Robbe d’Europa: Global Connections and the Mailing of Letters, Money, and Merchandise in the Eighteenth-Century China Mission (Beijing)

Robbe d’Europa: Global Connections and the Mailing of Letters, Money, and Merchandise in the Eighteenth-Century China Mission (Beijing)

Eugenio Menegon - Associate Professor of Chinese and World History, Department of History, Boston University & Director, Boston University Center for the Study of Asia

Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm
Room 203, Henry R. Luce Hall See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511

If today we know anything about the life of Europeans in China during the early modern period, we owe it to the precious manuscript reports and letters written in inland China, Macao, and Canton, and still found scattered in archival repositories all over the world. Letters criss-crossed the oceans and the continents on sea ships, river boats, carts, horses and mules, palanquins etc., using  both European systems of transportation provided by the various East India Companies and governments, as well as Chinese and other local public and private postal arrangements.  In this presentation, I will focus on the mail sent and received on behalf of the China Catholic mission in Beijing. Besides letters, missionary agencies also mailed other “robbe d’Europa” (‘European things’), including funds (often in the form of silver or gold coins), foodstuff and drugs (chocolate, wine, cheese, olive oil, tobacco etc.), medicines, galanterie (gallantries i.e. luxury objects), books, devotional objects and prints, and so on. Chinese goods (such as tea, silk, medicines, luxury objects, books etc.)  were sent in the opposite direction to please patrons in Europe. How were letters and other goods transmitted within the network of the China mission (both from Europe to China, and viceversa)? What intermediaries were used (including papal nuntii, East India Companies, Asian merchants, the Qing imperial post, members of the Imperial Household Bureau and of the office of  the Hoppo, etc.)? How long did items take to reach their addressees? How were they packaged, and how much did it cost to mail them?  I will offer a preliminary description of this composite ‘postal system’ and the kind of items being mailed by the papal Propaganda Fide Congregation, its procurators, and its missionaries in Macao, Canton, and Beijing (with occasional references to the Jesuit mission as well), using materials preserved in the Historical Archives of Propaganda Fide in Rome. Without this multi-layered, imperfect, yet ultimately workable mailing system, the flow of information and the material culture that fueled the early modern globalization and, within it, the Chinese missions and its networks in Beijing, China, and Europe, would have been impossible.

Eugenio Menegon (B.A. in Oriental Languages & Literatures, University of Venice Ca’ Foscari, Italy; M.A. in Asian Studies and Ph.D. in History, University of California at Berkeley, USA),  teaches Chinese history and world history, and is currently Director of the BU Center for the Study of Asia. His interests include Chinese-Western relations in late imperial times, Chinese religions and Christianity in China, Chinese science, the intellectual history of Republican China,  the history of maritime Asia, and Chinese food history.  He was Research Fellow in Chinese Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), An Wang Post-Doctoral Fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and Boston University Humanities Center Fellow. His latest book, entitled Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China (Harvard Asia Center Publication Programs and Harvard University Press, 2009; recipient of the 2011 Joseph Levenson Book Prize, Association for Asian Studies), centers on the life of Catholic communities in Fujian province between 1630 and the present. His new project is an examination of the daily life and political networking of European residents at the Qing court in Beijing during the 17th-18th centuries.

China, Transregional