From China to Paris: a 1693 account of one woman’s journey

We recently completed cataloging the Saint-Sulpice Collection at the Newberry Library, which contains about 2,500 pamphlets and manuscripts chiefly in French that are nearly all biographical. These items, dating from the 16th to early 19th centuries, were collected and eventually bound into volumes by the Sulpician priests of Paris and used as educational models to teach their seminarians rhetorical writing skills.

While it is unsurprising that the Sulpicians would collect biographical pamphlets on kings and saints, the Saint-Sulpice Collection also contains pamphlets on both the notorious, such as infamous poisoners, and obscure. One such example of the latter is an anonymous manuscript letter regarding the past travails of a Chinese woman in Paris identified only as Ina (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8).

Lettre de Mademoiselle *** a Made. *** contenant l'histoire de la Chinoise (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8)

According to the letter, Ina was born in Beijing to a noble family and married a man at a young age of similar noble birth. During a journey down the coast to Nanjing with her husband and young son, she and her party were attacked by Dutch pirates. While her husband was killed during the skirmish, Ina, her son, and a number of servants were captured and taken on board. Although most of her possessions were taken from her, she was treated well for a time.

However, subsequent captains and crew mistreated her during many years of life at sea. Eventually, her son and all of her servants died of a fever. During a port stop in Paris, Ina was paraded around the city, where both the ship’s crew and the citizens of Paris stared at and jostled her now tattered traditional Chinese clothing. The crew abandoned her in Paris without money or possessions.

While Ina and her Chinese culture are exoticized throughout the text, some moments of human compassion are apparent, such as the moment when a nun finds Ina alone and destitute on a Parisian street and offers her shelter. The anonymous correspondent offers these reflections:

Compren[n]ez, s’il vous plait, dans quel désespoir vne femme qui est née auec du bien, qui a esté touiours heur[eu]se, et qui a de la naissance, se trouue réduite, au milieu de la rüe, pendans la nuit, au coeur de l[']hiuer, dans une des plus grandes villes du monde, sans argent, sans connoissances, sans pouuoir dire un seul mot de la langue, du païs à six milles lieuës du sien, et sans pouuoir demander du secours au vray Dieu qu’elle n’auoit pas encore le bonheur de connoistre.

[Understand, if you will, the despair of a high-born, wealthy woman, who was always happy, and now finds herself reduced to nothing, out in the street at night in the middle of winter in one of the largest cities in the world, without money and friends, without knowing a single word of the language in a country six thousand leagues from her own, and without the ability to ask help from the true God whom she has not yet had the good fortune of knowing.] (p. [16])

The letter appears to have been sent to or originated from the convent of the Augustines de la Miséricorde de Jésus in the Saint-Marcel quarter of Paris in 1693. Presumably, the nun who discovered Ina in the streets of Paris or one of her fellow sisters is the author of the letter.

Lettre de Mademoiselle *** a Made. *** contenant l'histoire de la Chinoise (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8)

Ina became an object of fascination to many prominent members of Parisian society, as they tried to discern where she was from based on her appearance and language, which they could not identify for some time. Eventually, Ina joined the other sisters in the convent as a nun. I have been unsuccessful in finding any other documents to corroborate Ina’s story or to attest to her existence at all. But this manuscript is a fascinating document that reveals Western attitudes toward the East in late 17th-century France.

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