Gerbillon was born in Verdun, France, and entered the Society of Jesus in 1670. During his fourth year of theological studies in Paris, he volunteered to join five confreres designated to go to China as mathematicians of King Louis XIV. Arriving in Peking (Beijing) in 1688, Gerbillon and Joachim Bouvet were chosen to work at court. After teaching geometry to the emperor for a number of months, Gerbillon accompanied another Jesuit, Tomas Pereira, to Nerchinsk, Russia. As interpreters and negotiators, they were instrumental in concluding the 1689 Sino-Russian treaty, the first agreement in Asia based on the law of nations.
Gerbillon’s eight trips to Mongolia and Manchuria are recorded in his travel accounts published in Europe. He completed Manchu and Chinese translations of French works on philosophy and geometry. As superior of the French Jesuits in China, he discussed the Chinese Rites issue with Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon, the first papal legate sent to Peking. A rupture of relations between legate and the emperor ensued. Apparently, because Gerbillon, in the eyes of the emperor, had taken the side of Tournon, no imperial funds were allocated to defray Gerbillon’s funeral expenses when he died.
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.
- “Lettre du P. Gerbillon,” in M. L. Aime-Martin, ed., Lettres edifiantes et curieuses, 4 vols. (1843), 3:157-160. Henri Cordier, “Cinq lettres inedites du Pere Gerbillon,” T’oung Pao 7 (1906): 437-468; “Observations historiques sur la Grande Tartarie” and “Relations de huit voyages dans la Grande Tartarie de 1688 a 1699,” in Jean-Baptiste du Halde, Description geographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l’Empire de la chine et de la Tartarie chinoise, 4 vols. (1735; 1736), 4:33-59, 87-422; “Lettre du 30 decembre 1706,” in Gonzalez de St. Pierre, Relation abirgee de la: nouvelle persecution a la Chine (1712), pp. 88-94; Joseph S. Sebes, The Jesuits and the Sino-Russian Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689): The Diary of Thomas Pereira, S.J. (1961); Yves de Thomaz de Bossierre, Jean-Francois Gerbillon, S.J. (1654-1707) (1994).