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Contours of the Premodern World

A Biography of Candida Xu at the James Ford Bell Library

By May 25, 2021September 16th, 2023No Comments

Guest post by Gail King, Retired Asian Studies Librarian, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University

One of the holdings of the James Ford Bell Library is Histoire d’une dame chrétienne de la Chine, ou par occasion les usages de ces peuples, l’établissement de la religion, les manieres des missionnaires, & les exercices de pieté des nouveaux Chrétiens sont expliquez, a title that neatly sums up its contents.  The book, written by a European missionary to China, Philippe Couplet, S.J. (1623-1693) as a part of the efforts of the Jesuit order to gain European support for their missions in China, is a biography of the Chinese Christian woman Candida Xu (1607-1680).  Fr. Couplet’s biography, published first in 1688 in French and later in Spanish, Flemish, and Italian versions, is the fullest account of Candida Xu’s life and even now, even in China, is the main source of information about her.  From its pages we learn nearly all that is known of her life.

The title page of Philippe Couplet’s book, Bell # 1688 Hi.

She was baptized as an infant and already as a child displayed the Christian devotion that characterized her entire life.  Patient, gentle, and submissive, she was at the same time strong-willed when it came to matters of faith.  The constraints that traditional Chinese society placed on women were many, but Candida Xu never let them deter her from putting into practice her Christian beliefs.  A faithful wife and mother of eight who was widowed at the age of forty-six, she devoted the remaining twenty-five years of her life to service to God.  She supported missionaries, financed construction of churches and chapels, underwrote printing catechisms and devotional materials, gave generously to the poor, sent relief to the sick, provided burials for abandoned infants and the destitute, and was a leader of Chinese Christian women.

Portrait of Candida in the biography by Philippe Couplet, published in 1688.

Histoire d’une dame chrétienne de la Chine includes a portrait of Candida Xu from the original which Fr. Couplet brought with him to Europe from China.  This same portrait, manifestly different from the better-known one which appears in Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s Description de la Chine, (Paris: P.-G. le Mercier, 1735), is also found in the Spanish, Flemish, and Italian versions of the biography.  It is the same portrait in all versions but with subtle differences in the face– perhaps some touching-up to make her appear younger?  All four of the editions of the biography of Candida Xu include the necessary ecclesiastical and civil publication permissions.  The versions differ in their addenda, which probably vary depending on what was available to include from the Jesuit China mission at the time and place of publication.

Portrait of Candida from the Spanish translation of the biography by Philippe Couplet (Bell # 1691 Co).

The editions of Philippe Couplet’s biography of Candida Xu yield primary information on a number of topics:  the life of Candida Xu, Christianity in China, Chinese Christian women, the Jesuit presentation of their China mission methods to the European reading public, and late seventeenth century publishing in Europe.  Histoire, the first published, has its own distinctive importance.  It is fortunate indeed that a copy of this rare seventeenth-century book found its way to the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.

Cross used by the Chinese Christians for burials (Bell # 1688 Hi).

Dr. Gail King is the author of “A Model for All Christian Women.” Candida Xu, a Chinese Christian Woman of the Seventeenth Century (Collectanea Serica – New Series, No. 2, 2020).

Anne Good

Author Anne Good

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