It may be common knowledge for current and former students of The Chinese University of Hong Kong that the earliest student hostel ever built on campus is called the Adam Schall Residence. But perhaps the person Johann Adam Schall von Bell, in honor of whom the hostel was named, is not too familiar a figure for many, students or otherwise, in Hong Kong or elsewhere.
Johann Adam Schall von Bell was a German Jesuit missionary born in Cologne. In 1619, at the age of 28, he arrived Macau with a few other Jesuit missionaries, planning to enter China to spread Christianity, only to find themselves stranded in the Portuguese Settlement, as it was the Chinese policy then to curb foreigners’ entry. So Schall von Bell decided to settle down in Macau and learn Chinese and continue with his mathematics studies.
A few years later, in 1622, he unexpectedly got embroiled in Portuguese Macau’s military defense against an attack by the Dutch Calvinists, which attack was instigated by trade disputes. The Dutch (i.e. the Dutch East India Company) had for a long time been jealous of Macau’s lucrative intermediary position on the China-Japan trade route (silk in exchange for silver) and wanted to capture the Settlement. Schall von Bell and his fellow Jesuits went up to the citadel to man cannons that fired on the invading Dutch soldiers, and a shot accidentally hit an explosive dump near their camp. The defense was victorious and the Dutch were chased out.
When news of this reached the Ming Emperor’s ears, he invited Schall von Bell to Court and asked him to produce cannons for use against the invading Manchus. But the Jesuit’s skill at weaponry was clearly eclipsed by his knowledge in astronomy and his work in the calendar reform.
After the Ming Empire transitioned to the Qing Dynasty, Schall von Bell rose to prominence as a key adviser in Shunzhi Emperor’s reign. His influence on Shunzhi and his mother the de facto regent, the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, was nothing less than profound. Out of veneration for him, Shunzhi addressed him as “Mafa” in private, meaning “Grandfather” in Manchu. The Jesuit priest had first gained the Empress Dowager’s trust by healing a sickness that her niece had contracted, just prior to her becoming Empress to Shunzhi Emperor. It is said that Schall von Bell was overtly supportive of the Empress Dowager in her selection of Kangxi as the successor to Shunzhi. After Shunzhi died, Schall von Bell’s envious Chinese colleagues initiated a depraved false accusation against him, which led to a death sentence by slicing. He would have perished if not for an earthquake that shook the grounds of the execution square, which alerted the Empress Dowager to immediate intervention in the case. Although ultimately exonerated, his prison ordeal took a toll on his already frail health and he died shortly after regaining freedom.