Life was hard for Arcadio Huang in the autumn and early winter of 1713. Paris was bitterly cold and covered in fog. France’s long war over the Spanish Succession had demoralized the population, driven up the cost of food and eroded the value of money. Arcadio had married a young Parisian woman, Marie-Claude Regnier, in April 1713; their life quickly became a struggle for survival and self-respect. Their rented room in rue Guénégaud, on the south bank of the Seine across from Notre Dame cathedral, was always cold since they had not enough money for a regular supply of wood or coal. Their furniture was sparse, they had few clothes and they could not afford a decent matrimonial bed. Salt for their simple meals was too expensive. And, worst of all, on some mornings Huang would awaken spitting blood. After these episodes he felt a terrible lassitude and would need to rest in bed for hours.
Huang was born in 1679 in the coastal Chinese province of Fujian. His father was a Catholic convert, baptized as Paul; anxious to live the celibate life of a religious Christian, Paul had wished not to marry, but had been forced to by his parents, since he was their only son and they would not allow the family line to die out. Paul’s wife bore four daughters and the family was in despair. Then she gave birth to a boy, baptized as Arcadio. Paul and his wife had pledged to each other that they would introduce a male child to the religious life. Paul died when his son was only seven, but Arcadio’s mother stuck to her vow. She brought Arcadio to Philibert Le Blanc, a French missionary of forty-two who had recently arrived in Fujian. Le Blanc agreed to educate the boy and prepare him for the Church. Arcadio was formally adopted by Le Blanc in conformance with Qing dynasty law, and began studies under him.
Le Blanc introduced Arcadio to Catholic theology and to the Latin language. After three years he unaccountably passed the boy on to Artus de Lionne, the titular Bishop of Rosalie, who continued to train Arcadio in the same range of subjects. Probably around 1695, while in his mid-teens, Arcadio set off on a series of travels around south and central China, staying with relatives and exploring the customs of each area.