Johann Adam Schall von Bell - 汤若望 - 1591-1666

The German born Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell arrived in Macao in 1619 and remained there studying Chinese and mathematics until chance led to an invitation in 1623 to go to Beijing to help the Chinese military defend itself from northern invasion! During an attack on the Portuguese by the Dutch in Macao, Schall von Bell had shown himself to be adept at firing canons.

He quickly showed that he had other skills and was soon immersed in the calculations and observations for the calendar. He joined Xu Guangqi and John Terrentius in 1629 to win the competition put forth by the emperor to predict the exact time of the eclipse which occurred on June 21st. Also in 1629, Schall von Bell published a treatise on the manufacture and use of the telescope, Yuanjing Shuo (远镜说, Explanation of the Telescope). He had probably brought the first telescope to China with other instruments and books in 1619. He had a long and successful career as a court mathematician and astronomer writing numerous works and translating others.

He was drawn into the inner circle and was consulted on many matters. He finished the work on the calendar begun by Xu Guangqi, and the Jesuits Terrenz, Longobardi and Rho. In 1635 he presented the last of the new calendar, the Chongzhen Lishu (崇祯历书, the Calendar of the Chongzhen Emperor), to the court.

The Emperor turned to him again for military assistance when the northern tribes were again proving troublesome. Schall von Bell protested that he was a man of peace but finally consented to oversee the casting and testing of several small canons. While his were never used, the knowledge allowed the government to produce more. The canon didn't help; the Ming Dynasty was overthrown and the Manchu tribes established the Qing Dynasty.

In 1645 the new Qing government appointed him to develop a new calendar. He quickly completed the task, basing it on the Chongzhen Lishu. The appointment of Schall von Bell to head astronomy didn't sit well with the Chinese astronomers.

In the 1660s Yang Kuang manipulated the imperial court into bringing charges against the Jesuits for teaching false mathematics, astronomy, and religion. They and their Chinese assistants were condemned to death in November 1664. On the morning that the sentence was to be carried out, an earthquake hit Beijing and sections of the Imperial Palace were destroyed both by the quake and subsequent fires. Taking this as a sign from the heavens, the court freed the Jesuits, but the Chinese assistants were executed.

Schall von Bell died soon afterward on August 15, 1666 at the age of 75. Following his death, the Kangxi Emperor restored his honors, purged Yang Kuang, and eventually appointed Ferdinand Verbiest as head of the observatory.

Schall von Bell spent 47 years in China. He is more a part of Chinese history and science than he is western science. In Chinese his name is 约翰·亚当·沙尔·冯·贝尔 when based on the western pronunciation, but von Bell adopted a Chinese name. He is also known as 汤若望 Tang Ruowang in Chinese publications and history.
Last update: May 2007
© Marilyn Shea, 2007