Cecilia Aadenburg (1630-1692) and Zheng Chenggong: A Medici Girl’s Adventure in China

Croft KatelynCecilia Aadenburg lived in the mid to late 1600s during a time of great change. She was one of the few European women to travel and live in China and Taiwan. She witnessed one of the bloodiest dynastic transitions, from Ming to Qing, in Chinese history and had a passionate love affair with a maritime prince of southern China. A brave, intelligent, independent woman her story is a remarkable one of determination, courage, and love.

Born to Rosa de Medici and Alexander Aadenburg on August 31, 1630 in Holland, she was the youngest of eight children. Her mother was an illegitimate child of Cosimo de Medici, Duke of Tuscany. Cecilia’s father was from a minor noble family in Holland. Both of her parents were well educated and her mother, though illegitimate, was loved by her farther and received equal treatment as her half-siblings. After all, in her father’s eyes, she was still a Medici. Cosimo wanted to guarantee a happy life for his beloved daughter, as well as gain another political connection. The Aadenburgs were distant cousins of his wife’s. He learned that his wife had received a letter from the Aadenburgs informing her of their eldest son who was of marriageable age. Since the Aadenburgs were socially beneath the Medicis, their son was not a suitable match for any of Cosimo’s legitimate children, but would certainly suffice for his illegitimate daughter. He quickly seized the opportunity and arranged for Rosa to marry Alexander. After the marriage, the newly wed couple resided at the Aadenburg’s family estate in Holland. Alexander’s parents had a new addition added onto the family mansion just for them. They lived here until a new estate was purchased after the birth of their fifth child.

Cecilia was born one hot August summer day in 1630. She was the fourth and last daughter born to her parents and had a happy easy childhood. Both her parents greatly valued education. They allowed their daughters to sit in on their brothers’ lessons three times a week and encouraged them to read many books. She and her sisters were also educated in the skills deemed necessary for noble women of their time to posses, such as embroidery, music, etc. All children received instructed in Italian, Dutch, and Latin. Cecilia’s mother being a Medici, raised her children to be devout Roman Catholics. However, her father was not a particularly religious man. She and her siblings attended church daily and were required to spend an hour in prayer nightly. On top of this, the children also had a Jesuit priest who came daily to tutor them on the different aspects of catholic doctrine. Cecilia was captivated by the church at a very young age and desired to become a nun around the age of eight. Her mother supported her wish, for her family had produced many religious men. Her father though did not approve and forbid his daughter to enter a convent. The desire to live her life for God was one that stayed with Cecilia all her life.

In 1643 a great tragedy occurred which greatly affected and altered Cecelia’s life. Only thirteen years old, her father had already begun to search for suitable husbands to marry her off to. Then one day, her father suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack. The talk of marriage was forgotten and after the period of mourning concluded Cecilia was sent to live with her aunt and uncle, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Tuscany, in Italy.

In June of 1643 Cecilia arrived in Tuscany accompanied by her nurse and youngest brother. She was not one to be homesick and she immediately developed a great fondness for the Italian weather, scenery, and customs. Her aunt quickly developed a soft spot for her. However, Cecilia’s uncle looked down upon her for being the daughter of his father’s illegitimate child. He had only allowed the children to enter his home after prompting from his wife. She believed they would be good playmates for her newborn son and by living with them it would help relieve the burden on their grieving mother.

The children were required to attend church three times a day. Cecilia’s spiritual life experienced much growth during this period. She was permitted to visit the convent that lay right outside of the family’s estate as often as she wished. Here she learned how to tend to the sick, cook, garden, and do other menial daily tasks that her position in society deemed beneath her. Her talent as a nurse was quickly noticed and by the age of fifteen she was the unofficial head of the infirmary attached to the convent. It was here during a winter day in December 1645 that she met Fernando Giuseppe, a young man who came to the convent to receive treatment for a hand wound.

Fernando was twenty-five years old and on track to become a Jesuit priest. His fiery speech and passion for God not only captivated Cecilia’s attention, but also her heart. Any lingering desires to become a nun were completely forgotten. Though she was greatly in love with Fernando, she knew her feelings would not be returned. She wisely kept them to herself and expressed her love for him by encouraging and supporting him in his mission to serve God. It was through Fernando that she became connected to a group of Jesuits involved with missionary work in China. The first Jesuit missionaries were allowed to entire China in 16016. The Ming emperor permitted the Jesuits to act as tutors and astronomers in his court because they could accurately determine eclipses7. The Jesuits spread out through northern and southern China converting Chinese people to Catholicism until they were banned from worshiping during the reign of the Kangxi emperor8.

Fernando was officially ordained a priest in February of 1646 and set sail for China May of that year. Cecilia was greatly saddened by his departure and entered a time of reflection. She hated herself for the life of luxury and ease she lived while men like Fernando endured hardship to spread the word of God. It was not too long after he had sailed for China that she too decided to follow in his footsteps and embark for the foreign Chinese empire. Seeing as her uncle was not fond of her, she was able to relatively easily procure his blessing to go. July of 1646 she set sail for China.

It is known that the ship she was traveling on stopped at many points along the African coast and India before arriving in Macao on August 1, 1650. Her account of the journey is unknown though for several of her journals were lost in a fire. Her journal entries begin again in June of 1656.

Cecilia was very busy between the time of her arrival in Macao and June of 1656. Being quite intelligent and a gifted linguist, she studied Mandarin Chinese, which, after several years, she eventually could read, write, and converse in fluently. She worked with the Jesuit missionaries as a nurse; tending not only to their needs, but also to the local Chinese. In 1653, feeling that she was no longer needed in Macao, she moved with several priests to Fujian. It was here that she was to meet the maritime prince, Zheng Chenggong, with whom she would fall in love.

Zheng Chenggong was the eldest son of Zheng Zhilong1, who was one the leading maritime traders, pirates, and naval commanders in the early to mid 1600s2. Zheng Chenggong was half Chinese and Japanese3 and in 1647 seized part of his father’s grand maritime fleet4 when Zhilong was taken prisoner by the Qing. His power grew quickly and in 1650 he took over his family’s key base in Xiamen5. This became his main commercial and naval base6. Zheng Chenggong was a skilled leader though known to execute anyone who disappointed him.

According to her journal entries, Cecilia’s first encounter with Zheng Chenggong was in the spring of 1656. A poor fisherman had come to her lodgings earlier that morning requesting medical attention for his young son who had injured his hand working on their boat. She had agreed to help and was following the worried father along the docks to where his small boat was moored. She saw an impressive fleet of large sturdy vessels sailing into the harbor. By the time she had finished addressing the boy’s wounds several of the large vessels had docked and were unloading their cargo. Gigantic trunks of silver were being lifted off the decks and onto the dock by teams of four men. She observed a finely dressed young man walking down the gangplank of the largest ship when, suddenly, a large bang could be heard. One of the ship’s riggings had snapped, sending the large mast crashing to the deck. A cry of pain and frantic yelling pursued. The mast had landed atop some poor sailor. Without hesitating Cecilia ran up the gangplank and reached the crushed sailor as the crew hoisted the mast off of him. Ordering him in Chinese not to move, she assessed the damage done to his body. Luckily, the mast had only fallen on his left arm. Slowly, she moved and prodded his arm until she was fairly certain of the injury. The impact from the mast had broken his forearm and dislocated his shoulder. Recalling that she had once seen the nuns in Italy treat a man with a similar injury, she carefully popped the shoulder back into its socket and proceeded to wrap the arm in a makeshift splint. When finished, she instructed the sailor to rest and not use his left arm for two months.

While she had been treating the sailor, the finely dressed man she had seen early ascended the ship’s gangway and watched her interactions with the crew. Upon finishing treatment, Cecilia stood and turning around came face to face with the young man. They locked eyes and stood in silence taking in the other person’s appearance. Finally the man spoke thanking her for helping his sailor and inquired as to where she was from. She gave a brief reply stating that she was from Italy and had traveled here with the Jesuits. He stood in silence taking in what she had said. Cecilia broke the silence by asking whom she had the pleasure of speaking with. He gave her a small smile and said that surely she must have heard of him before. Silence again followed as she racked her brain trying to think of who this stranger could be. She looked closer at his youthful appearance, his expensive clothing, the gold and silver trinkets around his waist, the large crew and fleet of impressive ships. Aboard she saw hundreds of trunks full of silver and other precious items piled high on the deck. There was only one man who could posses such a fleet of ships and wealth at such a young age.

She had heard stories of a powerful rich man by the name of Zheng Chenggong whose naval base was in Xiamen. She concluded that this man must be him. He smiled thanking her again for the help and asked where she was staying in case the injured sailor should need further treatment. She replied with the necessary information and before she left he plucked a silver butterfly charm from his hair and gave it to her as a token of appreciation. Usually she did not accept gifts or payment for medical treatment, but she was so taken with him that she could not refuse. Cecilia found herself blushing and quickly descended the gangplank and hurried away down the dock. She looked back once, when she thought herself to be at a safe distance, and saw Chenggong staring after her with a smile on his face.

From this detailed journal entry it is no surprise to learn that Chenggong paid many visits to Cecilia following their first encounter under the disguise of needing medical treatment. A romantic affair that was to last for the next six years soon followed. Through Chenggong, Cecilia was exposed not only to the maritime world of merchants and pirates, but also to the struggle between the Ming and Qing governments.

During the Southern Song and Yuan dynasties, the importance of maritime trade was recognized and was systematically encouraged 9. However, during the Ming dynasty foreign trade was greatly restricted. The Ming emperors were more concerned with internal and land threats and paid virtually no attention to what happened along the coast10. This left merchants like Zheng Chenggong’s father and Zheng Zhilong, free to establish large naval fleets and trading routes. When the Ming government could no longer control the violence along the coast or hold back the Qing invaders they turned to Zheng Zhilong for assistance. After the Ming government fell the Zhengs remained loyal to the Ming princes and Zhilong was a key supporter of the Ming prince who claimed the succession in Fuzhou 11. However, Zhilong eventually defected to the Qing against his family and son’s pleadings. Like his father, Zheng Chenggong also supported a Ming prince, however, instead of supporting the prince that was closest to him, he supported the more distant ruler. He did this to avoid actually have to be subservient to the prince, as his father had experienced before.

Zheng Chenggong continued and expanded his father’s multiracial empire. He hired many sailors and workers from Japan, China, Africa, and the Philippines. Cecilia was there to witness the busy trades coming in and out of the Xiamen port. Chenggong showered gifts upon her and shared many stories of his voyages with her. However, he always kept his stories light hearted and never shared any of his burdens with her. Though they were romantically involved, Cecilia never lived with Chenggong. She continued to reside at the same small house and tend to the sick as she had been doing before she met Chenggong. Chenggong fathered two children with Cecilia, a boy in 1658 and a girl in 1660. Chenggong came to visit his children several times a week and occasionally took his infant son down to the docks with him to visit the ships. In Cecilia’s journal entries she states that it was easy to forget that there was a world and government that wished to overtake them outside of Chenggong’s mini empire in Xiamen.

It was in 1660 after the birth of her daughter that Cecilia records noticing changes in Chenggong’s personality. Busy with tending to the sick and caring for her two infant children, it does not seem like she was aware of the great strains Chenggong faced from the Qing Empire, the Ming loyalists, and his own conscious. The Qing Empire wishing to defeat Chenggong, established strict maritime trade bans12. They were very effective and eventually caused Chenggong to flee to Taiwan. Many years earlier, Chenggong’s father had claimed a settlement on Taiwan. Thus, by inheritance, Chenggong could have claimed Taiwan as part of his empire through his father; however, Chenggong denounced his father as a traitor when he defected to the Qing. The Qing ordered Chenggong to surrender, but he refused. Due to his refusal, the Qing emperor ordered the execution of Zhilong 13.

As the pressure from the Qing increased Chenggong visited Cecilia and their children with less and less frequency until one week he never came. Cecilia became increasingly anxious, but though she waited and wrote letters she did not hear back from her lover. For six months Cecilia received no news from him until one day in the spring of 1661 a messenger arrived ordering her to gather all of her belongings and come with him. Bewildered, she obeyed and gathered all necessary things into a trunk. They boarded a ship docked in the harbor and waiting in the cabin for her was a deranged Chenggong. Cecilia was taken aback by the man Chenggong had become and since she was aloof to the imposing Qing threat and the execution of Zhilong due to Chenggong’s unwillingness to surrender, she did not understand why he was behaving so strangely. She soon learned that they were fleeing to Taiwan and that Chenggong had brought her along to act as a translator between him and the Dutch. Chenggong’s fleet besieged the Dutch castle and it finally surrendered in January of 1662.

During the siege Cecilia tried to comfort and calm Chenggong, but she soon realized that nothing she could do would relieve him from the sever mental stress weighing down upon him. By fleeing to Taiwan, not only did he lose his home, but also the Ming loyalists viewed him as a traitor. As he became more insane, Cecilia wisely kept herself and her children away from him. All that was left for her to do was to pray to her God to help save the man she loved.

When the Dutch finally surrendered, she helped negotiate the settlement and Chenggong’s fleet settled in Taiwan. It was not long afterwards though that Chenggong contracted a disease, most likely malaria, and passed away14.  From her writings it is obvious that Cecilia was naturally saddened by the passing of Chenggong, but there was also a tone of relief for both herself and his crew. His insanity put many at risk for no one knew what he might do or whom next he would order to be executed. Though Chenggong was not religious, Cecilia arranged a proper European funeral and a Jesuit priest sailed over to Taiwan to conduct the service.

After Chenggong’s death she stayed in Taiwan for three more years helping the settlers. In 1665 she decided it would be best for her children to be raised in Italy and receive a formal education. In May of 1665 she sailed back to Italy, taking with her many treasures from her time in China and Taiwan. She arrived in Italy in 1667 and bought an estate close to her family’s home in Tuscany. This is where she resided until her death on November 3, 1692. She never married, but continued to support the Jesuit missionaries by sending them money. Her life was one of many trials and adventures and her grandchildren must have enjoyed listening to her recount the story of the first time she met her lover, the maritime prince of Southern China.


1 Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 222.
2 Wills, 221
3 Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800. New York: Norton, 2000. Page 397
4 Wills, 225
5 Wills, 227
6 Wills, 217
7 Hansen, 397
8 Ibid, 397
9 Wills, 217
10 Wills, 218
11 Wills, 221
12 Wills, 227
13 Wills, 229
 14 Hansen, 397

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KATELYN CROFT is a junior at the Eastman School of Music / University of Rochester where she is double majoring in Harp performance and Chinese Studies. In her spare time she enjoys reading, hiking, sewing, kayaking, doing Taekwondo, and traveling. More by Katelyn