Enlightening the Bewildered about the New Calendar


Xin li xiao huo (Enlightening the bewildered about the new calendar) is by Tang Ruowang, the Chinese name of Johann Adam Schall von Bell (circa 1592–1666), the German Jesuit missionary and astronomer who became an important adviser to the first emperor of the Qing dynasty. Schall had trained in Rome in the astronomical system of Galileo. He arrived in Macao in 1619, where he studied Chinese and mathematics, and  reached the Chinese mainland in 1622. After impressing the Chinese with the superiority of Western astronomy by correctly predicting the exact time of the eclipse that occurred on June 21, 1629, Schall was given an important official post translating Western astronomical books into Chinese and reforming the Chinese calendar. His modified calendar provided more accurate predictions of eclipses of the sun and the moon than traditional Chinese calendars. In 1645, shortly after the first Qing emperor came to the throne, Schall was asked to make a new calendar, which he based on the 1635 calendar that he had presented to the last Ming emperor. Schall also supervised the imperial Board of Astronomy and was appointed its director, a position that enabled him to gain permission from the emperor for the Jesuits to establish churches and to preach throughout the country. Schall wrote this work to answer questions about the new calendar and to highlight the differences between it and the old Chinese calendric calculations. This copy is an 1833 Qing edition and is included in the 150-juan series, Zhao dai cong shu (Collected works of the Qing dynasty). It is in the form of six questions and answers. The questions include: why the new calendar exchanged the positions of zi (turtle beak) and shen (three stars), two of the 28 lunar mansions of the Chinese constellations; why, in marking the time of day, the new calendar used the 96-ke-per-day system (1 ke = 15 minutes) instead of 100-ke-per-day as in the old system; and why ziqi, one of the four invisible stars, was eliminated. To strengthen his position and avoid clashes with conservative Chinese officials, Schall maintained a tolerant attitude toward Chinese traditions, and his calendar retained certain content relating to traditional daily fortune telling. As a consequence, beginning in 1648–49, several missionaries, led by Gabriel de Magalhães, published documents critical of Schall, first for taking an official post, which was considered an act against his vow to the Society of Jesus, and secondly for the content of his calendar, which contained elements of superstition. Schall defended himself in another work, Min li pu zhu jie huo (Detailed notes on the calendar to answer doubts), which he published in 1662 with the help of Father Ferdinand Verbiest. After more than ten years of debate and deliberation, the Catholic Church ruled that the use of Yin and Yang in Schall’s calendar did constitute superstition, but that assuming the directorship of the Bureau of Astronomy promoted missionary work and was thus permissible.

Last updated: March 7, 2014