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Matteo Ricci: A Jesuit in the Ming Court

Considered the father of European sinology, the Italian who tried to fully understand the culture of China that he sought to evangelize

Just founded in the 16th century, the Jesuits soon spread throughout the world. One of his goals was to penetrate the mysterious China, a country that felt no need for contact with foreigners, whom he considered to be barbarians by definition.

The first to send news about the eastern giant to Ignacio de Loyola, the founder of the order, was Francisco Javier. The mandarin empire, in the words of this Navarrese Jesuit, was a large and peaceful land, where there was more justice than in any state of Christendom.

However, Francisco Javier spoke of hearsay. He knew Japan firsthand, but never entered mainland China. Instead, another member of the Society of Jesus, the Italian Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), obtained permission to enter, beginning a long missionary stage in a territory completely alien to the European worldview.

To win the eastern sovereign, religious must demonstrate the superiority of their beliefs

To the Westerners of the Renaissance and Baroque, China was an unknown giant. The very name of “China” had nothing to do with that country, which its inhabitants called Zhongguo, “kingdom of the center”. Its people had a very different character from that of Europeans, with their own features that were expressed in a thousand details. When they disliked something, they made it known by indirect means, rather than openly protesting.

The Jesuits sought to evangelize China. How did they hope to achieve it? First they intended to convert the emperor. Once the Empire’s elites were Catholic, the rest would not present much of a complication. History showed that this was what had happened in other times, in Rome under Constantine or in the Visigoth Spain of Recaredo.

Father Madou

Originally from Macerata, an Italian city in the Adriatic, Ricci expressed at a young age his desire to be a missionary in Asia. He arrived in China in 1583, along with Father Ruggero, also from the Company. After settling in Zhaoqing, a southern city, he immediately tried to adapt to his new environment. That meant, to begin with, learning a language of particular difficulty, made up of thousands of different signs with complex pronunciation. He would come to master it perfectly, to the point of writing books such as Jiaoyou mon (On friendship). He also invented a system to transcribe his characters into the European alphabet.

Matteo Ricci

To win over the powerful Eastern sovereign, European religious had to first demonstrate the superiority of their beliefs. They found a way to do it: science. At that time, the Chinese were interested in western knowledge, in which they saw an instrument for solving practical problems. How to calculate, for example, an area or a volume?

Ricci, an expert in mathematics and cartography, provided his hosts with what they expected. He drew for them a world map that gave him great prestige, the complete Map of the mountains and the seas of the Earth. Some, seeing in him that the Italian came from such remote geographies, sighed in relief. It was unlikely that troops would be dispatched from such a huge distance to invade the Ming’s domain.

Ricci exhibited objects such as clocks, pictures or books in the Jesuit residence, which powerfully attracted the curiosity of his visitors. Some time later he translated into Chinese the Elements of Geometry of Euclid, the ancient Greek sage, together with his disciple Qu Rukui.

In his evangelization he accepted all the baggage of the oriental culture that was not opposed to the Christian principles

On the other hand, he tried to spread the Gospel based on an unusual intercultural approach for the time. The Jesuits had to be Chinese among the Chinese, that is, accept all the baggage of Eastern culture that was not opposed to Christian principles. Hence, Ricci adopted a Chinese name, Li Madou.

This pedagogy involved looking for the points of contact between the doctrine of Jesus Christ and that of Confucius, so that the former would be less strange to the native public. Ricci went on to translate the Four Books of Confucianism into Latin, with the title Tetrabiblon sinense de moribus. In 1603 she gave birth to her own version of the Catholic Catechism, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven.

In any case, transmitting evangelical values required an effort of imagination with which to overcome serious obstacles. It was even difficult to find a word to translate the western concept of God, because in China the idea of a divinity separate from the world was meaningless.

Matteo Ricci (on the left) with his collaborator Qu Rukui.

On the other hand, the efforts to adapt Christianity to the sensibilities of the Orientals aroused deep hostility within the Church. Critics of the Jesuits believed that doctrinal orthodoxy was at stake. A great controversy was generated that was settled in the eighteenth century, when Rome gave the reason to those who opposed local rites.

Opposition in and out

With his scientific knowledge and diplomatic savoir faire, Ricci made friends among the Chinese leaders. To gain the sympathy of the country’s upper classes, the Jesuits grew beards and long hair, in imitation of the local fashion followed by the lawyers, that is, educated people. Their support had to be obtained to realize the great objective of the Company: to create a network of schools in the style of those that existed in European countries.

Still, distrust of foreigners was very difficult to overcome. Sometimes this suspicion acquired violent overtones. On one occasion, during a xenophobic attack against the Society of Jesus, Ricci was wounded. He would be lame forever.

It took him three years to return to the capital, but he did it in a big way, under the protection of Emperor Wanli

Since Marco Polo’s time, Europeans believed in the existence of a fabulous kingdom called “Catay”. Ricci, thanks to the multiple information that he was able to collect, concluded that this land was, in fact, China. This was communicated to his colleagues in the Company, although they did not pay special attention to him.

Our man did not obtain permission to travel to Beijing until 1598, when he had already been in the country for fifteen years. A Nanking authority made his stay easier by noting that European astronomy was useful for improving the calendar, an invention that in China was much more than an instrument to measure time: it governed the social order. The candy of science, however, did not prevent the bureaucrats from emptying it out.

It took him three years to return to the capital, but he did it in a big way, under the protection of Emperor Wanli. The sovereign was delighted with the gifts that those foreigners brought, especially with the mechanical watches. Michela Fontana, in Matteo Ricci (Messenger, 2017), points out that “the good reception given to the clocks had allowed the Jesuits to establish a privileged channel of communication”. Fascinated by these unusual visitors, the emperor peppered them with questions. I wanted to know everything about Europe. How its inhabitants lived, how they dressed, how they married …

Portrait of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci

Buried in China

Ricci coincided in Beijing with another Jesuit, the Spanish Diego de Pantoja. Although they could have collaborated, they dedicated themselves to getting along like the dog and the cat. In part, his was a clash of personalities. While the Italian was humble and sociable, the Spanish was impetuous and stubborn.

However, their rivalry is explained rather by their different ideas regarding evangelization. Ricci concentrated on the civil service. Pantoja, on the contrary, in the humble classes. The first highlighted the points of contact between East and West. The second emphasized differences and spared no criticism of Confucius.

At the time of his death, the Italian Jesuit had earned Chinese respect. For his scientific contribution, he had been granted the right to have a space for his own mausoleum, an honor that had never been awarded to a foreigner before. The grave was destroyed in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion. Restored later, it would be a victim of vandalism in times of the Cultural Revolution, so it had to be rebuilt again.

Today, in the XXI century, Ricci continues to fascinate with the audacity with which he tried to understand a culture so far removed from his own.

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