1623  — 1688

Ferdinand Verbiest

Jesuit missionary, astronomer, and diplomat at the court of China.

Verbiest was born in Pitthem, near Courtrai, Belgium. In 1647 and again in 1655 he was ready to embark for the missions of South America. Spanish authorities, however, did not want Belgians in their territories, so he turned his interests toward China. He arrived in Macao in 1658 and worked in Sian (Xi’an), Shensi (Shaanxi) Province. Called to Peking (Beijing) in 1660 to assist Johann Adam Schall von Bell in astronomical calculations, he arrived in June. Persecution of Christianity and opposition by Chinese astronomers against Western methods led to his imprisonment.

Freed in 1669, he sought and obtained the rehabilitation of Schall, who had died in disgrace. Later that year an imperial inscription was placed on Schall’s tomb, and Verbiest himself was appointed head of the tribunal of mathematics. He corrected the calendar calculations and became a trusted official of the emperor. On trips to Mongolia and Manchuria, he had lengthy discussions with the emperor and his officials about scientific and religious matters.

To assure continuity of friendly relations with local officials who came to the capital for audiences with the emperor, Verbiest visited them to recommend the missionaries and the Chinese Christians in the provinces. Named vice-provincial of the Jesuit mission, Verbiest wrote an important letter to his confreres in Europe in which he outlined the need for personnel. Supportive of an indigenous clergy, he made many efforts to have the emperor remove Christianity as a prohibited sect in China. Verbiest was trusted to carry out the court’s relations with Russia and its delegations at Peking.

Author of more than two dozen books in Chinese, Verbiest worked assiduously to promote the mission throughout all of China. The refurbishing of his tombstone as well as those of Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, and others was part of a major restoration project of the Shala (Zhalan) cemetery in 1986.


This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.


  • Louis Pfister, Notices biographiques et bibliographiques sur les Jesuites de l’ancienne mission de chine (1932-1934; repr., 1975), pp. 338-362 (with a list of Verbiest’s Chinese works); J. Witek, ed., Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688): Jesuit Missionary, Scientist, Engineer, and Diplomat (1994; with thirty-one essays, including recent biographical and bibliographic data).

About the Author

John W. Witek

Associate Professor of East Asian History, Georgetown University, Washington D.C., USA