147 B.C. to A.D. 1368) which was sent to M. de l'lsle in 1749. This is clearly an earlier version and shows how Gaubil constantly returned to the subjects which interested him and reworked his projects.

xi. Autograph manuscript entitled "Methode pour reduire les jours chinois aux Europeans", APPARENTLY UNPUBLISHED, with a double-page diagram "Figure des 100 Ke appliqués aux 12 heures chinoises", 37 leaves (versos blank), 4, 4 pages, 3 leaves, folio, one leaf annotated by Father Souciet "Recu le 17 Aoust 1736", spine gilt, modern quarter morocco [Vol.11 in the present binding], [end of 1735 or early 1736], [part of Phillipps MS. 17532], some old repairs to a few leaves

 This manuscript was not printed by Souciet. Pfister (p.683) refers to an unpublished manuscript with a similar title, which, however, is only five pages long. It forms part of a longer manuscript belonging to the Bibliothèque de l'Observatoire in Paris, which is a copy by de l'lsle of Gaubil's original work sent to him in 1734 and subsequently lost. Gaubil may well have sent a duplicate copy to Souciet.

xii. Manuscript report, in French, concerning the Chinese islands of Lieou-kieou ("Memoire sur les Isles que les Chinois - appellent Isles de Lieou kieou"), in an unidentified hand, detailing the geography, history and language of the islands, with the annotation at head "envoyé de Chine par le P. Gaubil en novembre 1752", 55 pages, folio, spine gilt, modern quarter morocco, [1751] [part of Phillipps MS 16282]

This manuscript, evidently copied from Gaubil's original, forms part of the Mémoires sur le Tonkin, la Cochinchine, le Tibet, les îles Lieou-k'ieou et la conquête du royaume des Eleuthes, which was published in volumes II and IV of Lettres édifiantes et curieuses. Gaubil draws on the work of Xu Baoguang, published in Peking in 1721 (Pfister, p.683). The memoir, which was sent to Paris in 1751, was compiled for patriotic reasons. The French government had hopes of establishing trade with the Far East and asked the missionaries there to support this plan. Father Gaubil suggested that the Ryukyu islands might be a suitable base from which to trade.



The involvement of the Jesuits in China, from the sixteenth century onwards, was a development without parallel in the history of the contact between civilizations. For the Chinese emperors the Jesuits were valued as bearers of occidental science which might enrich China's knowledge; for the Jesuits their scientific accomplishments were used as a means of gaining access to the mission fields of China. Antoine Gaubil (1689-1759), born at Gaillac near Toulouse, is widely considered, including by Alexander von Humboldt, to have been the most learned of all the Jesuit missionaries in China. He arrived there on 26 June 1722, six months before the death of Emperor Kangxi, whose 61-year reign laid the foundation for an extended period of political stability and economic prosperity. Having quickly mastered the Chinese and Manchu languages, Gaubil soon impressed the Chinese scientists by his vast knowledge in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, physics, literature and theology. Known also by his Chinese name of Sun Kiun-yung (宋君榮), he remained in Beijing for the remainder of his life. 

Historically, there were two main recipients in Europe of news and artefacts from China: the Vatican and the Jesuits' own college in Clermont. In 1764 the Jesuits in France were suppressed, and the Society's property sequestered. In the same year the renowned library of the College of Clermont was purchased en bloc by the insatiable Dutch collector Gerard Meerman (1722-1771). On Meerman's death, his library, then one of the most famous collections in Europe, was dispersed in a series of auctions from 8 June to 3 July 1824. These were attended in person by Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), occasionally described as the greatest collector of books and manuscripts that the world has ever known. The present manuscripts were first listed in the Phillipps catalogue under the number 1909. and then arbitrarily rebound in boards under the numbers 17175, 17391, 17478, and 17528-17533. They have since been rebound in twelve volumes.  


Theodore E. Treutlein, 'Jesuit Missions in China During the Last Years of K'ang Hsi', Pacific Historical Review, vol.10 no.4 (December 1941), pp.435-446; John Lust, Western Books on China Published up to 1850 (London, 1987); C. Diény, 'Knowledge and Appreciation of Chinese Astronomy in Eighteenth-Century Europe according to the Writings of Antoine Gaubil (1689-1759)', in East Asian Science: Tradition and Beyond. Papers from the Seventh International Conference on the History of Science in East Asia. Kyoto, 2-7 August 1993, ed. K. Hashimoto, C. Jami, and L. Skar (Osaka, 1995), pp.501-505


Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), see note above; Philip Robinson; sale of his Chinese library, Sotheby's, London, 22 November 1988, lot 42