Candida Xu: a highly literate Chinese woman of the 17th century

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Throughout history, female literacy in China was extremely low.  It was only in the 20th century that sizable numbers of women were able to read.  An exception to this general rule was Candida Xu (in Chinese called Xǔ Xú Gāndìdà, 许徐甘第大, Xǔ Xú shì 许徐氏,Xǔ Gāndìdà 许甘第大,Xú Gāndìdà 徐甘第大, and Gāndìdà 甘第大 [source]).  The double surname Xǔ Xú 许徐 — highly unusual for a woman in premodern China — derives from her marriage to a man named Xǔ Yuǎndù 许远度, to whom she bore eight children.  They observed the Catholic custom whereby the husband did not take concubines.

Here's the article on Candida Xu in Wikipedia:

Candida Xu (September 4, 1607-July 24, 1680) was a Chinese Catholic. She has been called "arguably the most influential Chinese Christian woman of the seventeenth century."

Born on the feast day of Saint Candida the Elder, in whose honor she was named, Xu was the granddaughter of Xu Guangqi, who had converted to Christianity four years previously. From childhood she was deeply religious. Widowed at 46, she turned her attention to service to the church. Despite the restrictions she faced given her status as a member of the upper class, she worked to spread the word of Christianity. She exercised the influence of her father and son to gain good will for many Jesuit missionaries among local officials. Among Chinese Christians she promoted her spiritual associations; she also acted as a leader for Christian women around Shanghai. She had a private income, from which she donated generously to finance living arrangements for missionaries; she also funded the building of close to forty churches and chapels, and facilitated publication of many religious works in the Chinese language. She was referred to as the Apostle of China by many. Her story gained currency in Europe through a biography by Philippe Couplet, her confessor [VHM:  see below for a bibliographical note showing the international, multilingual aspects of Candida Xu's biography].

Candida's grandfather, the illustrious Xú Guāngqǐ 啓 (baptismal name "Paul"; 1562-1633), made sure that all his descendants, male and female, be educated equally.  Consequently, his granddaughter, known in Vatican history as Candida Hsu, was a woman who read both literary Chinese AND Latin, as she was educated by Jesuits around the 1620s.  She must have been the first women in world history to be literate in both languages.  Her biography was published in French by her confessor after she died.  She lived a long life and built what would become today’s Xujjiahui in Shanghai, one of the most vibrant and culturally vital districts of the city:

Xujiahui means "Xu family junction" – more precisely, "property of Xu family at the junction of two rivers". The "Xu family" refers to the family of Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), China's most notable Catholic convert. Most of what is now Xujiahui was once the ancestral home of the Xu family. Baptized by famed Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, Xu Guangqi and his descendants donated large plots of land to the Catholic Church, including the site of the St. Ignatius Cathedral.

Pronounced in the Shanghainese dialect of Wu Chinese, it is called "zi-ga-wei". During the 18th century it was known by Shanghai's western residents as "Ziccawei" or "Siccawei" (English) or "Zikawei" or "Zi-ka-wei" (French). These names survive in the names of some institutions, such as the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei, and the area is still listed in a number of contemporary guidebooks and literature as "Zikawei" or some variant thereof.


Linguistically, Xu Guangqi is important for his close association with Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), with whom he collaborated on the translation of many important works from Chinese into Latin and from Latin into Chinese.  Ricci is generally credited with being the first person to create a Romanization for Chinese, making him the ultimate progenitor of Pinyin, a contribution that has had monumental consequences for the history of writing in China.

After a prolonged process, fraught with political ramifications, Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci have been beatified.  The formal canonization and sainthood are now a political tool for the Vatican to negotiate with China on the rights to appoint bishops.  China has officially restored Xu's tomb and ancestral home, together with his reputation as the “first person to engage intellectually with the West on sciences and philosophy” in textbooks.


Bibliographical note

Couplet, Philippe, 1623–1693

Gail King, "The Four Editions of Couplet's Biography of Madame Candida Xu"

September 2009

Sino-Western Cultural Relations Journal; 2009, Vol. 31, p. 56

The article compares and contrasts four European versions of the biography of Chinese Catholic Church benefactor Madame Candida Xu (1607-1680) written by Jesuit missionary to China Philippe Couplet. The book first appeared in French in 1688, but was later translated and published in Flemish in 1694, Italian in 1700, and Spanish in 1691. The seventeenth century Catholic Church processes to gain ecclesiastic approval of religious works are discussed. The author notes that the Italian edition was not a strict translation of the earlier printed versions, but was rewritten based on the French version. Illustrations appearing in the books are compared.

[Thanks to Agnes Hsin-Mei Hsu-Tang]


  1. Mark S. said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 9:20 am

    In Pinyin, a surname that's doubled because of marriage is hyphenated: Xǔ-Xú Gāndìdà. But regular two-syllable family names are written solid (e.g., Sīmǎ Qián).

    See p. 156 of Yin Binyong's first book on Pinyin orthography. The part of that book that focuses on hyphens in Hanyu Pinyin overlooks this small but important point.

  2. Alexander Browne said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 9:49 am

    My first thought, before I finished reading, was surprise that someone would be named after a type of fungus. But after reading about lard and larva used in a simile (, it didn't seem beyond the realm of possibility for a few seconds.

  3. Steve Jones said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 12:00 pm

    Which is one reason why the sinological fetish with literacy contributes to the belittling of the major role of women in folk culture, eh!

  4. Misha Schutt said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 12:07 pm

    Candidus -a-um is a Latin adjective meaning ‘shining white, radiant’ (as opposed to albus -a-um ‘matte white’). Romans running for office traditionally wore a white toga, hence candidatus. The fungus was apparently named for its color.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 12:23 pm

    Thank you so much for that interesting note about candidatus, Misha!


    candidate (n.)

    "person who seeks or is put forward for an office by election or appointment," c. 1600, from Latin candidatus "one aspiring to office," originally "white-robed," past participle of candidare "to make white or bright," from candidus past participle of candere "to shine," from PIE root *kand- "to shine." Office-seekers in ancient Rome wore white togas.

    (Online Etymological Dictionary)

  6. Bart Barry said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 2:05 pm

    I’ve always wondered who first translated the Analects into a European language. Was it Ricci?

  7. Thomas Rees said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 4:51 pm

    @Bart Barry: I think it was Ricci's sidekick Michele Ruggieri

  8. Sophie Wei said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 11:03 pm

    @Bart Berry
    @Thomas Rees

    Michele Ruggieri translated part of Da Xue.
    Translation of several lines of the Da xue in: Antonii Possevini Societatis Iesv Bibliotheca selecta qua agitur de ratione stvdiorum in historia, in disciplinis, in salute omnium procuranda. T. I. Romæ: Ex Typographia Apostolica Vaticana, M. D. XCIII. (1593), lib. IX, p. 583.
    A manuscript by Ruggieri with full translations of the Four Books (Lunyu, Daxue,
    Zhongyong and the Mengzi) is apparently extant in the National Library in Rome. See Lundbaek, Knud. ‘The First Translation from a Confucian Canon in Europe’. China
    Mission Studies (1500-1800) Bulletin 1 (1979), pp. 1-11.

  9. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 3:47 am

    Bernard Shaw wrote a play called 'Candida', one of his Plays Pleasant: see

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 7:26 am

    Jesuit Philip Couplet's Latin translation of The Analects — Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (Paris, 1687) is the first complete Western-language version of Confucius' sayings. For more details on the early translations of The Analects, see Bryan W. Van Norden, Confucius and the Analects: New Essays (Oxford: 2002), p. 87n10.

    Couplet is featured in the present Language Log post (see above).

    In her comment above, Sophie Wei mentions that "A manuscript by Ruggieri with full translations of the Four Books (Lunyu [論語 Analects], Daxue, Zhongyong and the Mengzi) is apparently extant in the National Library in Rome." Since Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) died before Couplet (1623–1693) was born, that would make his Latin translation the first — if it really exists. I suspect that, after the pandemic is over and people can travel more freely, Sophie will go to Rome (where she is familiar with the archives and libraries) and find out for herself if there truly is a complete Ruggieri translation of The Analects.

  11. Bart Barry said,

    July 8, 2020 @ 9:32 pm

    Thanks so much for taking the time to discuss this. Is there any good source for an examination of the spread of The Analects in Europe after this introduction?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 6:25 am

    The following monumental work is not focused on The Analects alone, but should give you an excellent idea of how Eastern thinking spread in the West during the period that interests you:

    The Birth of Orientalism
    by Urs App

    568 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 illus.
    Originally published: 2010

    Paper 2015 | ISBN 9780812223460 | $34.95s | Outside the Americas £26.99
    Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
    A volume in the series Encounters with Asia
    View table of contents

    Winner of the 2012 Book Prize from the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres

    For works dealing specifically with The Analects, take a look at the book by Bryan Van Norden in my previous comment, also Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization (Duke University Press, 1998), by Lionel M. Jensen.

  13. Bart Barry said,

    July 9, 2020 @ 8:24 pm

    Thanks again.

  14. Terpomo said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 9:50 am

    Likely the first woman to be literate in both Literary Sinitic and Latin, huh? How many women, or really, how many people period are there even now of whom that's the case? It seems like an impressive achievement even today.

  15. M. Paul Shore said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 4:09 pm

    Given this woman’s seemingly unblemished devoutness, and given that she was the founder of the city-within-a-city Xújiāhuì, I think the Vatican would be fully justified in saying “There ain’t no gal as true as our sweet Xú City Xú”.

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