The Jesuit missionaries who operated in China between the late 16th and early 17th century were a an outstanding group, but even against this background the story of Michael (Michał) Boym (ca. 1612–1659) is remarkable. Born in Lwów (a.k.a Lemberg, Lvov, Lviv), he left his native Poland to join the Jesuits, and was posted to China. He happened to arrive to China right around the time of the Manchu invasion and the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Fifty years earlier, the Wanli Emperor never deigned to meet Matteo Ricci and Diego Pantoya in person (and when given the portrait of the priests, exclaimed "Ah, they are Hui-Hui!"). Now, when Beijing and Nanjing both fell to the Manchus, Koffler (another Jesuit, an Austrian) and Boym were able to enter the inner circle of the court of the Yongli Emperor (a grandson of Wanli), who was still resisting the Manchus from the empire's southwestern corner, and to baptize several members of the royal family. As the Ming's situation became increasingly precarious, Empress Elena sent Boym to Europe with a plea for help from the Pope. The Portuguese (who controlled Jesuit's operations in China and elsewhere in Asia) and the Jesuit leadership, however, were not all that enthusiastic about supporting the Ming's nearly-lost cause, so getting to Europe became yet another adventure for Boym and his traveling companion, a Chinese Christian named Andrew Zheng.
Engaged as he was with politics and the missionary business, Boym managed to write a few important books and articles, only some of which were published at the time. One of the best known is his delightful Flora Sinensis (1656). The album actually covered both flora and fauna, and not only of China. One of the most interesting pictures there was the one showing two creatures: Sum Xu (松鼠) and Lo Meo Quey (绿毛龟).
松鼠 is transcribed songshu in modern Chinese transcription (Hanyu Pinyin), and is the usual Chinese word for "squirrel". (The literal meaning is "pine rat".) ''Sum Xu'' would be the normal way to transcribe this in the Portuguese-influenced transcription that Boym used; elsewhere, for example, he has the Shandong province as Xantum. While Boym's picture of the creature is reasonably squirrel-like, his description of the creature's lifestyle is, however, decidedly non-squirrel-ly. According to Boym, the ''sumxu'' was a pretty yellow-and-black animal, commonly tamed, and made to wear silver a collar. Valued as good hunters of mice, they would sell for 7 to 9 silver coins. Based on this, it has been suggested (e.g., by Hartmut Walravens) that he was actually describing some animal from the mustelid family (including martens, ferrets, weasels, etc.) that may have been domesticated in China.
Boym's treasure trove of flora and fauna became further popularized in Europe via the efforts of another Jesuit, German Athanasius Kircher. Early in his career, Kircher, too, wanted to become a missionary and go to China, but instead he became a professor in Rome, and published an astonishing number of books. The one that concerns us is his ''China monumentis, qua sacris qua profanis, nec non variis naturae and artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis illustrata'' (1667). Making heavy use of the expert help provided by Boym, Martino Martini (Kircher's former student, and now an important Jesuit visiting Europe from China), and Zheng, the book was able to break new ground in European Sinological literature - for example, the transcript and translation of the Nestorian Stele of Xi'an was probably the first Chinese document of a comparable size published in Europe in original and translation.
But Boym and Martini had to go back to China after a few years in Europe; once on his own, Kircher was to rely much heavier on his imagination throughout the rest of his book. His description of the ''sumxu'' was, however, fairly close to Boym's original:
There is also a domestic animal called the Sumxu which is similar to a cat. It is black and saffron colored and has splendid hair. The Chinese tame it and put a silver collar around its neck. It is an avid hunter of mice. It is so rare that one sells for seven to nine scudi.
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