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Johann Adam Schall von Bell, S.J.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell, S.J.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell, S.J.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell, S.J (German: 1591-1669) arrived at the harbor of Macao in 1619 but could not enter China because of strong reaction against all foreigners and in particular a recent decree against foreign teachers. Schall studied Chinese and continued his mathematical studies for a few more years waiting for a change. It came in an unexpected manner when he found himself embroiled in a military attack by the Dutch Calvinists on the Portuguese Catholic settlement. He and a few other Jesuits helped the Portuguese soldiers fend off an invasion. They manned cannons at the top of the citadel, fired on the invading Dutch, and by chance hit an explosive dump of the invaders, who were then driven off by the resulting explosion. Once the story of this victory reached the Emperor, he asked the Portuguese in Macao for more help to repel the Tartars from the north of China and in particular he wanted more Jesuits. With these invited helpers, Schall then made his way to Peking, arriving at the same time one of the government ministers hostel to Christians was being dismissed. This enabled the new missionaries to declare themselves openly, and Schall took the Chinese name of Tang-Jo-Wang. He was a man of charm, energy, and self-confidence. Very attractive to the Chinese, he soon became an intimate friend of some highly placed scientists. His learning and astronomical knowledge, and that of his brother Jesuits, formed the basis for the success in converting educated Chinese. The calendar was especially important in Confucian culture and the prestige of the Emperor was strongly connected to the authenticity of the court calendar for which Schall was responsible.

He and his Jesuit companions were able to predict more accurately than their Chinese rivals the solar eclipse which took place on June 21,1629. That success opened the way for them to devote themselves with full energy to the task of calendar reform. At the same time, they were able to produce maps, astrolabes, and other scientific instruments with such effectiveness that they were eventually invited to establish an observatory within the royal palace. Their success resulted in the conversion of a number of influential lay persons. This was true in Peking, but it was also true in other places in Southern China, where Jesuit priests were also working. In January, 1639, the favor of the Emperor manifested itself in a dramatic way: a procession of grandees of the palace came to the Jesuit residence and solemnly presented Schall with a tablet on which was inscribed: "I, Emperor, praise and protect the teaching from Heaven" which was the highest award the Emperor could give.

The government was surprised by a rebellion of disaffected warlords, which was the culmination of decades of discontent in the outer northern provinces. With his generals seemingly helpless, the Emperor turned to the Jesuits for the kind of help they had furnished in saving Macao! Embarrassed by the choice he faced, Father Schall protested that his was a missionary, not a military, vocation! But in the end he agreed to give what help he could. He supervised the manufacture of some small cannons, using homemade gunpowder, and tested the guns with success. That done, he retired back to his apostolic labors. In fact, the cannons were not really used. The generals in their fright forged an alliance with the Manchu Tartars, traditionally their enemies, and together they managed to suppress the rebellion. Betrayed by his generals, the Emperor committed suicide and left a power vacuum into which the Manchurians swiftly moved. It was 1644. The Ming dynasty was succeeded by a new one, the Ch'ing, with an Emperor only six years old.

The regents of the Emperor were friendly to the missionaries and they appointed Schall director of the national "Board of Astronomers". He was uneasy with this appointment, because he felt that it would simply increase the jealousy some of the Chinese scientists already felt toward him, but his Macao superiors advised him to accept and, in the end, accept he did.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell and the emperor

Jealousy in China itself was not Schall 's only worry. Very early in their missionary efforts, Jesuits in China had tried to be sensitive to the customs and religious practices of the people, and to incorporate whatever they rightly could of traditional usage into the liturgy and into Chinese Catholic devotional practice. Today we speak of this as the need to "inculturate the Faith". For understandable if regrettable reasons these early efforts met with skepticism and alarm in Rome, and were finally prohibited entirely. The complex "Chinese Rites Controversy" was a source of tension for Schall in painful contrast to the warm and easy relationship he had with the rulers of China during much of this period.

When, at the age of 13, the young Emperor took over the government fully, his friendship with Father Schall continued and deepened. He made Schall a Mandarin, and showered favors on his unwilling head. But he would not listen to the advice Schall gave him with regard to his own personal life. In 1661 the Emperor fell seriously ill and died without accepting Christianity. He did, however, take Schall's advice about naming his six-year old son, Kang-h'si, as his successor. Kang-h'si turned out to be a truly great Emperor, but at the palace the position of the missionaries was to be steadily undermined, thanks to the jealousy and enmity of some of the Chinese royal scientists. Through chicanery and bribery, the leader of these men, Yang-Kuan, succeeded in having Father Schall and his brother Jesuits accused of high treason, false astronomy, and teaching a superstitious religion. Father Schall was over 70 years old, recovering from a paralyzing stroke, and had to be physically supported during a court hearing which dragged on for weeks.

In the end, four of the Jesuits and some of their followers were sentenced to death. But on the day of sentencing, a tremendous thunder storm followed by a great fire in the palace alarmed superstitious judges and resulted in the sentences being mitigated and all of the Jesuits eventually being set free. For Father Schall, earthly freedom was not to last long: he died on August 15,1666. He had spent 47 years in China. His Trigonometry and his many other scientific works were written and published in China. John constructed a double stellar hemisphere to illustrate planetary movement and wrote 150 treatises in Chinese concerning the calendar.

Soon after his death, the record was righted. The Emperor dismissed Yang Kuan, appointed another Jesuit, Father Verbiest, as his successor, restored all Father Schall's honors to him posthumously, and erected a monument at his grave which read: "You leave us your undying fame and the glory of your name" His tomb as well as those of fellow Jesuits Ricci and Verbiest was restored after the Cultural Revolution and relocated on the grounds of a Communist training school and these tombs can still be visited today.

Adopted from article by John J O'Callaghan, S.J. in THE JESUITS 1993 page 123
and from JESUIT GEOMETERS by Joseph MacDonnell

Adam Schall was born in Cologne, Germany on May 1, 1592. Four hundred years later almost to the day, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus spoke about him at the opening of an international symposium in his honor. Among those attending were people from east and west, scientists and historians, Jesuits and members of the Schall von Bell family.

We reprint here a short section of that talk, entitled simply: "Johann Adam Schall von Bell - a Jesuit" given in Cologne on May 3, 1992 by Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J.
Johann Adam Schall embraced the missionary orientation established by Mattes Ricci, totally. With all his gifts and skills and also with his strong will and its inevitable consequences he tried to bring to fulfillment what Ricci had begun. It is not difficult for us to learn about his basic Jesuit orientation, thanks in great part to the records of a violent clash with some of his superiors and confreres (1649-1654); after his expulsion from the order was discussed several times, he was finally rehabilitated. The many insightful letters written both by his attackers and his defenders, and especially by himself, about a matter which Schall considered vitally important, are still extant, and they provide us with a detailed knowledge of the sense of mission of this very talented but sometimes obstinately stubborn nobleman from Cologne. Whether it was a question of closer integration into the imperial court, or calendar reform and the management of the Bureau of Astronomy, or even the bronze Afire maws>> of canon forging, everything was clearly directed to the goal of his mission: that the Gospel of Jesus Christ be firmly and lastingly implanted in the Middle Kingdom through the conversion of the ruler sitting on the celestial throne: the emperor, whatever dynasty he belonged to.

Comments made by Ciaran F. Kane, S.J. concerning the Adam Schall Residence for Hong Kong university students.

One of the ways in which the memory of Adam Schall is honored is by giving his name to a student hostel on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The hostel houses 380 students, and was founded in 1972 at the initiative of the Society of Jesus and the American Maryknoll Sisters with financial help from the Hong Kong government and the bishops of Germany. Like any university hostel on the campus, Adam Schall Residence is open to all students who apply: there is no special quota or consideration for Catholic students. But the hostel does have a small chapel, and is in effect the unofficial Catholic center of the campus. Other Catholic students at the university and many people living nearby make us of the chapel, so that it has become a Sunday Mass center for the neighborhood.

Adam Schall von Bell Hostel

For the great majority of resident students, the hostel is the first or only personal contact with any Catholic priests or religious. Many graduates have remarked on the benefits of that contact, even though not a great number of them have become Christians subsequently. A few past residents, though, have gone on to join religious congregations of men or women. Thus, 400 years after his birth, Johann Adam Schall continues in some small way to build bridges here between east and west, and to open cultural doors.


1. Sommervogel, Carolus Bibliothèque de la compagnie de Jésus . Bruxelles:
Société Belge de Libraire, 1890-1960
2. Gillispie, Charles. C. ed., Dictionary of Scientific biography. 16 vols.
New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1970

Adventures of Some Early Jesuit Scientists

José de Acosta, S.J. - 1600: Pioneer of the Geophysical Sciences
François De Aguilon, S.J. - 1617: and his Six books on Optics
Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J. - 1787: and his atomic theory
Christopher Clavius, S.J. - 1612: and his Gregorian Calendar
Honoré Fabri, S.J. - 1688: and his post-calculus geometry
Francesco M. Grimaldi, S.J. - 1663: and his diffraction of light
Paul Guldin, S.J. - 1643: applications of Guldin's Rule
Maximilian Hell, S.J. - 1792: and his Mesmerizing encounters
Athanasius Kircher, S.J. - 1680: The Master of a Hundred Arts
Francesco Lana-Terzi, S.J. - 1687: The Father of Aeronautics
Francis Line, S.J. - 1654: the hunted and elusive clock maker
Juan Molina, S.J. - 1829: The First Scientist of Chile
Jerôme Nadal, S.J. -1580: perspective art and composition of place
Ignace Pardies, S.J. - 1673: and his influence on Newton
Andrea Pozzo, S.J. - 1709: and his perspective geometry
Vincent Riccati, S.J. - 1775: and his hyperbolic functions
Matteo Ricci, S.J. - 1610: who brought scientific innovations to China
John Baptist Riccioli, S.J. - 167I: and his long-lived selenograph
Girolamo Saccheri, S.J. - 1733: and his solution to Euclid's blemish
Theorems of Saccheri, S.J. - 1733: and his non Euclidean Geometry
Christopher Scheiner, S.J. - 1650: sunspots and his equatorial mount
Gaspar Schott, S.J. - 1666: and the experiment at Magdeburg
Angelo Secchi, S.J. - 1878: the Father of Astrophysics
Joseph Stepling, S.J. - 1650: symbolic logic and his research academy
André Tacquet, S.J. - 1660: and his treatment of infinitesimals
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S. J. - 1955: and The Phenomenon of man
Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. - 1688: an influential Jesuit scientist in China
Juan Bautista Villalpando, S.J. - 1608: and his version of Solomon's Temple
Gregory Saint Vincent, S.J. - 1667: and his polar coordinates
Nicolas Zucchi, S.J. - 1670: the renowned telescope maker

Influence of Some Early Jesuit Scientists

The 35 lunar craters named to honor Jesuit Scientists: their location and description
Post-Pombal Portugal opinion of Pre-Pombal Jesuit Scientists: a recent conference
Seismology, The Jesuit Science. a Jesuit history of geophysics

Another menu of Jesuit Interest

Jesuit history, tradition and spirituality

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