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"Weaving a Profound Dialogue between West and East": On Matteo Ricci, S.J. | Anthony E. Clark | May 27, 2009 | Ignatius Insight
After two years of frenzied media interest in the Beijing
2008 Olympics and China's meteoric economic growth,
the Church will turn its attention next year, 2010, to the most famous
Westerner who ever lived inside the Great Wall, the Jesuit missionary Fr.
Matteo Ricci, S.J. (Li Madou, 1552-1610).
Pope Benedict XVI has asked the
bishop of Macerata, Italy, Claudio Giuliordi, to prepare for a Jubilee Year in
honor of the four-hundred-year anniversary of Ricci's death; Ricci died on May
11, 1610, at his small church in Beijing's busy Xuanwu district. His impact on
China was so great that after his death the Ming (1368-1644) ruler, Emperor
Wanli (r. 1563-1620), gave imperial land in Beijing to the Jesuits for his
burial. Fr. Ricci was the first non-Chinese ever allowed to be interred inside
the Middle Kingdom. His tomb at the Zhalan Cemetery, located today in the
campus of the Beijing Communist Administrative College, is an actively visited
sight in China's capital, and when Chinese Catholics pass his statue at
Beijing's South Cathedral, they bow and offer him a short prayer.
In China, Matteo Ricci is hailed
as the Western world's greatest "foreign guest" to China for his contributions
to Chinese science, cartography, calendrics, mathematics, and philosophy. While
China's list of accolades does not generally include an appreciation for
Ricci's religious beliefs, the Church remembers him as the "father" of the
China mission, one of the founders of Catholic apologetics, a controversial
accomodationist, and one of history's most brilliant thinkers.
One thing is certain, in the
fields of Sinology, map making, mission history, Sino-Western relations,
linguistics, and Chinese history, among the first and most significant names
conjured will be Matteo Ricci; his legacy in world history is enormous, even if
too often overlooked or underappreciated.
Matteo Ricci began his missionary
work in 1582 at Macau, a Portuguese trading colony in southern China, where he
began his studies in Mandarin Chinese. Unlike the missionary methods of other
Orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, Ricci endeavored to introduce
Christianity to China delicately, choosing to graft the faith more organically
onto China's existing culture rather than Christianizing it by first
Westernizing the Middle Kingdom's ancient traditions.
Ricci was one of the first
Christian missionaries to master the official guanhua dialect of Chinese, the language spoken by the literati
elite, the Confucian magistrates who held the administrative reins of the
empire. While other missionaries struggled with the basics of southern China's
Cantonese dialect, Ricci was the first to navigate through the entire empire
without a translator; he was a linguistic genius. Unlike the missionaries from
other Orders, Matteo Ricci understood that learning China's native language was
the best, if not only way, to access China's people and culture.
Having mastered the Middle
Kingdom's difficult spoken and written language, and memorized the Confucian
classics (a lifetime commitment for other mortals), Ricci apprehended China's
cultural mores better than his contemporaries. He knew that there were cultural
aversions to certain images—such as those depicting Christ's
Passion—and he understood that the only way to effectively introduce
Christ to China would be to withhold some aspects of Christianity until native
Chinese were better prepared. In a 1596 letter to the Jesuit Superior, Ricci
wrote, "We only venture to move forward very slowly . . . it is true that up
till now we have not explained the mysteries of our holy faith, but we are
nonetheless making progress by laying the principle foundations." 
In his journals, Ricci often wrote of his desire to bring
the truths of Christianity to China; in fact, his Christian mission figured
foremost in his writings. Fr. Ricci wished to highlight Western knowledge and
Western ways of learning; this, he felt, would eventually bring the Chinese to
the religion of the West, and thus to Christ. While in Nanchang he held public
debates with Chinese scholars on science and theology, and the local Confucian
officials marveled at Ricci's precocity. During these disputations, he
memorized and recalled a long series of Chinese characters after merely
glancing at them. In a letter to Rome, Fr. Ricci wrote:
... in order to increase their wonder,
[I] began to recite [the characters] all by memory backwards in the same
manner, beginning with the very last until reaching the first. By which they
all became utterly astounded an as if beside themselves. 
To bring Christ to China Ricci had first brought Western
learning and techniques for memorization, and in order to make the message of
the Gospel more accessible to the Middle Kingdom he had made himself more
accessible to China by becoming more Chinese himself.
Not only did Fr. Ricci set in place the Jesuit tradition of
mastering the Chinese language and hallowed Confucian classics, but he also
initiated the practice of piquing Chinese interest in Christianity by first
intriguing them with Western curiosities. At his first mission in Zhaoqing, he
enticed local elites in 1584 with his mappus mundi, the first Chinese-language, European-style map of
the entire world. It was the first time that Chinese had seen a map drawn to
scale, more or less, illustrating China in comparison to the rest of the globe.
Not only did Ricci's map interest Chinese locals, but it also challenged
previous assumptions that China occupied most of the world's land mass.
While some accuse Ricci of focusing too exclusively on
wooing the Chinese with Western curiosities such as maps, clocks, and
clavichords, he did bring many Chinese into the Church. Three Chinese converts
during Ricci's mission are known today as "the three great pillars of Chinese
Catholicism," the first of whom is widely known in both Catholic and Protestant
circles as the most influential and powerful Chinese Christian to have lived,
Paul Xu Guangqi (1562-1633). Paul Xu, named after St. Paul the Evangelist, held
China's highest degree, the jinshi, and
was thus a statesman in constant contact with the emperor's Court in Beijing.
Xu's conversion was largely facilitated by Matteo Ricci's Chinese catechism,
the Tianzhu shiyi (The True
Meaning of the Lord of Heaven), in which a Chinese scholar (zhongshi) is pitted against a Western one (xishi), and using Aristotelian logic the Chinese
interlocutor is convinced of the West's intellectual acumen and the truth of
the "Lord of Heaven."
The other two "pillars" were Li Zhizao (1565-1630), also a jinshi, and Yang Tingyun (1562-1627). Chinese Catholics
generally hold that Ricci and the "three pillars" are the bedrock of China's
Church, and the method Ricci used to promote the faith is known in China as the
"Ricci method." In many ways, we can say that Matteo Ricci was one on the
Church's finest apologists; several of his written works were intended to teach
and defend the faith in a culture often unfriendly to Christianity.
Ricci's approach to preaching the
Gospel in China was based on the idea that in order to convert all of China the
educated elite must first be convinced of the truths taught in Christianity,
and this meant that his missionary method had to formulate an intellectually
rigorous system of presenting and defending Catholic belief.
He also considered that in an
intrinsically hierarchical society, the best way to convert China would be to
first convert the emperor himself. As Jean-Pierre Charbonnier writes,
"The Jesuits ... dreamed of a new Constantine for China."  One of Ricci's
approaches to Christian apologetics was to explain how Christianity was in fact
already latent in Chinese culture, and even more, he set himself to
accommodating Catholic liturgical and devotional life to extant Chinese rituals
In effect, the Ricci method is best described in the words
of the Catholic historian and founder of the field of missiology, Josef
Schmidlin, who wrote that, according to Ricci, a missionary must:
... fight and eliminate all those
elements in the concepts and customs of the people which originate from the
paganism proper and are in direct opposition to Christianity, but with as much
moderation and wise timing as possible under the consideration of the
permissible usage of the people in the greatest extent. 
Matteo Ricci hoped to not only demonstrate that Christianity
was logically convincing, but that it was inherent in the traditional works of
ancient China. He was, perhaps, the principle founder of the Jesuit school in
China known as the Figurists, and his Figurist assertions precipitated a storm
of controversy, not only among the intellectuals of China, but also the
theologians in Rome.
Some have argued that Matteo Ricci's eagerness to bring
China to the fullness of the Catholic faith led him to several problematic
assumptions. Ricci proposed that ancient Chinese religion held evidence of God,
and he came to three conclusions about China's relationship with the Christian
God that formed the basis of the Jesuit Figurists.
His first assertion was related to historical chronology; he
suggested that China's antediluvian history was shared with China's history,
that Eastern and Western history was the same before the Great Flood. Second,
the Figurists believed that Noah's son, Shem, moved to China, bringing with him
the knowledge of Adam when he was originally sinless. And third, Ricci's method
believed that the "sages" (shengren)
mentioned in China's ancient classics actually prefigured and alluded to
Christ, the Messiah.
In reality, none of these assertions held to scholarly
historical investigation; they were little more than hopeful intellectual
propositions that highlight Ricci's concern for China's spiritual welfare more
than his historical understanding of China's past and its Confucian tenets.
What eventually happened was that local Chinese literati were enraged a
foreigner took such exegetical liberties with the revered history and beliefs
of their own traditions. Ricci's accomodationist method led many Confucians to
view the Jesuits as deceitful and misinformed.
Sadly, while Ricci's wish to integrate Confucianism into
Christianity instead of rejecting China's indigenous culture is admirable,
these contentions produced more problems than good results. But in the end,
Matteo Ricci is little remembered for his theological and historical
creativity; he is more often remembered today for his contributions to, and
influence on, Chinese society, a legacy few foreigners can claim.
Jean Lacouture, in his book about the great men of the Jesuit Order, wrote:
Matteo Ricci was the perfect man of
culture, a polymath versed in all things, mathematics and literature,
philosophy and poetry, mechanics and astronomy. Not for nothing was he the
pupil of Christophonus Clavius, Roberto Bellarmino, and Luis de Molina. But he
denied that he was a theologian, although others say he was. And . . . in his
hands the exact sciences as well as morals and logic would be turned into the
weapons of apologetics. 
Few people have ever mastered, no less written on, such a
wide array of topics: philosophy, astronomy, theology, friendship, cartography,
catechetics, apologetics, mathematics, and so forth.
At the end of his life Ricci had earned the respect of more
than his fellow Jesuits; he had gained the admiration of the Chinese
people—the common people, educated officials, Court eunuchs, and the
emperor himself. His life is not without controversies, especially regarding
some of his historical assumptions. And while he was known as a profoundly holy
and faithful priest of God, he nonetheless destroyed his spiritual diary while
on his deathbed. In China Matteo Ricci is often called the "wise man from the
West," and in the Western world he is heralded as the father of China missions
and accomodationist missiology.
At a time when China emerges as one of the world's strongest
and most powerful nations, Pope Benedict the XVI remembers the Church's role in
the Middle Kingdom's long history. The Holy Father has written that Ricci, was
"gifted with profound faith and extraordinary cultural and academic genius,"
and that he "dedicated long years of his life to weaving a profound dialogue
between West and East, at the same time working incisively to root the Gospel
in the culture of the great people of China. Even today, his example remains as
a model of fruitful encounter between European and Chinese civilization."
 Quoted by Joseph Shih, S.J, in his introduction to Matteo Ricci and Nicolas
Trigault, Histoire de l'expédition chrétienne au royaume de la Chine,
1582-1610 (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1978), 38. Also see
Charbonnier, Christians in China, 153.
 Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Penguin Group, 1983), 139.
 Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Christians in China: A.D.
600 to 2000, trans. M. N. L. Couve de
Murville (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 194.
 Quoted in David Chung and nad Kang-nam Oh, Syncretism:
The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001), 58.
 Jean Lacouture, Jesuits: A Multibiography, trans. Jeremy Leggatt (New York: Basic Books,
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Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. (second from the left, at the tomb of Matteo Ricci in late 2008) is Assistant Professor of Asian History at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.
He completed his doctoral studies at the University of
Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, literature, philosophy, and religion.
His current research centers on the history of the Church in China, and he has
recently finished a book on the Catholic martyrs saints in China. His other
interests include East/West religious dialogue, especially between Catholic and
Buddhist ideas of faith and salvation. Dr. Clark has written several academic
books and articles on the topic of Chinese history and has been a guest on
"EWTN Live," "Catholic Answers Live," and Relevant Radio to talk about
Catholicism in China. He is also a contributing editor for This Rock magazine.
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