Couplet was the principal editor of the first European translation of Confucian teachings. Born in Malines, Belgium, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1640. His interest in China was sparked by a lecture by Martino Martini, a Jesuit missionary in China then traveling through Europe on his way to Rome. Couplet went to Lisbon in 1655 and reached Macao three years later. Active in several provinces of China, he was exiled to Canton (Guangzhou) during the persecution of 1665 to 1670. The next year he returned to Sungchiang (Songjiang), 25 miles southwest of Shanghai, and he later worked on the island of Chongming, north of Shanghai.
Elected procurator of the mission, he left for Rome in 1681 to seek permission for missionaries to celebrate the liturgy in Chinese. En route he stopped at the court of Louis XIV, where he was instrumental in getting royal support for Jesuit mathematicians to come to Peking. In Rome he presented the pope with a library of Christian books in Chinese. Having taken an oath supporting the authority of the vicars apostolic in the Asian missions, which was opposed by the Portuguese patronado system, Couplet waited for eight years in Europe before the two sides settled their differences. En route to China again, he lost his life aboard ship in a storm off the coast of Goa, India.
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.
- In addition to seven catechetical works and books of prayer in Chinese, Couplet wrote Tabula Chronologica Monarchiae Sinicae (1686), Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (1687), Breve raguaglio delle cose piu notabili spettanti al grand’imperio della Cina (1687), and Histoire d’une dame chretienne de la Chine (1688). Jeroom Heyndrickx, ed., Philippe Couplet, S.J. (1623-1693): The Man Who Brought China to Europe (1990; essays by ten scholars).