The origin of the Jesuit Figurists in China can be traced to the ideas of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. He had seen in ancient Chinese religion evidence of God, which convinced him that there was a connection with the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Jesuits wanted to integrate the Confucian tradition instead of rejecting Chinese traditional elements such as the Rites, which can be seen as accommodation to the Chinese tradition. They hoped to convince the Chinese literati of their theories and consequently convert them to the Christian faith.
The Figurists often disagreed with each other but there were three basic tenets on which they could agree:
- The Issue of Chronology - The first aspect that all Figurists agreed upon was the belief that a certain period in the Chinese history does not belong to the Chinese only but to all of mankind. The Jesuits furthermore believed that Chinese history dated back before the Flood and was therefore as old as European history. This made the Figurists believe that the two histories were equal in religious importance.
- The Theory of Common Origin with Noah - After the great Flood, Noah’s son Shem moved to the Far East and brought with him the secret knowledge of Adam in original purity. Thus the Figurists believed that you could find many hidden allusions to pre-Christian revelation in the Chinese classics. The Figurists also thought that Fu Xi, supposedly the author of the I Ching, was really Enoch, the biblical patriarch.
- The Revelation of Messiah - The Figurists determined that the shengren (聖人), or sage, was in fact the Messiah. This proved in the minds of the Figurists that for example the birth of Jesus was foreshadowed in the Chinese classics as well.