Jesuits and Canadian Ginseng

From the 16th to the 18th centuries books by Jesuit missionaries played a significant role in the transmission of knowledge, science, and culture between China and the West.

The first attempt by Jesuits to reach China was made in 1552 by St. Francis Xavier, Spanish priest and founding member of the Society of Jesus. Three decades later, in 1582, Jesuits once again initiated mission work in China. This group introduced Western science, mathematics, astronomy, and visual arts to the imperial court, and carried on significant inter-cultural and philosophical dialogue with Chinese scholars, particularly representatives of Confucianism. The earliest Jesuit account of China in the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives dates from this period, having been printed in Cologne in 1589.

Kircher Jesuits 

This image is of the frontispiece to Athanasius Kircher's China Illustrata (Amsterdam, 1667). It depicts Francis Xavier (left), Ignatius of Loyola (right) and Christ at the upper centre; below are Matteo Ricci (right) and German geographer and astronomer Johann Adam Schall von Bell (left), who wears a mandarin square on his chest. Schall von Bell became an advisor to the Emperor and participated in modifying the Chinese calendar. 

Among the most recent of the Jesuit books in the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives is a collection published in London in 1714 that includes A Letter from the said F. Jartoux to the E. Procurator General of the Missions of China and India, containing the virtues of the famous Plant Ginseng. The letter was read by French Canadian Jesuit Father Lafitau who discovered Ginseng growing near the Montreal area. Jesuits began collecting the plant and shipping tons of it to China. It was a profitable trade: available at 25 cents a pound in Canada and sold at 5 dollars a pound in Canton.