When the Portuguese arrived in China in 1557, the Society of Jesus had been active in Europe already for several years. It was about to start its large-scale missionary activities abroad. The first Christian missions appeared in India, Africa, and on the Chinese coast in Macau. By the time Jesuits arrived in Poland in 1564, the power of the Ming dynasty had begun to weaken in China. The consolidation of the Manchu and Mongolian people resulted in a new military force with which the Empire would soon be faced.
By the end of the 16th century, there were already over a dozen Jesuit religious houses in mainland China, and Macau became a Portuguese territory. At the beginning of the 1600s, an Italian missionary, Matteo Ricci, succeeded in opening Jesuit seminars in Nanjing and Beijing. At the same time, in Europe, a religious conflict was brewing between Catholics and Protestants. It finally erupted with full force in 1618, giving rise to the Thirty-year War. In the same year, Nurhaci - the chief of the Manchu kingdom - declared his war on China.
In those troubled times, Piotr Michał Boym was born in 1612 in Lviv as a son of Paweł Jerzy Boym, court physician to the Polish king - Sigismund III Vasa. By the time the last Ming Emperor of the main northern line, Chongzhen, ascended the imperial throne in 1627, Michał Boym was already studying at a Jesuit college in Lviv. Shortly after, he started a two-year novitiate in Krakow, which would prepare him for his latter missionary work. After several more years of studying pedagogy, philosophy, and theology in various centers in Poland, he was finally ordained as a priest in 1641.
During this period, the Shimabara rebellion took place in 1637 in Japan. As a result, Christianity was banned, missionaries were killed, and the trade with foreigners, especially in the very lucrative porcelain, was limited to a significant extent. Thus, China became the essential area of missionary and diplomatic activities of the European powers and the primary source of porcelain.
In March 1643, Michał Boym received a blessing from Pope Urban VIII and sailed out with 10 other priests and a few clerics from Lisbon, along the African coast and Madagascar, through Goa in India to Macau. It was a year and a half-long, extremely perilous trip, during which statistically, only one out of every two missionaries makes it alive to his destination.
While Michał Boym was on his way across the oceans, China was being torn for already four years by a peasant uprising. Its leader, Li Zicheng, in April 1644, eventually came to power, establishing himself in Beijing as Emperor Shun Zi. Faced with such a disgrace, the last Emperor of the Northern Ming, Chongzhen, committed suicide. Angered by Li Zicheng threats toward his family, the powerful Ming general, Wu Sangui changed sides. In May, he opened the Shanhaiguan Gate in the most eastern part of the Great Wall for the Manchurians to go in. He then joined the Manchurian Prince, Dorgon, in his attack on Li Zicheng`s forces in Beijing. By November 1644, the Manchus took over Beijing`s rule and placed on the throne Shunzhi, the first emperor of their own dynasty, the last ever to rule China - the Qing.
However, the southern Ming Dynasty, led by princes descended from the Northern Ming line, still continued to defend itself in Nanjing, maintaining friendly relations with the Jesuits. One of the priests, Father Andreas Koffler, succeeded even to christen the immediate family and the closest officials of the last south emperor of Ming, Yongli.
Upon arrival in Macau in December 1944, Michał Boym began intensive studies that lasted two years. Like other Jesuit missionaries in China, he studied the language and culture. At the end of his studies, he was sent to the island of Hainan. There, he began to work on his atlas of China, Magni Cathay, to prepare his work on pulse diagnosis, Clavis Medica ad Chinarum Doctrinam de Pulsibus and collected most resources for the atlas of flora and fauna, Flora Sinensis.
Soon after, the Manchu from the Qing Dynasty captured Hainan. As a result, Michał Boym, with several monks, is forced to flee the island. Around the same time, in Europe, the Thirty-Year War ended, marking the dawn of a new political epoch. It changed the power balance in Europe to the advantage of France, diminishing the influence of Spain and Portugal. It created a new player competing on the Far East trade routes – the independent Netherlands. They began instantly to court the Qing. This new competition put the Portuguese before the difficult choice on which horse to bet in the Ming-Qing conflict.
In 1649, Boym was chosen to present the Chinese Ming`s situation to the Pope and procure the Portuguese military assistance to the court of Yongli Emperor. He received letters from Empress Helena and Chancellor Pang Achilles to be given to Pope Innocent X, General of the Jesuit Order, and Cardinal John de Lugo. Additional notes were made to be presented to the Doge of Venice and to the King of Portugal. Together with a young court official named Andrew Zheng 鄭安德勒, Boym embarked on his return voyage to Europe.
However, the journey met with hindrance from the Portuguese supporters of the trade deal with the Manchu Qing. Boym encountered problems first in Macau, then in Goa. After several months of being refused permission to board a ship to Europe, he embarked on a land route to Europe upon tacit agreement of his Provincial. Going through India, the ancient Mesopotamia region to the present-day Izmir, and Venice, it was a similar road to that once taken by Marco Polo.
Another difficulty awaited him there, however. Due to the feud between Venice and the Papacy, the Jesuit presence in the city-state is forbidden. To complete his mission, Boym asks for the intercession of the French ambassador in Venice. Thanks to him, in mid-December 1651, Boym was at last allowed to speak before the Senate of the Republic about the Chinese issue. He impressed the Doges by presenting himself before them dressed like a Mandarin.
In 1652, Boym received from the Jesuit General a reprimand for his performances as the Ming ambassador. In consequence, he was punished with a seclusion period in Loreto. The Holy See, Innocent X, angered by Boym`s French connection, became reluctant to speak with him. An anonymous letter furthermore undermined the identity of the Polish Jesuit as a Ming envoy.
While in Italy, he remained in friendly contact with another Jesuit personality, Father Athanasius Kircher, to whom he passed his illustrations and descriptions from "Flora Sinensis." They become part of Kircher`s opus magnum on China, "China Illustrata," published after Boym`s death in 1668. In the meantime, in 1654, the French version of `Brevis Relatio, Referitur iter R. P. Michaelis Boym ex Sinis in Europa" (Report from the travel route of Father Michał Boym from China to Europe) saw daylight being published in Paris.
On January 7, 1655, Pope Innocent X died. He was the Pope, hostile not only to Boym but also to the Jesuit "Chinese Rites," or Jesuit use of Chinese garments and rituals in the liturgy as introduced by Matteo Ricci). The next conclave elected Fabio Chigi as Pope Alexander VII. Shortly after, Macau and Goa confirmed Michał Boym as the envoy of the Ming court. The news came with the information that one-third of China still remained under the rule of the Ming dynasty. At the same time, in the remaining area, anti-Manchu uprisings proliferated.
After three years of waiting, Michał Boym and Andreas Zheng, at last, were granted the audience to meet the new Pope. However, the meeting was only a source of deception for them since Alexander VII didn`t offer genuine assistance for the Ming, as they had hoped. Instead, he instructed Boym to go back to China only with letters containing support and encouragement, assurances of prayer for the imperial family. Disappointed, Boym and Andrew Zheng set off to travel to Lisbon to ask the King of Portugal, John IV, for help in the fight against Manchuria. The king promised to support the Ming and offered military assistance to the Ming Emperor.
On March 30th, 1656, Boym and Zheng embarked on a return trip to China. It abounded in many dangers - four of their eight companions died from disease and exhaustion.
On November 6, 1656, Boym and Chen reached Goa. Here, Boym received information about the catastrophic situation of his mandatories in China. According to the message, Yongli`s armies controlled only over a modest part of the southwestern lands of the Empire.
In addition, a letter waited for him from Macau informing him that due to the present Portuguese trade relations with Manchurians, his return to that city was highly undesirable.
Notwithstanding all these setbacks, Boym determined, did not give up, decided to travel along an unknown route through India to the east coast, from where they embarked on a Muslim ship sailing to Siam (Thailand). Before leaving, he entrusted a fellow French Jesuit, Phillipe Couplet, to take his written works to Europe. Those writings included his opus on Chinese medicine "Medicus Sinicus," about which he had written in "Brievfe Relatio." With Boym never to return to Europe again, this book was later plagiarized by a Dutch doctor, Andreas Clayer. It was published under that last`s name in 1682 in Frankfurt /Men after Boym`s death as "Specimen Medicinae Sinicae." Fortunately for the Jesuit, plagiarism was discovered, so now his authorship of the first book in Europe on Chinese medicine and, notably, on the method of pulse measurement is unquestionable.
At the beginning of 1658, Boym and Zheng reached the capital of the Siam kingdom. Boym received another letter, this time from the senate of Macau, with the repeated request not to return there. His journey through the Malay Peninsula, including encounters with tigers, elephants, and rhinoceroses, was described in his letter to Rome.
A few months later, he found out that the Ming court had moved to Guangxi province. Motivated by the news, he and Andrew decided to embark on a Chinese pirate ship. Although ready for the highest sacrifices, the Polish Jesuit was aware that this mission presented a growing threat not only for him. He realized it also jeopardized his entire religious community and the interests of the Portuguese Crown, the patron of the Society of Jesus in China. Still, loyalty and honor did not allow him to withdraw.
After two months of a dramatic journey on a tiny ship around the Indochina Peninsula, Boym and his faithful companion reached Tonkin. Here he sent his last letter to Europe, addressed to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, his patron in times of waiting for the papal audience. Therein, Boym described the recent successes of the Ming armies and seemed to trust in the final triumph of the dynasty, which he served. For this reason, despite the insistence of the superior of the Jesuit mission in Tonkin to give up the journey, Michał Boym and Andreas Zheng left Tonkin traveling afoot.
On February 16, 1659, with the consent of the local authorities, Boym and Andrew crossed the border of China. Shortly after, however, they were forced by Manchu soldiers to return to Tonkin. It is from them that Boym received the final blow, learning about the death of Chancellor Pang and Empress Helena. In the last act of despair, the Polish Jesuit attempted to reach his goal by undertaking a long-term journey through Burma. Yet, exhausted, depressed and sick, he died somewhere along the Royal Road from Tonkin to Nanjing on June 22, 1659, and was buried by the only witness to his death and the faithful companion, Andrew Zheng. The burial place remains unknown till this day.
Two years after Michał Boym`s death, the Yongli Emperor, who did not receive news from Europe, run away to Burma, where he received shelter. A year later, Yongli and his whole family were handed over to the traitorous General Wu Sangui, who had before deserted the Ming dynasty. The Emperor himself was strangled by General Wu himself. Before the death, the Emperor supposedly told his executor that he should kill him as quickly as possible because the Emperor "could not stand the disgust of seeing his face."
The Qing dynasty ruled in China for the next 250 years.