Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung (Fuzong) -The first recorded Chinese man visiting Britain

Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung (Fuzong) -The first recorded Chinese man visiting Britain


By Mojgan Djamarani

She holds a BA degree in political science (CS Long Beach) and an MA degree in international relations (UC Santa Barbara). Has extensive work experience to report on Oil and Energy industry and was previously a regular contributor to Petroleum Review.


Edited by Clotilde Meiling Yap


Shen Fu-Tsung (c. 1658-1691), also known as Shen Fuzong, was born to a prominent Chinese physician and Catholic convert from Nanking, in modern Jiangsu province. Shen was given the Christian baptismal name of Michael. Not only did he know how to read and write classical Chinese, but he had also acquired a good command of Latin, and thus was chosen by the Jesuit Father Philippe Couplet (1623-1693) to accompany him on his travels to Europe, thereby becoming the first Chinese man to ever visit Great Britain.

The Philippe Couplet was a Flemish Jesuit, who had arrived in China in 1659. In 1679, he was appointed procurator of the Chinese Vice-Province and was selected to go to Rome on one of the periodic European tours made by missionary Jesuits to update the Vatican regarding developments in the Far East.



 "The Chinese Convert", Sir Godfrey Kneller. 1685 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)



Life and Works of Confucius, 1687, a work produced by a team of jesuits led by Couplet. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Couplet’s tour, however, had a dual objective. On one hand, Couplet wished to appeal to the Pope against the monopoly of the Padroado, the authority of Portuguese kings granted by Rome at the end of 15th cent. By which these were recognised as Royal Patrons over all churches and religious communities established in lands opened to trade by the Portuguese. It was a right fiercely defended by Portugal and until then, only Portuguese Jesuits or those who had submitted to the Padroado could be sent to China. Couplet hoped to secure permission from the Pope regarding the possibility of Chinese-staffed clergy and Chinese language liturgy, as well as the incorporation of certain Chinese rites into Jesuit teachings. Thus, it was to impress Rome with a high calibre of Chinese candidates for the priesthood that Couplet surrounded himself with Chinese companions, simultaneously bearing gifts of Chinese books and other items to demonstrate the breadth of Chinese civilisation.

The second objective of Couplet’s tour was to highlight the importance in China of non-apostolic work. More specifically, this focus was pioneered by the Flemish Father Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688), a Jesuit mathematician and astronomer credited with correcting the Chinese calendar and who had been appointed Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Beijing Ancient Observatory. He commissioned Couplet to obtain French royal patronage for a group of trained French Jesuit scientist missionaries to be sent to China, bypassing Portugal.

Initially, another Chinese Jesuit by the name of Wu Li (1632-1718), both a renowned poet and painter, was also to accompany Couplet. He went as far Macau but, at the age of 50, was deemed too old for the trip. Couplet left Macau on December 4th, 1681 with two young Chinese men, one of whom was Shen Fu-Tsung. They were shipwrecked in Banta, a port west of Batavia (also known as modern day Jakarta). They were forced to stay in Batavia for over a year during which time the other Chinese companion decided to return to China, leaving only Couplet and Shen on board a Dutch ship sailing for Europe on February 3rd, 1683. They arrived in Enkhuysen in the Netherlands in October.

In Europe, they visited the courts of Louis XIV of France and James II of Britain and were presented to Queen Christina of Sweden.* They visited France twice. Shen appeared before Louis XIV in a green silk tunic and a deep blue brocade vest with figures of Chinese dragons, performed the reverential Kowtow bows, and even taught the Sun King how to use chopsticks. The French King was so impressed with Shen and Couplet and the gifts they brought him that he had all the fountains at Versailles switched on in their honour, a feat usually reserved for royal visitors and ambassadors, and most importantly he agreed to sponsor a French Jesuit mission of scientists and mathematicians to set off for China. This was of high significance as it struck the first blow to the Portuguese Padroado Stranglehold and helped establish the first French Jesuit mission in China.

In France, Shen was presented with a uniform of the Captain of the French Guards by Count Enghien and a copper engraving of him was produced, a copy of which is still held in the National Library in Vienna today.*

They met Pope Innocent XI in June 1685 but failed to secure the authorisation they had hoped to obtain regarding Chinese clergy and liturgy; hoping for a settlement; they extended their stay in Europe by eight years. During this sojourn, in March 1687, Shen left for Britain ahead of Couplet, who joined him later that same year. The purpose of the trip was to win the support of King James II for their cause, knowing the King’s commitment to the promotion of Catholicism. In London, Shen attended the installation of the Roman Catholic Archbishop Ferdinando d'Adda; later, he had an audience with the King, who was so fascinated by him that he instructed Sir Godfrey Kneller to paint Shen’s portrait. It subsequently hung in the room adjacent to the King's bedchamber. The painting, which Kneller considered his best work, is described in the Royal Collection “as both a religious image and as a portrait,” currently hanging in the Queen’s Gallery in Windsor Castle. According to naval surgeon James Yonge, who saw Shen at Windsor in July 1687, the painting bears a striking resemblance to the young man.


ShenFo tsungWikimediaCommons

"The Chinese Convert", Sir Godfrey Kneller. 1685 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)



During the entire European tour, Shen received instructions in Latin; in London, he is reported to have attended classes at ‘the Latin School at the Savoy.' ** Shen also met Thomas Hyde, a renowned Orientalist, and chief librarian at the Bodleian Library, who invited him to Oxford where Shen spent the summer of 1687. He helped catalogue the Library’s Chinese collection, translating work titles as well as helping Hyde with various projects relating to Chinese measurement and calendrical practices. He also produced samples of Chinese writing for copperplate engravings. Hyde referred to Shen in several of his works and some letters exchanged between the two remain to this day.

In April 1688, just before King James II was overthrown, Shen and Couplet left London for Lisbon. There Shen entered the Jesuit novitiate, taking his first vows in 1690 and adopting the Latin name Alphonsus. In 1691, Shen was sent back to China. The Couplet was not allowed to accompany him as he had taken an oath of subjugation before the Propaganda Fide but eventually was able to avoid sanction from the Portuguese for returning to China.
Neither Shen nor Couplet ever made it back to China. Shen died of an epidemic on board a ship bound for China on September 2, 1691, two days before reaching Mozambique. In May 1693, Couplet died just before reaching Goa when a storm caused a chest to fall on his head.

Their tour, although only partially successful in its objectives, introduced the world to the wonders of China; in Britain, it set the foundations for what would later become the academic discipline of Sinology.



*For more details on Philippe Couplet and Shen’s travels, see ‘The European Sojourn of Philippe Couplet and Michael Shen Fuzong 1683-1692,' by Theodore Nicholas Foss in 'Philippe Couplet S.J. (1623-1693): the man who brought China to Europe', edited by Jerome Heyndrickx, C.I.C.M, Steyler Verlag, 1990.
** For Shen’s collaboration with Thomas Hyde and their correspondence, see: 'The Letters of Shen Fuzong to Thomas Hyde, 1687-88' by William Poole, Electronic British Library Journal 2015 articles, http://www.bl.uk/eblj/2015articles/article9.html