The first recorded instance of a Chinese person in Britain – Michael Fuzong Shen (1687)

Shen Fuzong [Michael Alphonsus] (c.1658–1691), traveller and convert to Christianity, was born at Nanking (Nanjing) in Kiangnan (Jiangnan) province along the southern side of the Yangtze (Yangzi) River in the Qing empire. His father, a physician, probably converted to Catholicism in the 1670s. Following this the young Shen received a Christian baptismal name and met the Flemish Jesuit Philippe Couplet, who was based near Nanking. Shen clearly had some education in classical Chinese and could certainly read and write respectably, although it is unclear if he ever had ambitions to take the official exams. He also learned some Latin and was selected to join Couplet on a trip to Europe to promote the activities of the mission.

Couplet and Shen left the Portuguese settlement at Macau on 4 December 1681. After enduring a shipwreck and a long stay in Batavia, they arrived in Enkhuysen in the Netherlands in October 1683. They travelled to Paris in September 1684 for an audience with Louis XIV, who among other things turned the Versailles fountains on for them. They sparked Louis’s interest in sponsoring a French Jesuit mission to China in 1685 to circumvent the political and ideological battles among those who administered the Portuguese padroado (or right of ecclesiastical patronage in the Indies), the Jesuits, the Propaganda Fide (office for the propagation of the faith or inquisition), the cardinals, and the papacy. By December the two were in Rome, where audiences with the Jesuit father general and Queen Christina of Sweden came quickly. They waited until June 1685 to see Pope Innocent XI. If France had been a success, Rome was largely not. The visit seems to have encouraged the Propaganda Fide to ban the use of ancestral rites by Christian converts in the so-called Confucian tradition because they were deemed religious rather than civil ceremonies—a severe blow to Jesuit conversion strategies. This turn of events encouraged Couplet and Shen to extend their stay in Europe, spending more time in Paris where Shen aided Couplet and Melchisédech Thévenot in putting together clavis sinica (‘the key to China’) and planning a trip to England, where they also hoped to find a sympathetic ear.

Shen left Couplet in Paris and went to London with the Jesuit Spinola in March 1687. The publication of the declaration of the indulgence in April 1687 and James II’s evident commitment to the promotion of Catholicism made this an opportune time to visit. Shen witnessed the reception of the Catholic vicar apostolic, John Leyburn, and papal nuncio, Ferdinand d’Adda, in London and had an audience with the English king. James requested that Godfrey Kneller paint Shen’s portrait. It subsequently hung in the room adjacent to the king’s bedchamber. Considered one of Kneller’s finest, it shows Shen in Chinese robes holding a crucifix and gesturing towards it with his other hand while he looks outward to the natural light coming through the window and illuminating his face—a statement about conversion, natural religion, and iconography that resonated strongly with current debates in both England and Europe about confessionalism and enlightenment. James also expressed an interest in the ‘Book of Confucius’ compiled by Couplet, who joined Shen some time after December 1687, wishing according to Anthony Wood to know what kind of philosophy it contained and ‘whether the Chinese had any divinity’ (Hearne, 360).

Shen apparently met the Orientalist and Bodley’s librarian Thomas Hyde in London, subsequently writing to him from there on 25 May 1687. Shen travelled to Oxford for the summer and helped Hyde with several projects on Chinese measurement, calendrical practices, and games by producing both translations and samples of Chinese writing for copperplate engravings. He is mentioned by name in Hyde’s Ludis orientalibus (1693–4) and Hyde’s appendix to Edward Bernard’s De mensuris (1688). Thanks to the initial efforts of Thomas Bodley, from its inception the Bodleian Library had begun to amass a significant collection of Chinese books. Shen’s knowledge of both Chinese and Latin enabled him to make translations of the titles of Chinese books and manuscripts for Bernard’s Catalogi librorum manuscriptorum Angliae et Hiberniae (1697). In a number of books and manuscripts Hyde referred to his collaborator variously as ‘our Native Chinese’ and ‘amicus charissimus’. Surviving letters as well as the products of their collaboration suggest a friendly relationship based on scholarly work and a mutual contempt for the ambitions of court.

For the rest of his residence in England Shen corresponded with Hyde from London. In April 1688 he left London for Lisbon with Spinola and Couplet. They missed the Portuguese fleet sailing for Goa and when the Propaganda Fide forbade Spinola and Couplet from returning to China with Shen, decided to remain in Lisbon. While there Shen became a Jesuit novice, and he finally left for Goa with a group of German Jesuits in the spring of 1691. A shipboard epidemic killed Shen on 2 September 1691 off Mozambique.

Shen was not the first visitor to Europe from China nor was he probably the first Chinese person to visit England, as records of East India Company voyages indicate Chinese diaspora merchants living in Bantam would replace English and other sailors lost on the arduous voyage. Nevertheless, Shen had the greatest impact on both Chinese scholarship and courtly politics in Europe and particularly in England of any traveller from China during the period.



P. Couplet correspondence, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, MS Hunter 299 (U.6.17), fols. 180–8 · E. Bernard, De mensuris et ponderibus antiquis libri tres: editio altera, purio et duplo locupletior (1688) · E. Bernard, ed., Catalogi librorum manuscriptorum Angliae et Hiberniae, 2 vols. in 1 (1697) · catalogus primus provinciae Lusitaniae, Roman Archives of the Society of Jesus, Rome, Lus. 46, fols. 209r, 230v · The life of Anthony à Wood, ed. T. Hearne and W. Huddesford (1772) · J. Heyndrickx, ed., Philippe Couplet, S.J. (1623–1693): the man who brought China to Europe (1990) [esp. T. Foss, ‘The European sojourn of Philippe Couplet and Michael Shen Fuzong, 1683–1692’, 121–40] · Jesuit correspondence (esp. Philippe Couplet), Roman Archives of the Society of Jesus, Rome, Jap. Sin. 43, 127, 163–8, 323; Franciae epist. 49, 28–9 · [T. Hyde], BL, Sloane MS 3323, fols. 270–2, 4037–8, 4062 · T. Hyde, De ludis orientalibus libri duo (1693–4) · G. Sharpe, appendix, in T. Hyde, Syntagma dissertationum … Thomas Hyde, ed. G. Sharpe, vol. 2 (1767)


BL, books and papers of Thomas Hyde, Sloane MS 3323


G. Kneller, oils, 1687 (The Chinese convert), Royal Collection [see illus.] · Nolin, engraving, 1687 (Chin Fo Cum), repro. in Heyndrickx, Couplet, 142


Credit: This life of Shen Fuzong, written by Professor Robert K. Batchelor, is taken from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (, a research and publishing project of Oxford University and Oxford University Press, UK. The Oxford DNB includes entries on nearly 59,000 men and women who have shaped British history worldwide. © Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.


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