Flemish Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest is one of the numerous personalities who have marked the History of China. In the 17th century he was recognised worldwide for his astronomical knowledge. Still today his laboratory can be visited.
In 1658 Ferdinand Verbiest, born in Pittem, a small village in the province of West Flanders, was sent to China to evangelize the province of Shanxi. As a renowned mathematician and astronomer and thanks to his genius, he obtained the favours of Emperor Kangxi and became his personal tutor and counsellor. He learnt the Manchu language and served as a diplomate to the Emperor, following him during his voyages in Inner China and accompanying him to all his audiences. He also initiated the Emperor to Catholicism.
As a missionary, Verbiest was resident at the imperial court of the Middle Kingdom under the name of Nán Huárén. During the twenty years he spent in Beijing, he was chief astronomer at the Emperor’s Court. As director of the Beijing Observatory he provided the most efficient equipment for its time. His great complicity with the emperor was reflected in his creations including calendars, solar clocks, a thermometer, a small steam-propelled trolley which was considered as the first working steam-powered vehicle and even more.
His talent was further demonstrated by instruments that were highly valued by the Emperor and by the population : the ecliptic armilla, the equatorial armilla, a sextant, clepsydras, a thermometer, a celestial globe. The replicas in bronze of these instruments can still be seen on the roof of the ancient observatory in the Chinese capital. Besides, a museum has organized a small exhibition on the impressive achievements of Father Verbiest.
Unfortunately, these twenty years of complicity with the Emperor suddenly came to an end in 1688 when the Jesuit died a few weeks after a fall from a horse. Profoundly shocked by this tragic loss, Emperor Shanxi gave him a state funeral. Father Verbiest was buried at the « shanlan mudi » graveyard, a site marked on the list of cultural sites protected by the State. Located to the west of Beijing, this graveyard contains the graves of 63 European missionaries. To date, the memory of Father Verbiest continues to be honoured and he holds a permanent place in the History of the Middle Kingdom.