In the sixteenth century Jesuits like Matteo Ricci were products of their European upbringing and, naturally enough, thought that if they were to be successful in China they needed to be in close proximity to the emperor and his imperial government. To this end they set their sights on reaching Beijing and being able to live there. Just as Jesuits in Europe were advisers to imperial thrones – including in France, for instance, where Pierre Coton was adviser to Louis XIII – so too did the China-based Jesuits hope to be able to get close to the emperor, and thereby secure the safety of the nascent church in China.

Although Ricci and his confreres were active in the various towns and cities they settled in, including Zhaqoing, Shaozhou, Nanchang and Nanjing, their movement was always progressively northwards as they tried to reach the Ming imperial capital. At many stages of their journey they were thwarted in their attempts, including one time because troops from Japan threatened to invade China, and thus the foreign Jesuits were seen as potential spies. Even so, after numerous hardships and dashed hopes, Matteo Ricci was eventually allowed to live in Beijing in 1601. It had taken him eighteen years to accomplish this goal.

In many ways the so-called ‘ascent to Beijing’ was misguided, as the Jesuits did not need to attain Beijing to be successful in their desire to work in China. Even so, once they managed to reach the imperial capital, they made the most of their position there. Over the next decades, when opportunities arose, they offered their services to the emperor, utilizing their education and skills in areas as diverse as mathematics, astronomy, painting and glassmaking. On one famous occasion Jesuits even used quinine from South America (‘Jesuit bark’) to heal an emperor of malaria. Jesuits who died in Beijing were buried there, and it is possible to see their headstones even today; it is also possible to see the astronomical observatory where some of them worked.

The Jesuit presence in Beijing enabled the missionaries elsewhere in China to preach the gospel, even though living close to the seat of power meant that when fortunes fell the Jesuits could also fall out of favor. The Jesuits in the imperial court wrote memoirs, and described the events that took place there such that these first hand accounts have become rich records of cross-cultural exchange between the empire of China and the outside world.