A Chinese Catholic in Paris

Society & Culture

John Hu arrived to France in 1722, accompanied by a Jesuit priest and tasked with cataloging and translating a library. He had a knack for behaving oddly, earning him the nickname “Don Quixote” in at least one town. But in the end, who gets to decide who's sane?

Illustration for The China Project by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: November 1722

In the autumn of 1722, accompanied by a Jesuit priest, a Chinese man named John Hu (胡若望 Hú Ruòwàng) arrived in the capital of France. It was not the end of his journey — his destination was the Vatican — but it was as far as he would go for some time. He had left Canton 10 months before, on the vessel Prince de Conti, and would remain in Europe for another three years…spending the last two years of it confined to an insane asylum near Paris.

Hu was not the first Chinese that we know to have traveled to France. He was at least the third: Shěn Fúzōng 沈福宗, raised Catholic in Nanjing to parents who converted in the early years of the Jesuit mission to China, came in the company of a Flemish priest in the 1680s. In addition to time in Paris, he traveled to Britain — apparently the first Chinese to set foot there — where he worked in Oxford’s Bodleian Library helping catalog Chinese books. And shortly before Hu, a linguist named Arcadio Huang (黃嘉略 Huáng Jiālüè) arrived in Paris, once again accompanied by Jesuit priests. Huang lived in France for 14 years, marrying a French woman with whom he had a child, all three dying tragically in 1716 and 1717.

So Hu’s case was rare, but not unique. As with many cases of this sort, it is the unlikely survival of records and the hard work and creativity of historians that stand out just as much as this individual life from long ago. For John Hu — like his near-contemporary Woman Wang — he came into the modern world through the writings of Jonathan Spence. Published nearly 40 years ago, The Question of Hu is, by my count, Spence’s shortest book. It is in many ways my favorite because of its combination of diligent research, creative reconstruction of the past, and its ability to raise profound, even existential, questions through a quirky — sometimes verging on bizarre — story.

Spence’s title is a double entendre: Hu himself is a question. As the author begins the book, “Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Hu is that we know anything about him at all.” He goes on to describe his subject as “an exasperating and apparently unprepossessing man, who had very little money, no distinguished relatives, and only a perfunctory education.” In other words, none of the attributes that typically bring someone into the extensive Chinese historical record. So the first question is, who is this man and what was his significance, in the broader sweep of China’s relations with the West?

The second question is more literal, asked by Hu of his companions — or was it captors? — when he found himself committed to the infamous asylum at Charenton, where the Marquis de Sade was one of its most famous denizens, and the setting of the play and film Quills: “Why have I been locked up?”

Or maybe these are really the same question, because at the core of Hu’s experience in France is the nagging uncertainty of whether Hu was insane or merely inconvenient.

Forty years old and devoutly Catholic, Hu had responded to a call from the Jesuit priest, Jean-François Foucquet, seeking a personal secretary who would assist him with the transportation, cataloging, and translation of the library he had assembled during his mission in China.

Foucquet seemed overjoyed at his stroke of luck to find a qualified and willing assistant for this work, but almost immediately worries arose. The voyage takes seven months, via the Cape of Good Hope and Brazil, during which Hu is, by turns, violently seasick, visited by visions of angels suggesting he preach the Gospel to the Chinese emperor, and belligerent with members of the crew. Even before they make landfall in France, Foucquet is already questioning Hu’s sanity.

Once in France, Foucquet complains about what Hu is doing and what he is not. His actions upset the priest: throwing his bedding on the floor and sleeping under an open window; stealing a horse and riding for hours through the provincial town of Port Louis (the locals label him “Don Quixote”). In Paris, his behavior continues to be outside the bounds of what Foucquet considers acceptable: giving the expensive coat his hosts have bought for him to a homeless man; protesting outside a parish church and insisting that men and women be kept separate in religious services. He insists that he gets an audience with the Pope in Rome.

As for what he is not doing: the work he was hired to do.

For Foucquet, the tipping point comes when Hu will not stay in one place. He disappears, first for a day at a time, then for weeks, eventually turning up hundreds of miles away at the home of colleagues who had hosted him during his travels to the French capital. Unwilling to perform the tasks he was contracted for, and unable, it seems, to comply with the expectations for being a guest in France, Foucquet arranges for Hu to be committed, which he is in the spring of 1723, very much against his will. Two men — one an exiled British officer and the other a representative of the papal nuncio — arrive at Hu’s room with an order to take him into custody, both armed with whips, which they wield to force Hu into a waiting carriage. “They drag Hu toward the carriage,” Spence writes. “Hu throws himself down to the ground, to prevent them taking him further, and a curious crowd of Parisians begins to gather. Though these idlers have no idea what is happening, they seem to feel sympathy for Hu.” After a struggle, the two men “drag Hu into their carriage and throw themselves inside with him. They pull a pair of manacles over Hu’s wrists and lock them shut.”

After two years, Hu is released from Charenton and provided passage to Guangzhou. He arrives back at the church where he had worked and where he had been recruited to go to Europe. He gathers a crowd around him and decries the treatment he received on his journey, and how he was never paid the money he was owed. In exasperation, as much as anything else, the ship captain who brought him turns over the balance of his wages. (Hu took the money and bought fancy clothes before returning to his hometown with his wife, where, as far as anyone knows, he lived the rest of his life.)

Long ago, I talked about The Question of Hu with a faculty member who enjoyed the book but insisted that “it had nothing to do with Chinese history.” Narrowly construed, I might agree, but really I think the book’s question is at the heart of what history — without regard to national boundaries — is meant to do. Hu’s question is one that tells us, I think, much about what it means to be human and how different cultures and people interact with one another. Was Hu imprisoned because his mental health was compromised? Or was it because neither side — Hu’s nor the Europeans — was able to bridge the gap of understanding between the two ends of Eurasia? At the time of his travels, Hu was probably the only Chinese in Europe, and there were only several dozen Europeans in China. That is a far cry from the situation today, even with the pandemic having slashed the number of travelers in both directions. It is worth reflecting on Hu’s story — and his question — when we think about how we understand one another, especially when the other side does something that seems, on its face, “crazy.”

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.