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Matteo Ricci, a missionary respected for his expert knowledge of China and the West, was the first Jesuit to live in Beijing. His deep understanding and tolerance for Chinese beliefs aided his missionary work and allowed for a greater acceptance of Catholicism among his converts.
The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) is a leading figure in the history of the West’s interaction with China. Despite the fact that few religious converts were made during his twenty-seven years in China, Ricci did lay the foundation for the early Catholic presence in the Middle Kingdom (the literal translation of Zhongguo, the name for China dating to ancient times), and his scholastic abilities, including his incredible memory and mastery of Chinese language and philosophy, along with his knowledge of mathematics, cartography, and astronomy, impressed many members of the ruling class. Through his translations he introduced the basic tenets of the Christian faith to China, most notably in his work, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, as well as the math and logic of Euclid. Matteo Ricci is remembered for his role in pioneering the early cultural relations between Europe and China.
Born in the Italian city of Macerata, Ricci received his early education at home. In 1561, he entered a local school run by a religious order called the Society of Jesus, commonly referred to as the Jesuits, and seven years later he left Macerata to study law in Rome. In 1571, however, Matteo abandoned his legal studies and joined the Jesuit Order. Under the tutelage of the famous scholar Clavius, he studied mathematics and astronomy in addition to his religious training, which he received at Jesuit colleges in Florence and Rome. In 1577 Matteo left Italy and, after a brief stay at the University of Coimbra in Portugal where he studied Portuguese, he arrived in the port of Goa in India. While in Goa he taught Latin and Greek at the local Jesuit college and continued to prepare for the priesthood. Ordained in July 1580, Father Ricci was dispatched two years later to Macao on the coast of southern China where he immediately began an intensive program of studying both written and spoken Chinese.
In 1583, Matteo Ricci accompanied Father Michele Ruggieri on a mission to establish a Catholic presence inside China. They settled in Zhaoqing, the administrative capital of the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, careful not to draw unnecessary attention to themselves while they worked to secure friendship from the ruling class. Abandoning an early strategy of integrating into Chinese society by wearing the orange robes of Buddhist priests, Fathers Ruggieri and Ricci donned the traditional costume of the Confucian literati elite instead. Recognizing that it was this class of society whose toleration, if not assistance, they required, the Jesuit missionaries worked to gain their acceptance by portraying themselves as scholars, moralists, and philosophers, rather than as religious priests.
While in Zhaoqing, Ricci mastered not only the basics of the Chinese language but also the philosophy of the ruling class. Relying on his tremendous memory, he could recite passages from the Four Books of the Confucian codex as well as selections from the classics of ancient literature and history along with volumes of commentaries on Chinese philosophy. This was a remarkable achievement given that no substantial dictionaries or language guides existed at the time. In the summer of 1589, Ricci and Ruggieri were forced to leave Zhaoqing after being expelled by an official who was hostile to the presence of foreigners. The Jesuit fathers then moved north of Guangzhou (Canton) to the town of Shaozhou where they remained for the next six years.
In 1595, after a total of twelve years in the south, Ricci was able to secure permission to travel north into the heart of China. Although he could not gain entry to the capital of Beijing, he did establish himself in the city of Nanchang in central China. Here he continued to cultivate friendships with members of the literati, and in 1597 he was named the superior of the China mission. In the fall of 1598 he was finally allowed to accompany a prominent Chinese official on a trip to the imperial capital. Although his first visit to Beijing was brief, Ricci was convinced that the city was the same as Khanbalic, the capital of Cathay (an anglicized version of “Catai,” an alternative name for China) that had been described by the adventurer Marco Polo three centuries earlier. Father Ricci’s belief that Polo’s Cathay and Ming-dynasty China were one and the same was confirmed a few years later by his fellow Jesuit, Father De Goes, who travelled to China overland from India noting the accuracy of Polo’s descriptions of the region.
After leaving Beijing, Ricci settled in the secondary capital of Nanjing on the Yangzi (Chang) River where he continued his study of Chinese language and philosophy. He also reworked an earlier version of a map of the world that he had drawn while in Zhaoqing, and this extremely detailed map greatly impressed the local Confucian scholars. After nearly two decades in China, Ricci was at last granted permission to travel to Beijing, and despite efforts by the powerful eunuch Ma Tang to stop his visit, he entered the Chinese capital in January of 1601. The Ming emperor, who was impressed by the Jesuit’s gifts, which included a painting that utilized the technique of perspective, something untried up to this time by Chinese artists; two clocks that struck on the hour; and a music instrument called a spinet, granted him permission to reside in Beijing permanently. Ricci spent the final nine years of his life in the Ming capital.
During his time in Beijing, equipped with a command of written Chinese after years of dedicated study, Ricci began to translate European texts for publication. In addition to publishing his revised map of the world, he also oversaw the publication of many of these texts, including a summary of the Christian faith in a work called The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (1603), the first six books of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry (1607), and The Ten Paradoxes (1608).
In the end it was not Ricci’s religious teachings but his scientific knowledge—as demonstrated by his mastery of astronomy and use of sundials, clocks, and prisms—that impressed the Chinese court. His deep understanding of Chinese culture, combined with his willingness to accommodate his appearance and religious views to the traditions of the Confucian literary elite, paved the way for later generations of Jesuit missionaries in China. However, Matteo Ricci’s contention that the Chinese practice of Confucian rites, or “ancestor worship,” was not a religious practice but a social custom was overturned a century later by the Congregation of Rites in Rome in 1704, a decision that ended an earlier period of cultural accommodation and toleration.
- Cronin, V. (1955). The wise man from the West. New York: Dutton.
- Dunne, G. H. (1962). Generation of giants: The story of the Jesuits in China in the last decades of the Ming Dynasty. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Gernet, J. (1986). China and the Christian impact: A conflict of cultures. (J. Lloyd, Trans.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Harris, G. (1966). The mission of Matteo Ricci, S.J.: A case study of an effort at guided cultural change in the sixteenth century. Monumenta Serica, 25(1), 1–168.
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- Trigault, N. (1953). China in the sixteenth century: The journals of Matthew Ricci, 1583 –1610 (L. J. Gallagher, Trans.). New York: Random House.
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