Author: Thierry Meynard
Part ofCoimbra Textes Adapted into Chinese (coord. by Elisabetta Corsi and Thierry Meynard)
Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Published: Julho, 1th, 2019
DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3265187

The latest version of this entry may be cited as follows: Thierry Meynard, “Tractatio ad quinque sensus: Xingxue cushu (juan 4)”, Encyclopedia, Mário Santiago de Carvalho, Simone Guidi (eds.), doi = “10.5281/zenodo.3265187”, URL = “”, latest revision: July, 1th, 2019.

Giulio Aleni’s Xinxue cushu

In his Brief Introduction to the Study of Human Nature (Xingxue cushu 性學觕述), Aleni devotes juan 4 discussing the five external senses. The main structure and argumentation of this section is borrowed from the Short compendium of the things told by Aristotle in his three books on the De Anima and Parva Naturalia (Breve compendium eorum quae ab Aristotele in tribus libris de Anima & in parvis rebus dicta sunt), completed in 1593 by the Spanish Jesuit Pedro Gómez (1533-1600) in Japan to train Japanese Jesuit scholastics. Based on Gómez’s Compendium, Aleni could present the theoretical elements about the external senses (and about the inner senses).

For each of the five external senses, Aleni adds a series of questions. For the senses of smelling, tasting and touch, those questions come mostly from Gómez’s Compendium and also from the Coimbra commentary on De Anima. However, for the two most important senses, vision and hearing, Aleni drew extensively from the Treatise on Some Problems related to the Five Senses (Tractatio aliquot problematum ad quinque sensus) by Cosme de Magalhães. For the life of Magalhães and his treatise, please refer to Mário de Carvalho’s entry.

The Senses


Among the five senses, vision receives the greatest attention in Jesuit scholastic works, as noted by Corsi (2014) and Camps (2015). The Tractatio has a total of 23 columns, and almost half of them (11 columns) are dedicated to vision, the foremost sense, with a total of 37 problems. Out of them, Aleni borrowed 6 problems (10, 11, 13, 29, 30, 31).

Problem 10 deals with the nature of the eyes, considered to be watery (aqueum) because coldness and humidity dominate in the eyes. Aleni transforms the question in something more practical: why eyes only alone are unsensitive to cold? He answers by applying the theory of yin and yang and a principle of Chinese medicine: because the white part of the eyes is solid as glass, the eyes are tolerant to coldness (p. 188).

Problem 11 consists in asking why the eyes move, and the answer is double: the spirits flow from the brain to the eyes, making them move; also, the presence of many muscles allow movement. However, Aleni brings a quite different answer: in contrast to the sound which can reach the ears through undirect paths, vision happens on a straight line between the eyes and the object, and this requires for the eyes to move (p. 191). The answer is quite strange since intuitively we may say that the eyes do not necessarily move but mostly the head.

Problem 13 shifts to psychology, a new important trend in Renaissance, asking why the eyes have the power to reveal the soul. On the basis of Galen, Magalhães describes the many emotions that the eyes can express, and Aleni reproduces quite closely the passage, leaving out only a passage about the physiognomy of the eyes according to Aristotle, for whom small or dark eyes are a sign of pusillanimity. This is easily understandable, because there was a very established tradition of physiognomy in China and the Jesuits rebuked it as being superstitious. Besides expressing feelings, eyes can also provoke feelings in others, and Magalhães mentions that court proceedings in Athens happened at night so that judges may not be influenced by the lamentations of the accused. Similarly, Aleni mentions court proceedings in Athens (Dena), but interestingly he does not mention nocturnal trials, probably because it goes against Chinese customs; instead, he mentions that judges are not allowed to look at the face of the accused (p. 195), though one wonders how it is practically done. Magalhães finishes with a quote alerting against the dangers of the eyes as incentives for vices (irritamenta vitiorum), with a quote drawn from De remediis fortuitorum, a work which he attributes to Seneca. Aleni attributes also the quote to Seneca (Senijia), though modern scholarship considers this Stoic text as not being authored by Seneca. More importantly Aleni radicalizes further the moral meaning of the quote, arguing that those who lose their eyes are better off since they can preserve their moral reputation (p. 195). Obviously, this makes reference to one of the most radical sayings of Jesus (Matthew 18:9), which appears quite at odd with the importance of physical integrity in the Confucian tradition.

Problem 29 enquires about the human ability to see light from a dark place, like a well, and the inability to see from a luminous place, things which are in the dark. Magalhães answers that the light of the object and the light of the medium are both necessary, but the former is even more necessary. Aleni reformulates the question, asking why we cannot see stars in daytime but can see them when entering a well; he answers that at daytime the faint light of the stars is covered by the sun.

Problem 30 investigates the cause of the inner light that we perceive when we rub our closed eyes. Magalhães refers to Aristotle (De sensu et sensibili II.438b) who explains that the cornea is itself bright, and that the inner light (internus fulgor) appears only when the pupil of the eye is moved because the movement allows the pupil to see its own inner light. Aleni does not give the physiological explanation related to the quality of the cornea, but he affirms the presence of a faint light in the eyes which appear when rubbing the eyes. Interestingly, Aleni calls it a spiritual light (shenguang 神光), a term used in Taoist meditation.

Problem 31 concerns the capacity of certain persons to see at night, with the example of Tiberius according to Suetonius and Pliny. Magalhães asks further, could it be because the animal spirits coming from the brain to the eyes are themselves luminous? Magalhães confirms this mysterious capacity (occulta proprietas) of some people by which the animal spirits erupt though the eyes and enlighten a dark place. This sounds quite strange, as if some people had lasers in their eyes, but precisely the Jesuits do not see this as supernatural since they attempt to give a rational explanation to strange phenomena. The strangeness of the phenomena did not deter Aleni to translate the passage and to mention the example of the king Tiberius (Dibolue), and Aleni adds further to the legend, stating that Tiberius could read a few lines in the dark! Also, he reframes the explanation in terms of a perceptive qi 氣coming from the brain and erupting through the eyes, adding also the metaphor of water gushing out from a dam. Aleni makes a further addition, stating that the qi exhausts quickly and all falls in darkness again (pp. 191-192).

We can notice that Aleni only selected groups of problems, like 10-11-13, and 29-30-31, but he left out problem 12 which deals with the power of the eyes of certain persons to fascinate or charm. Aleni probably did not retain this discussion which may appear to support the superstitious practices that Jesuits were fighting against in China.

The order of problems chosen by Aleni does not completely follow the order of Magalhães. Aleni gives first all the problems related to the physiology and anatomy of the eyes, and he placed at the end problem 13 dealing with the psychological functions of the eyes. A couple of problems raised by Aleni cannot be found in the Tractatio.


Same as the Breve compendium, the Tractatio deals in two separate sections about hearing and voice, but Aleni combines them into one single section called “organ of hearing” (erzhiguan 耳之官). There are 11 problems dealing with hearing, and Aleni selected only three of them (2, 3, 11).

Problem 2 asks whether the seat of memory lies in the ears. Pliny holds such an opinion, but this is to be understood metaphorically because in reality, sensitive memory lies in the brain, and intellective memory, in the substance of the soul within the whole body. Magalhães illustrates the metaphor of the ears as seat of memory with the ancient practice of touching the ear of a witness during court proceedings so that he can remember and bring his testimony. Similarly, Aleni holds that memory does not lie in reality in the ear lobes. He does not bring the customs of touching the ear during court proceedings in the West, but the customs of old people touching their own ear to call upon memory (p. 200), something easier to understand for the Chinese.

Problem 3 asks the reason for four types of sounds (hissing, ringing, loud, or buzzing) in the ears of sick people. Magalhães draws from the French physician Jean-François Fernel (1497-1558), explaining that those sounds are the result of different impulses and different states of the four humors in the inner ears: hissing sound for a light impulse; ringing sound for an impulse which is maintained; loud sound for a strong impulse; buzzing sound for a restless movement in the humors. Similarly, Aleni explains that ears are nourished by qi and the blood which rely on the humors. In case of imbalance, this creates sounds in the ears. Aleni does not detail the diverse sounds in the ears, but remarks that voice can be a good indicator of one’s health, and it is used as a tool for medical doctor to make prognosis (p. 207). However, Aleni did not explain the connection between the sounds in the inner ears and the voice.

Problem 11 asks why we enjoy listening better than reading. Magalhães provides seven explanations from the Exoteric Exercises (1557) by the French scholar Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609): (1) we learn more easily by listening than by reading; (2) voice with its intonation draws attention better than silent reading does; (3) what we hear leaves a stronger imprint on the mind and appears more real compared to the lighter and more transient imprints of vision; (4) listening is a social activity suitable to our human condition while reading is solitary; (5) respect for the speaker makes us to pay attention, but someone reading alone may become lax; (6) the listener can interact with the speaker, allowing a better understanding; (7) narration allows improvisation, while the style of a writer, being uniform, tends to be boring. Aleni gives a faithful rendering of those seven reasons. Yet he adds his own conclusion: ears and eyes work together but the ears are more versatile than the eyes (p. 203). Following Magalhães, Aleni expresses the stress of Jesuit education on public speech and debates. Though vision is the highest sense for intellectual pursuits, yet for practical communication, hearing is the most important sense. Relatively speaking, Chinese culture places a stronger focus on written words, and Aleni’s emphasis on hearing may strike as something new.


There are 24 problems dealing with voice, and Aleni selected six of them (2, 7, 9, 13, 21, 24). Problem 2 investigates the production of echo when sounds meet certain objects. Magalhães explains that objects which are hard, smooth and compact reverberates the sounds, while objects which are hollow, soft, humid and irregular cannot. He gives a list of places which produce echoes, like the vaults of a house and the banks of a peaceful river. Magalhães compares also the echo to the reverberation of light on some polished surfaces. Aleni translates the conditions given by Magalhães for the production of echoes. However, unlike Magalhães, he does not compare echoes to the reverberations of light, but to the reverberation of ripples in a well or a pond (p. 205).

Problem 7 asks why, when we are inside the house, we can easily hear a sound from outside, but when we are outside, we hear with difficulty the sound inside the house. For Magalhães, in the second case, the sound dissipating in a wider space becomes weaker, while the sound entering a confined space is better heard. Strangely, he compares this to vision: visual species of objects which are seen outside enter the house and come together, but when visual species leave the house, they scatter before reaching the eyes. Aleni translates the explanations concerning the sounds and only mentions that it is similar to vision (p. 203), but without the weird explanations of Magalhães.

Problem 9 discusses the reason why hearing is better at night than during daytime. Magalhães gives two explanations. First, the quality of the medium, the air, is not the same: during daytime, the air is warmed by the sun and this provokes a strident noise which impedes good hearing, but at night the air is at rest, allowing a better hearing. Magalhães calls upon another explanation which emphasizes the control of the intellect over the senses: the intellect assists all the senses but by doing so it becomes distracted; at nighttime, there is no vision, and the intellect can better grasp the hearing. Similarly, because senses are not aroused at night, the intellect feels physical pain more strongly. Magalhães considers this intellectualist explanation more intelligent and supported by Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias. Aleni translates closely those two explanations, adding only to the first explanation the metaphor of the noise produced by a burning fire (p. 201).

Problem 13 investigates the reason for trembling voice. Magalhães states that the elderly as well as people experiencing anxiety, fear or cold cannot control their voice, and he uses the metaphor of holding a very long board in one end, with the other end oscillating. Similarly, dues to an illness, the inner heat is compressed and is not strong enough to maintain a stable voice. Magalhães refers here to the experience of professors of liberal arts, something which may have been familiar to him, who needs to speak softly to control better their voice. Aleni translates the problem and its answer (p. 204), but he leaves out the reference to the professors of liberal arts, which could not be easily understood in the Chinese context at that time.

Problem 21 asks why the voice can have good or evil moral connotations like being angry, joyful, lustful, prudent or deceitful, but it is not said so about color, smell or taste. Magalhães suggests that the voice belongs to movement and therefore to moral customs. He adds further that the objects of the other senses do not depend on human freedom, as it is the case for human voice. Aleni combines the two explanations into one, stressing the psychological and moral dimensions of human voice (p. 206).

Problem 24 investigates the connection between deafness and muteness at birth. Magalhães explains this with recent anatomical observation according to which there is a pair of nerves, one going to the ears and the other to the tongue, and thus a common defect may provoke deafness and muteness. Besides this case of defect at birth, there is no real connection between deafness and muteness, because one nerve may be sick but the other healthy. Aleni expresses exactly the same meaning (pp. 200-201).

Six problems (14-19) concerning singing have been left out by Aleni. Though there is a strong tradition in China of opera singing, Aleni and other missionaries had difficulties relating to this Chinese art.

Five problems raised by Aleni are not found in the Tractatio. One deals with the hearing cornet, a very useful invention. Other problems raised by Aleni are more theological, for example why the ears are located above the heart. Aleni explains that God provided ears like a watchtower, as servants of the heart for the moral perfection of human beings (pp. 206-207).


In conclusion, out of the 72 questions discussed by Magalhães in relation to vision, hearing and voice, Aleni borrowed 15, not an insignificant part. Despite the shortness of his answers, Aleni could introduce into China Western scientific knowledge, not only based on the traditional authorities like Aristotle, Pliny and Alexander of Aphrodisias, but also on modern scholars like Fernel and Scaliger. However, Aleni does not merely repeat Western knowledge. He is an independent thinker who can have specific stances and makes adaptations, either to fit Chinese culture, or to stress something different.


Primary sources

  • Aleni (1646), Giulio. Xingxue cushu 性學觕述, Chinese Christian Texts from the Roman Archives of the Society of Jesus, Taipei Ricci Institute, 2002, vol. 6, pp. 45-378
  • Magalhães (1598), Cosme de. Tractatio aliquot Problematum ad quinque sensus spectantium per totidem sectiones distribute, in Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Iesu, In tres libros de Anima Aristotelis Stagiritae, Conimbricae, pp. 533-558.

Secondary sources

  • Corsi (2014), Elisabetta. “La diffusione delle conoscenze ottiche in Cina, Il primato della visione nel Xingxue cushu (1623) di Giulio Aleni SI,” in Magda Abbiati and Federico Greselin eds., Il liuto e i libri, Studi in onore di Mario Sabattini, Venezzia: Edizioni Ca’Foscari, pp. 231-240.
  • Camps (2015), Maria da Conceição. “The Pleasures of seeing” according to Manuel de Gois’ Coimbra Jesuit Commentary on De Anima (1598),” Quaestio 15: 817-826.
  • Gómez (1593), Pedro. Breve compendium eorum quae ab Aristotele in tribus libris de Anima & in parvis rebus dicta sunt, in Compendia compiled by Pedro Gómez for the Jesuit College of Japan, edited by Kirshitan Bunko Library, Sophia University, Tokyo: Ōzorasha, 1997, volume 2. The Latin manuscript is available on line at the website of the Vatican library (; accessed on 2019/3/1.


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