China illustrata was originally published in Latin and then translated into several languages: Dutch (1668), English (1669) and French (1670). At that time it contained the sum total of western knowledge about China , Tibet and the Far East with numerous illustrations and was a great success. Today it is considered the beginning of Western Sinology .
The full Latin title was: “Athanasii Kircheri e Soc. Jesu China monumentis, qua sacris qua profanis, nec non variis Naturae et artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis illustrata, auspiciis Leopoldi primi, Roman. Imper. Semper augusti Munificentissimi Mecaenatis. "
The work was an encyclopedia about the Empire of China , which combined accurate cartography with mystical elements such as dragons . It emphasizes the Christian elements of Chinese history : Kircher mentions the early presence of Nestorians due to the Nestorian stele that was discovered in the Chinese city of Xi'an (then: Sianfu) in 1625 . He saw the monument as evidence that a gospel had been preached in China a thousand years earlier.
However, Kircher also wrote that the Chinese were descendants of Ham and that the Chinese characters were hieroglyphs modified from Asia. During this time, the first Chinese emperor Fu Xi (Fohi) adopted the hieroglyphic script from Ham and developed it into the Chinese script.
The book is divided into six sections:
- The first chapter (42 pages) is dedicated to the Nestorian inscription.
- The second chapter (78 pages) gives an overview of the history of the travel routes to China.
- In the third chapter (38 pages) Kircher defends the thesis that idolatry reached China from Egypt via Persia and India.
- The fourth chapter (44 pages) deals with the flora and fauna of China.
- The fifth chapter (11 pages) is devoted to architecture and the mechanical arts.
- In the sixth chapter (literature and writing, 12 pages), Kircher argues that the Chinese characters are based on concrete image content.