CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 23, September 2010


When West Met East | China Heritage Quarterly

When West Met East

Jeremy Clarke, SJ
Boston College

May 11 2010 marked the four-hundredth anniversary of the death in Beijing of the legendary Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). The Italian-born priest arrived in Macau in 1582 and, after moving to the city of Zhaoqing in the southern province of Guangdong in 1583, spent the remaining twenty-seven years of his life in China actively engaged in cross-cultural exchange. So successful was Ricci in his pursuit of his goal—to immerse himself and the gospel fully into Chinese culture—that he is almost as well known in China as he is throughout the rest of the world. The difference, of course, is that there he is known as Li Madou 利瑪竇, which was both his Chinese name and, ultimately, his identity. For the people of China, then and now, Ricci was, to use Vincent Cronin's formulation, the 'wise man from the West'. For the many who remember him elsewhere, he stands as a pioneer of sophisticated and sympathetic east-west engagement.

Being a legend in one's own lifetime is not without its problems. Such problems became worse after his death as, ever since, the early period of modern Chinese Catholic history has been obscured by hagiography. As a result of the oft-recounted anecdotes about him, it is fair to say that Ricci is so well known that he is known not at all. Now, as the Chinese Catholic church rejoices in its more than four centuries of existence, it is worth looking anew at the life of this world figure.

Fig.1 Photograph: Jeremy Clarke

The fact that China seems such a distinctive place for most people from Europe and the Americas can partly explain the ongoing fascination with Ricci. The experience in China of firms like Google attests to this enduring sense of the 'Other'. If it is true that the past is a foreign country where they do things differently then how much more strange seems a distant empire in a far–off time. That Ricci was like a fish in this other ocean makes his exploits appear all the more remarkable, especially in our time. What then did Ricci do and why do we remember him?

To understand his contributions and thereby appreciate the beginnings of the modern Chinese Catholic church, it is important to go back to the year of his birth. In one of those strange quirks of history, 1552 marked the passing of one missionary giant, Francis Xavier, and the beginnings of another, Matteo Ricci. Xavier's death off the southern Chinese coast, on the island of Shangchuan (written also as Sancian or St John's Island), did not mark the demise of the nascent Society of Jesus' attempts to enter the eastern empire but rather heralded the launching of a sustained and energetic campaign to gain access to the people of this most cultured land.

Over the next thirty years many missionaries from numerous orders sought to enter China but, because the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) rigorously controlled its borders at this time, they were all unsuccessful. Some were deported while others died in prison. In the end the church was only able to breach the defences of the Ming through the successful application of a new missionary policy, one of rigorous adaptation to local culture. This insight, that the church must be 'Indian in India, Japanese in Japan and Chinese in China', was the brainchild of the chief Jesuit in the East, Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606). He was the Jesuit General's representative for all regions east of Goa and realised that a colonial mentality would simply not work in a culture as sophisticated as China, if indeed it could work anywhere. After all, he reasoned, what was the point of transplanting a Portuguese church in Asia?

Valignano handpicked another Italian, Michele Ruggieri (1542-1607), to travel to Macau—the gateway to China—and immerse himself in the study of Chinese language and culture. This often-forgotten pioneer of the China mission achieved two main goals. He became proficient enough to converse with local officials and gained sufficient cultural awareness as to avoid major social gaffes. Ruggieri's lonely labors so impressed the local officials that they invited him to live in China in 1582. He travelled to Zhaoqing with another Jesuit, Francesco Pasio (1554-1612), and this marked the beginning of the new period of Chinese Catholic history, one that continues up to the present day. The Jesuits were only allowed to remain for a brief time, however, and soon had to return to Macau. Luckily, Ruggieri was permitted to return to Zhaoqing the next year, and this time he was accompanied by Ricci.

Ruggieri's new companion had also been specially chosen by Valignano (who had also been Ricci's novice master back in Italy) and had been studying Chinese language assiduously since his arrival in Macau in the middle of 1582. Ricci's entry into China was thus made possible by Ruggieri's tenacity and the sagacity of Valignano. Although both these other men continued to be involved in the ongoing development of the China mission (and Valignano's strategic role as the plenipotentiary in the east continued to be vital) the amazing linguistic abilities of the newcomer fast made the fate of the mission synonymous with his exploits. Ricci's endeavours in the early years became the main means that the church spread throughout the country. He focussed on reaching the imperial capital and, moving ever northwards, opened communities in Shaozhou in late 1589, Nanchang in 1595, Nanjing in 1599 and then Beijing in 1601. A presence was also established in Shanghai in 1608.

Ricci's activities were as varied as they were impressive. Once he mastered enough spoken and written Chinese to communicate freely—still no easy task, even today—he tried his hand at whatever would help him develop relationships with the scholar officials. In the foundational years of the mission the Jesuits thought such connections were the most prudent and effective means of promoting and protecting the young church. Consequently, in pursuit of his evangelical goal, Ricci produced works in the fields of horology, hydraulics, optics, observational astronomy, surveying, music, geography and geometry. The wonder of the man is that even this list does not exhaust his achievements!

Fig.2 Photograph: Jeremy Clarke

Among other things, Ricci became famous in China for his large-scale world map, which he first constructed in 1584, a book on friendship written in 1595, which drew freely on a classic by the scholar Epictetus, and his treatise on mnemonics, which he wrote in 1596. Ricci used to impress dinner and conversation companions with his phenomenal memory, recalling after a single viewing everything from lines of high poetry to manufactured doggerel. For a country that prized itself on being able to quote readily from its own classics, a memory method that made such things easier was highly valued indeed. Working with one of the leaders of the early Chinese Christians, the Ming scholar Xu Guangqi (1562-1633), together they even translated Euclidean geometry into Chinese. This task that was all the more difficult because concepts like parallel lines and acute angles, for example, had no Chinese equivalents. Ever creative, Ricci and his companion simply invented terms for them. So apt were their choices that twentieth-century Chinese mathematicians still considered their work to be unsurpassable.

For all that Ricci was a true Renaissance man, representing the breadth of the humanistic learning undertaken by Jesuits at their colleges throughout Europe at that time, he was nevertheless a man of the cloth as well. Not surprisingly therefore, even when pursuing these other tasks Ricci was also constantly engaged in translating dictionaries for the use of other missionaries, and composing prayer books, apologetic works and catechisms for Chinese neophytes. The most well known of Ricci's books about Christianity was, arguably, his The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (Tianzhu shiyi 天主實義). While these books became widely regarded, their most important contribution was that they encouraged everyone from scholars to simple folk to engage in conversations about the gospel and Jesus, the Lord of Heaven.

In pursuit of Valignano's directives, Ricci and his China-based Jesuit companions wore Chinese clothing, wrote and spoke Chinese, ate Chinese food and lived in Chinese houses (often buying 'haunted' houses because they were cheaper). Rarely, if ever, did any of their number return to Europe and they did so only to promote the cause of the China mission. As they themselves noted, they had become Chinese in all things in order to win China for Christ. Although the early years were marked by difficulty and struggle—there were only around 2500 Christians in China by the time of Ricci's death—Ricci and his companions had nevertheless laid a sure foundation. On his deathbed Ricci was able to say, 'I am leaving you before an open door which leads to great merits, but not without great effort and many dangers.'

Ricci's own stupendous efforts and heroic embracing of multiple dangers—this mixture of academic activity and pastoral strategy—has kept alive both the fascination in his life and regard for the progress of the Chinese church. Over the centuries Ricci's work has been described variously as an ascent to Beijing, an apostolate through books, an early instance of inculturation and as an example of cross-cultural exchange. Although these are all apt and fair, they somehow miss the tenor of the man.

Perhaps the best way to think about Ricci's long years in China, and to hold together not only his joy of scholarship (arduous though that must have been) but also his capacity to endure the thousand cuts of living far from all that was once dear to him, is to see his ministry as one of friendship. That is, for all Ricci's undoubted academic and personal talents, the gift that endured above all things was his capacity to delight in the company of others.

It is important, surely, to recall Ricci's remarkable feats of scholarship and of pure dogged persistence in the face of shipwreck, home invasion, violence, persecution and the daily travails of being a stranger in a strange land (especially in the early difficult years). Yet, even so, this is barely the sum of it. Ricci was only ever able to continue to engage in his various tasks, be this the translation of geometrical principles into Chinese, the pastoral engagement that resulted from debating theological concepts with some of the brightest Buddhists of the day, and the joyful chore of welcoming thousands of inquisitive scholars to his home, because of the support and companionship he received from his friends. While a few of these friends were his Jesuit brothers (at the time of his death there were eight European and eight Chinese Jesuits at work on the mission) the vast majority, nevertheless, were both the Chinese scholars and officials he met as well as the local people he talked with on his travels, on the street and in the marketplace. To recall the exploits of Ricci, therefore, we must also remember his company of friends.

Ricci's life was spent in the pursuit of creating a Chinese Catholic church and thus when we recall the extraordinary manner in which he went about this task—taking Europe and the gospel to China and transmitting China and its culture to Europe—it seems fair at the time of this anniversary to remember also people like the first two Chinese Jesuits, Huang Mingsha (1570-1606) and Zhong Mingren (1562-1621), and the early Chinese Catholics, from the poor peasants in Shaozhou and Nanchang, to the influential scholars like Xu Guangqi and Li Zhizao (1569-1630). Ricci has been considered as the giant upon whose shoulders subsequent generations stand, and in many ways this is right and just, given his inspirational role in promoting both the cause of Chinese culture and Chinese Catholicism. It might be more appropriate now, however, to see him as seated at a round table, receiving the hospitality of his friends, sipping tea and talking of many things in order to talk of one thing, God here among us, from east to west.


This essay was previously carried in America Magazine, 10 May 2010 (Vol.202, No.15): 13-16 (see It is reproduced here with permission.—The Editor