Jesuit Chreia in Late Ming China

Two Studies with an Annotated Translation of Alfonso Vagnone’s "Illustrations of the Grand Dao</I>

by Sher-Shiueh Li (Author) Thierry Meynard (Author)
©2014 Monographs 373 Pages
Series: Eurosinica, Volume 14


Used by Classical and Medieval Western schools to teach rhetoric, a chreia is a brief moral story attributed to a famous historical figure. In Late Ming China, the Italian Jesuit Alfonso Vagnone, also named Gao Yizhi, and the Chinese scholar-official Han Yun collaborated on a project to write down 355 chreiai and sayings. These short commentaries are not mere translations of the Grecoroman text but the elaborate literary creations of two luminaries working at the junction between Chinese and Western wisdom literature. Along with the original Chinese and its English translation (the original source is included when available) the authors share their expert analysis of each chreia.
This study will interest scholars across disciplines: Chinese literature, Comparative literature, Sinology, Chinese thought, Christian studies, Western classics and Moral Philosophy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Authors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Ming Jesuit Chreia in Chinese: An Analysis of Its Types and Functions: Sher-Shiueh Li
  • Illustrations of the Grand Dao: A Book of Rhetoric and Morality in Late-Ming China: Thierry Meynard
  • Alfonso Vagnone’s Illustrations of the Grand Dao, Vol. I.: Edited, Translated and Commented: Sher-Shiueh Li and Thierry Meynard
  • Preface
  • Ruler-Official Relationship
  • Alfonso Vagnone’s Illustrations of the Grand Dao, Vol. II
  • Father-Son Relationship
  • Brothers Relationship
  • Husband-Wife Relationship
  • Friends Relationship
  • Charts
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names


Vagnone and Han Yun collaborated together to “transwrite” the Illustrations of the Grand Dao in the final years of the Ming Dynasty. In 2007, almost four hundred years later, the two of us came together to collaborate in the same spirit of mutual enrichment to read, translate, and analyze their text.

We are grateful for many scholars and institutions whose assistance made this project possible. We would like to thank Edmund Ryden, S. J., and Greg Mathes, both of Catholic Fu Jen University, Taiwan, and Rob Voigt of Stanford University for their invaluable help proofreading the English translations of each chreia and their individual comments. Nicolas Standaert, S. J., KU Leuven, read Thierry Meynard’s draft of the study and gave precious comments and bibliographical references on Late-Ming China. Professor Zhang Xianyong, Sun Yat-sen University, China, also read and made useful comments on this study. Professors Anthony C. Yu and Michael Murrin, both of the University of Chicago, read part of Sher-shiueh Li’s work at its formative stages and made valuable comments on it, too. Dr. Kid Lam, Academia Sinica, and Prof. Jin Wenbing, Wenzhou University, provide some important sources of the chreiai and sayings at the critical moment when the present volume has almost taken its final shape. We, certainly, owe him to a great degree.

We would like to thank the Taipei Mission to Latvia, the University of Latvia, both in Riga (Latvia), the National Science Council, Academia Sinica, both of Taiwan, and the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy at the Academia Sinica, for their generous financial support for the preparation and the production of the present study. We would like to show our appreciations to The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies particularly for covering some costs of the typesetting.

Last but not least, we express the depth of our gratitude to Professors Frank Kraushaar, University of Latvia, AsiaRes-Center, and ← 7 | 8 → Irmy Schweiger, Stockholm University, the editors of the series Eurosinica, and to every member of the team at Peter Lang for accepting our volume in their collections and for their excellent editing.

Sher-shiueh LiThierry Meynard S. I.
Academia Sinica, TaiwanSun Yat-sen University, China

July, 2013 ← 8 | 9 →


DDJYGao Yizhi 高一志, Dadao jiyan 達道紀言, in WXSB, 2: 657–754.
FGTZhong Mingdan 鐘鳴旦( (Nicolas Standaert), Du Dingke 杜鼎克 (Ad Dudink), and Meng Xi 蒙曦 (Nathalie Monnet), eds., Faguo guojia tushuguan Ming Qing Tianzhu jiao we-nxian 法國國家圖書館明清天 主教文獻, 26 vols. Taipei: Taipei Ricci Institute, 2009.
HCCNicolas Standaert, ed., Handbook of Christianity in China, Leiden: Brill, 2001.
JYLLi Madou 利瑪寶, Jiaoyou lun 交友論, in TXCH, 1: 291–320.
PEDesiderius Erasmus. Parallels: Parabolae sive similia. Trans. and annot. R[oger] A[ubrey] B[askerville] Minors. In Peter G. Bietenholz, et al., eds., Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 23. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978, pp. 123–277.
QJXXGao Yizhi, Qijia xixue, 齊家西學, in XJH, 2: 491–598.
QYPWei Kuangguo 衛匡國, Qiuyou pian 述友篇, in WXSB, 1: 3–88.
SCTTheodore de Bary, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
TXCHLi Zhizao 李之藻, ed., Tianxm chuhan 天學初函, 6 vols, Taipei: Xuesheng shuju 學生書局, 1965.
TYJYGao Yizhi, Tongyou jiaoyu 童幼教育, in XJH, 1: 239–422.
WXSBWu Xiangxiang 吳牛目评巨, ed., Tianzhujiao dongchuan wenxian sanbian 天主教東傳文獻三編, Taipei: Xuesheng shuju, 1972, 1: 3–20.
XJHZhong Mingdan, et al., Xujiahui cangshulou Ming qing Tianzhujiao wenxian 徐家匯藏書樓明清天主教文獻, 5 vols, Taipei: Fu Jen daxue shenxueyuan 輔仁大學神學院, 1996.
YDGZhong Mingdan and Du Dingke, Yeshuhui Luoma dang’anguan Ming Qing Tienzhujiao wexia 耶穌會羅馬檔案館明清天主教文獻, 12 vols. Taipei: Taipei Ricci Institute, 2002.

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Ming Jesuit Chreia in Chinese: An Analysis of Its Types and Functions



There is a scholarly consensus that the Jesuits of the Late Ming (1583–1662) played a major role in the transportation of European culture to China during that period.1 Most of the students of Jesuit literature have also reached a somewhat more dubious agreement that the Chinese converts by the Jesuits at that time were, to borrow Jacques Gernet’s term, “seduced” by the excellence of European mathematics, cartography, astronomy, engineering, and medicine.2 This traditional ← 11 | 12 → view, however, has recently been questioned in many ways because religious belief is spiritual by nature and material culture can hardly dominate the general, major part of its shaping. In addition, conversion is itself commonly the result of persuasion, which is also the ultimate goal of a view of rhetoric which Aristotle came up with in his On Rhetoric.3 If the missionary works concerned had to rely greatly on writing, the act of persuasion may in fact have been more strategic and therefore more rhetorical in nature. Their literariness, in fact, almost equals their religiosity if one agrees that rhetoricity is part of a work’s literariness. My investigation of the Ming Jesuit works in Chinese finds that they indeed are comprised of a large amount of material that can be properly qualified as literary, including dialogues, hagiography, poems, collections of maxims, fables, and anecdotes.4 Among these Jesuit works of seemingly apologetical nature, a special genre stands out, that of the exemplum.

An exemplum has been defined as “un récit bref donné comme véridique et destiné à être inséré dans un discours (en général un sermon) pour convaincre un auditoire par une leçon salutaire.”5 These ← 12 | 13 → stories not only had an intrinsic motive that all good tales have, and combined the appropriateness that all excellent analogies have, they also functioned as authorities. Taken from the settings and origins of European cautionary stories as a whole, they can be roughly divided into two categories: classical and Christian. In terms of the classical stories, fables and anecdotes are the two types of writing that functioned most as exemplum. In On Rhetoric, Aristotle accentuates the importance of proof as the basic tool of logical persuasion. One form that some of those proofs took was “made up” stories such as Aesopic fables. What constitutes the second species of Aristotle’s proofs are those events which “have happened before” (2.20.1). Here, Aristotle evidently means “examples from history.” He argues that they are “more useful in deliberation” because “future events will be like those of the past” (2.20.8). It is precisely this mirror theory which brought into being the second type of medieval exempla in the European tradition: the anecdote.

The call for a careful examination of anecdotal exempla in sermons was heard long ago.6 It would be a mistake, however, if one were to view the Jesuit anecdotal exempla in the Ming as being antithetical to their counterparts in fables. For the Jesuits, “examples from history” are barely distinguished from those by Aesop and his Roman and medieval successors. Matteo Ricci in his Tianzhu shiyi may have alluded to the well-known tale of Diogenes of Sinope looking for an honest man with a lighted lamp by day.7 This story, supposed by Diogenes Laertius to be biographical,8 was rewritten by Phaedrus (first century) as an Aesopic fable. In the process of rewrit ← 13 | 14 → ing, even the name of Diogenes was changed into Aesop.9 Such a transformation shows that, even when one does not question the nature of a fable, one may feel reluctant to assign much historical credibility to an anecdote.

What prompts one to suspend belief in anecdotal reliability relates to a modern consensus about the nature of history, a consensus that, because of Lepold von Ranke’s (1795–1886) scientific view of history, prevailed especially in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first seventy years of the twentieth.10 To the Chinese as to most Europeans, history is so called because it constitutes an account of what has happened in the past that is able to be borne out by evidence. For this reason, discursive restrictions have been imposed both on massive works of national history and on tiny narratives of personal experience. For the Chinese, what Ban Gu 班固 (32–92) in his eulogy of the great historian of China, Sima Qian 司,馬遷 (c. 145 BC–?), refers to as the “true record” (shilu 實錄) of the past is the first and foremost aim of historiographical practice. A good historian is thus required to depict a historical event without decoration or ← 14 | 15 → camouflage.11 Ideas like this were not necessarily de rigueur in the historiography of European antiquity; such great historians as Thucydides (c. 460–c. 400 BC) and Livy (c. 59 BC–c. AD 17) sometimes so failed to distinguish history from rhetoric that history had come to be taken as a literary form before the end of the Renaissance.12 One must notice, however, that such writers employed imagination not for aesthetic purposes, but as a means to clear clouded memory or deformed information from the past. To “show what actually happened,” as von Ranke terms it,13 remained most desirable for historians like Thucydides, who once jeered at the baselessness of parts of Herodotus’s History. The emphasis on historical precision is reinforced by Herodotus’s use of ιστορίηα in the very beginning of his work, a noun that aims at a pragmatic and positive action of inquiry or investigation.14 It takes little imagination to see that if classical historians could stand on the same temporal and research ground as modern historians, they would have relied much less on imagination.15

In the West as in China, the anecdote is the most oxymoronic genre in historiography since, while aspiring to mirror the factual past, it can hardly escape things fictitious due to its focus on secret, private, or hitherto unpublished details of a person. In the whole spectrum of Jesuit anecdotal exempla drawn from the classical world in the West, chreia (Gk: χρεία), a type of moral anecdote, whose characteristics ← 15 | 16 → I will discuss later, stands out as the most unrelenting challenge to historical truth. A genre close to that used by Liu Yiqing 蓥義慶 (403–444) in his Shishuo xinyu 世說新語 (New Accounts of the World), chreia finds its most representative expression in the story of Diogenes’s search for an honest man with a lighted lamp by day. As with Diogenes Laertius’s responding to this Aesopic “fable,” writers of chreiai since classical antiquity have tended to historicize the stories themselves.16 Lucian (b. c. AD 120) provides a good example: in Demonax, he believes that his account of the philosopher Demonax’ chreiai will suffice to give his reader a notion of the sort of man Demonax was.17 In other words, Lucian regarded his chreiai as the “true records” of their protagonists. This is true not only of the Hellenic mind,18 but also of the Late Ming Jesuits. Manuel Dias (1574–1659), in his Shengjing zhijie 聖經直解, always introduces his chreiai about Alexander the Great (Lishan 歷山) with the Chinese term “shiji 史言己” or “as history puts it.”19 The last two characters in the title of Alfonso Vagnone’s DDJY, one of the first and hitherto the only two collections of Western chreiai in the Chinese world,20 suggest a sense of historicity through their allusion to the well-known statement in Ban Gu’s Hanshu 漢書 ← 16 | 17 → (History of the Han Dynasty) that “the Historian on the Left recorded words” (zuoshi jiyan image; italics are mine).21

In addition to historians, chreia also caters to philosopher-orators. Demonax, for instance, always responded in chriic form to questions from his interlocutors, such that “his every word and deed was smiled on by the Graces and by Aphrodite,” and that “persuasion perched upon his lips.”22 Because chreia facilitates persuasion, it must have been cherished by classical rhetoricians. As can be expected, it had been one of the three component parts of the Greek or Latin progymnasmata since Greek antiquity.23 It even is seen by many scholars as having exercised great influence upon the composition of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels.24

Inasmuch as chreia was the pearl of classical rhetoricians, it still carried within itself a strong literariness. Since it left clear traces even in the gospels, it was natural that the early Jesuit missionaries in China appropriated it for their own use: the activities of both Jesus and the Jesuits involved religious instruction. Part of what I mean by literariness is fictionality, which in turn depends on rhetoric for its effect. To borrow contemporary terminology, one may argue that the ← 17 | 18 → fictionality in the Jesuit chreiai is embodied in a textuality which generally comes as the result of the Jesuit ability to utilize history. While linguistic play is a significant constituent of all textuality, in this case it results primarily from the play of a standard set of rhetorically preliminary exercises that were formulated in such classical texts as Aelius Theon of Alexandria’s (first century A. D.) Progymnasmata, designed to prepare the student of Greek composition for the incorporation of traditional stories and sayings into full-length speeches.25 Let me, nevertheless, begin my approach to this textuality in the Chinese chreiai of the Jesuits with Aphthonius of Antioch’s (fourth century A. D.) definition of chreia in his own Progymnasmata, the most widely used textbook of Latin composition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,26 the period in which the European Jesuits began journeying to Ming China.


Ronald F. Hock regards that the following statement by Aphthonius as the most thoughtful description of chreia in his chriic discourse: “A chreia is a concise reminiscence aptly attributed to some character.” (Χρεία έστίν άπομνημόνευμα σύντόμον εύστοχως έπι τί πρόσωπον ← 18 | 19 → άναφέρουσα: Hock and O’Neil, eds. 224/225.) The first point in this brief definition is certainly the adjective “concise” (σύντομος), the embodiment of which may have been perceivable as early as in this epilogue of the Greek “fable” of Diogenes. The following is a Chinese representation of this chriic feature from Vagnone’s DDJY:

歐里彼德,古名詩士,甚敬慕一賢而長者。或問其故,答曰:「幼之春多 發美花,猶未結實。惟老之秋多垂美果,豈可不敬?」

On being asked by someone why he admired a virtuous old man so much, Euripides, a famous poet in ancient times, answered: “Although youth blossoms beautifully in the spring [of human life,] it has not born fruit yet. Only in the autumn [of human life] can man bear beautiful fruit. How can I fail to show my respect [for the old man]?” (No. 19, Section on Brothers)

I select this chreia to begin my discussion, not only because it is the first occasion on which Euripides and his lines were introduced to the Chinese, but also because the Greek tragic poet had been one of the major figures in the enormous corpus of what Theon designates as the “sayings-chreia” (λογική χρεία).27 One can tell from the Chinese syntax of this chreia that it is comprised of only two complete sentences, the first one being the cause of the second. Although Euripides’s reply to the anonymous questioner consists of two sentences also, it is grammatically subordinate to the main clause of the second complete sentence in which the subject is omitted: “[Euripides] answered” (dayue 答曰). The Chinese equivalent of “a famous poet in ancient times” is not an independent clause, but one that stands in apposition to “Euripides,” although both are subjects of the verb “admired” in the Chinese original. This chreia about Euripides, though complex at first glance, is indeed quite simple in its syntax. The use ← 19 | 20 → of apposite structures is rare in Chinese writing, but it is without doubt one of the most important rhetorical skills used to economize ideas in Indo-European languages. Abrupt as Euripides’ structure may look in the eyes of the Chinese, it bespeaks the great effort Vagnone made to reproduce in Chinese the conciseness characteristic of a Greek or Latin chreia.

Reading further, the Euripides chreia focuses on the question and answer in its second complete Chinese sentence. The questioner in the first part of this sentence has been obscured into huo 或, echoing the “someone” technologically used in the formulation of a traditional chreia. The subordinate clause huowen may be a Chinese translation of either of the following characterizing participles of what Theon calls the “responsive chreia” (έιδος άποκριτικόν), a sub-class of the Greek sayings-chreia: έρωτηθίς (on being asked) or πυθομένου τίνóς (when someone asked). Since the questioner calls for an explanation, Euripides’s reply contains γάρ (for) or ότι (because) in its Greek “original,” despite there being no such word included in the Chinese text (likely due to grammatical adjustments).28 The cause of Euripides’s response, the first sentence that indicates his deference to an elder, may also be a Chinese addition to the Western original, highlighting the “effect” brought about in the second sentence. To put it another way, the wisdom in Euripides’s answer should be the focal point of this chreia or that to which Vagnone tries to call one’s attention through his piece. One can accordingly imagine that sayings-chreiai are so-called because, as Theon adds, they “make their point in words without action” (Butts 188/189).

Since Euripides’s apophthegm is not uttered voluntarily, but rather is prompted by a stereotypical circumstance, it shows that an artificial plot has been woven into historical truth. The syntactical conciseness of the chreia as a whole and its capacity to be sub-divided work together to reveal further that purposeful editing has played a significant role in its manufacture. What Hayden White calls the “poetic process” in the production of historiography, in general, dominates the deeper ← 20 | 21 → structure of the Euripides chreia, making the chreia diverge from being the presentation of history, instead of being the representation of history.29


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
literature rhetoric Sinology
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 373 pp.

Biographical notes

Sher-Shiueh Li (Author) Thierry Meynard (Author)

Sher-shiueh Li received his PhD in comparative literature from University of Chicago and is now a Research Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, Academia Sinica, Taiwan, as well as at the Research Center of Translation, Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also a member of the faculty of Translation and Interpretation, Taiwan Normal University; Cross-Cultural Studies, Catholic Fu Jen University. In addition to numerous papers and books on Chinese and Western literatures, Li has published books in both English and Chinese. Thierry Meynard is a professor at the Sun Yat-sen University, China, where he teaches Western Philosophy and Latin Classics. He is the vice-director of Sun Yat-sen University’s Archive for the Introduction of Western Knowledge, as well as the director of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. He studied philosophy and theology at Centre Sèvres, Paris, and at the Catholic Fu Jen University, Taiwan. He obtained his PhD in Philosophy from Peking University.


Title: Jesuit Chreia in Late Ming China
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378 pages