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Knowledge Diffusion and Intellectual Change: When Chinese Literati Met European Jesuits

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2021

Chicheng Ma*
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Business and Economics, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong. E-mail:


From 1580, the Jesuits introduced European sciences to China―an autarkic civilization whose intelligentsia was dominated by Confucian literati. Drawing upon prefectural distributions of the Jesuits and Chinese scientific works, this paper demonstrates that the Jesuits stimulated Confucian literati to study science. On average, the literati’s scientific works increased four times in prefectures with Jesuit scientists after 1580. But this effect shrank after the Jesuits were expelled by the emperor of China in 1723. Since China’s scholar-official system remained unchanged, the literati’s scientific research aimed to serve the needs of statecraft rather than translating into economic progress.

© The Economic History Association 2021

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I thank the editor, Dan Bogart, three anonymous referees, Ying Bai, Sascha Becker, Zhiwu Chen, Jeremiah Dittmar, Ruixue Jia, James Kung, Jin Li, Debin Ma, Ellen McGill, Luigi Pascali, Kaixiang Peng, Tuan Hwee Sng, Felipe Valencia Caicedo, Hans-Joachim Voth, Lingwei Wu, Noam Yuchtman, and seminar and conference participants at NUS, PKU, HKBU, SYSU, Fudan, Jinan University, Lingnan University, Shandong University, HKU Economic History Workshop, the Sixth AHEC, the Seventh Symposium for Quantitative History, and the Barcelona GSE Summer Forum (2019) for helpful suggestions and comments. Xinhao Li, Xinran Liu, Xinning Ren, and Xiaofan Zhu provided excellent research assistance. I am also grateful to the Hong Kong Research Grants Council (Project Number: 17502418) and The University of Hong Kong for their generous financial support. The remaining errors are mine.



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