The Wise Man from the West

A look back at the accomplishments of Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci on the
400th anniversary of his death.

In 1610, the Emperor of China overruled custom by granting a burial plot outside Peking to a foreigner called Li Madou. An inscription on the tomb praises the deceased as “one who had attained renown for justice and written illustrious books.” Li Madou is far better known as Matteo Ricci, the brilliant Jesuit missionary in Ming China. A year honoring Ricci that includes a special Vatican exhibition closes on May 11, 2010, the 400th anniversary of his death. British writer Nigel Cameron, no friend of the Church, salutes Ricci as a scholar uniquely respected by the Chinese: “Of all the Europeans who attempted the task of understanding the Chinese and their civilization he was the most talented, the most important.”

Ricci and his fellow Jesuits were far from the first to bring the Good News to China. Nestorian Christians from Syria arrived in 635, following the trade routes of the Silk Road. For two centuries, their “Luminous Religion” enjoyed favor under the cosmopolitan Tang Dynasty. But the emperor ordered all foreign religions suppressed in 845. The Syriac Christian community that had once supported 3,000 monks vanished from China.

Nevertheless, Christianity continued to sweep across Central Asia, even among nomad tribes. (Many of the famous Mongol khans had Christian wives.) In the 13th century, tidal waves of Mongol conquest rolled across Eurasia. By 1279, Mongols ruled China as the Yuan Dynasty. Although papal embassies and European visitors made few converts, both Latin and Syriac Christianity were tolerated. An Italian Franciscan named Giovanni da Montecorvino was consecrated as the first archbishop of what is now Beijing. But Christianity again disappeared after the Mongols were overthrown by the native Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1368.

Ming China was a bastion of traditional Chinese culture rooted in the teachings of Confucius. Serenely superior, China could not imagine learning anything worthwhile from foreigners. This attitude was unshaken when Portuguese ships reached Canton in 1517 and planted a colony at Macao in 1557. But Europeans were tightly restricted beyond these places. Trade was welcome; conquest was not. Although priests were allowed to function in Macao, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries who tried to reach other areas were turned back.

The deadlock would ease largely thanks to one remarkable man—Matteo Ricci. Ricci, eldest of 14 children, was born in 1552 into a family of noble lineage at Macerata in the Papal States. The blue hedgehog (riccio) on his family coat of arms was a pun, but not a predictive symbol as bestiary lore would have it, since there was nothing whatever satanic, mischievous, or defensive about Ricci. He did, however, have blue eyes as well as black hair, a deep sonorous voice, a brilliant mind and a prodigious memory.

As a schoolboy among the Jesuits in his home town, Ricci had been exposed to accounts of the Society’s bold missionaries in the Far East. Being born in the year that St. Francis Xavier had died within sight of China became a portent of his destiny. At 16 Ricci was sent to study law in Rome, but against his father’s wishes entered the Jesuits there instead. At 25 Ricci was sent to the Portuguese colony of Goa in India where he taught grammar and rhetoric. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1580 and ordered to Macao two years later.

The superior who summoned him, Alessandro Valignano, had been Ricci’s novice-master in Rome. Valignano realized that mastery of Chinese language and culture was essential for the mission. Three years earlier he had summoned Michele Ruggieri from India to learn the Mandarin dialect of Chinese in order to communicate with the Empire’s elite. Ruggieri’s skill had already led to the formation of relationships with local officials and won the unprecedented privilege of residence in the provincial capital, Zhaoqing. Ricci joined Ruggieri there in 1583.

The two Jesuits immersed themselves in Chinese ways, to the extent of shaving their heads and dressing like Buddhist monks. They translated the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Ten Commandments, but most of their energy went into building networks of friendship among the governing mandarin class. These exquisitely refined literary men were fascinated with European mathematics and technology. Ricci amazed them by drawing a world map (with China tactfully positioned in the middle of the projection) that displayed the true size and position of the continents. The Jesuit hoped that such novelties, plus discussions of philosophy and morality, would gradually allow them to introduce elements of Christian belief into the conversations. Ricci was slowly developing accommodations to Confucian thought that would make the “Teachings of the Lord of Heaven” (Tianzhu jiao) seem reasonable and attractive to the Chinese. For instance he argued that rituals honoring ancestors were simple reverence and not idolatry. The early Church Fathers had faced a comparable challenge under the Roman Empire harmonizing Athens and Jerusalem. His strategy was to analyze Confucian beliefs about all-pervading Heaven as faint anticipations of God, “the Lord of Heaven” (Tianzhu), then teach about a loving Creator, the immortal soul, and the afterlife.

Befriending mandarins was a path to government protection for the missionaries, who realized that “without their favor it is all built on sand.” The Jesuits hoped that their friends would eventually become vectors for spreading the Good News (or at least news that the Good News was claimed to exist) as they moved from post to post around the empire. Barriers to converting mandarins included the predominant atheism of their class, their required participation in traditional Confucian sacrifices, and their attachment to their concubines. Ricci acknowledged that concentrating on the elite neglected the unlettered bulk of the population but he was confident that wider opportunities to reach them would open once government favor had been secured. Ironically, the first Chinese person that the Jesuits baptized was a destitute man abandoned while terminally ill.

The common people were far less friendly than the mandarins. They spread fantastic rumors about the true intentions of the “ocean devils,” ridiculed them in the marketplace and repeatedly vandalized the Jesuits’ residence. Ricci was accused of trying to sell one of the vandals into slavery and was barely able to clear himself in court. In 1589, a suspicious new governor ordered Ricci to leave his capital, so Ricci moved on to the city of Shaozhou. He had made only a handful of converts, some baptized on their deathbeds. As Ricci would later write to a friend, “Do not ask me how many thousands of souls I have converted, but only how many of these millions I have told for the first time that ancient news that in heaven lives a God, the creator of heaven and earth.”

Ricci’s companion Ruggieri had been sent back to Rome in 1588, never to return. A plan to get him credentials as papal ambassador to China came to nothing. But a few other Jesuits, including two native Chinese coadjutors (lay brothers) managed to slip into the empire. By 1600 there would be eight of them distributed among several mission stations, slowly winning a few hundred people to the faith.

During his residence in Shaozhou, Ricci perfected his mastery of the Chinese language, building his own vocabulary lists from scratch. He studied and memorized the Four Books, the foundational texts of Chinese civilization, until he could expound them as well as the literati did. “This last achievement has seldom been equaled by a European since then, and never surpassed,” says writer Nigel Cameron. Moreover, Ricci was the first Westerner to translate these works. His Latin version introduced Europe to their author, the Chinese sage Kong Fuzi, whom Ricci called “Confucius.”

Life in Shaozhou was far from serene. Local people routinely annoyed the missionaries by throwing stones and playing raucous music. One night in 1592, a gang of drunken youths broke into Ricci’s house, seriously injured two of his servants, and slashed his hand. Jumping out of a window to avoid them, Ricci twisted his ankle so badly that he was left with a permanent limp. He was further weakened by malaria, which he contracted at Shaozhou.

Undaunted, Ricci kept looking for ways to reach the imperial capital, Peking (now Beijing). Without support from the highest level of the Ming government, the status of the mission would remain precarious. In 1595 he left Shaozhou in the train of a friendly official but was stopped far short of his goal and was sent instead to the city of Nanchang.

Despite this disappointment, Ricci had made an important change in preparation for the journey. On the advice of a mandarin’s son whose interests he had diverted from alchemy to science, Ricci—and then the other Jesuits— stopped dressing like Buddhist monks and took up the persona of Confucian literati. They let their hair and beards grow, wore long robes of dark purple silk edged with light blue and adopted the intricate niceties of polite society. Ricci assured his superiors in Europe that such indulgences were necessary in this exotic “desert of gentility.” Keeping up appearances as a Xiru (Western scholar) would be a considerable drain on Ricci’s time and energy for the remainder of his life.

The transformation did, however, enable Ricci to set up a kind of salon at Nanchang that attracted elite guests. He published On Friendship, a Chinese translation of aphorisms from classical Western authors and wrote A Treatise on Mnemonic Arts as a present for the provincial governor. Ricci’s feats of memory astounded the literati. He could recall 500 random Chinese characters correctly, both in original and reverse order, after a single reading. Although the ancient European art of memory, an indispensable tool for Renaissance scholars, failed to take root in China, Ricci’s mastery of it seems to have drawn attention in high places.

After another abortive attempt to reach the court in 1598, Ricci moved to the former imperial capital, Nanjing. After accumulating a store of gifts to offer the emperor, Ricci and three other Jesuits set out again in 1600. En route, a corrupt official confiscated their possessions and imprisoned them for six months, until a providential order from higher authorities set them on their way. They and the gifts finally reached Peking on January 28, 1601.

Although bureaucrats disparaged Ricci’s “tribute” of religious books and paintings, relics, two clocks, crystal prisms, hour glasses, a rhinoceros horn, cloth, and a harpsichord, the clocks delighted the emperor. He summoned Ricci to his palace in the Forbidden City—to wind the precious clocks. Ricci spent three days teaching the imperial college of mathematicians how the devices worked, simultaneously answering a stream of messages from the emperor querying him on European customs. Later, at imperial command,

Ricci would write Chinese song lyrics while a fellow Jesuit taught court musicians how to play the harpsichord. Ricci never met the emperor in person. During his formal audience he kowtowed to an empty throne. The august personage known as the Wanli emperor declined to participate in most affairs of state. He had, in effect, gone on strike in 1587 because tradition did not permit him to make the son of his favorite concubine his heir. The Ming court was governed by protocol so rigid that Louis XIV’s Versailles would seem casual in comparison. Although mandarins chosen by competitive examinations on the Confucian classics were the official administrators of the empire, real power lay with a graft ridden corps of 10,000 palace eunuchs.

Although the Ming dynasty was moribund, Ricci had attained the goal of his long march north from Macao. Two decades of struggle had brought the mission to a house near the ForbiddenCity, partly supported by an imperial stipend. Although Ricci’s team at Peking had made only 300 converts, their status protected the Jesuits at other stations, who won 2,500 people of humble status to the faith.

Now Ricci’s gentle cultivation of literati friendships began to yield significant fruit. The Jesuits converted three illustrious mandarins: Paul Xu Guangqi, Leo Li Zhicao, and Michael Yang Tingyun. In turn, these “Three Pillars of the Church in China” brought the faith to their families and to their home cities of Shanghai and Hangzhou, spreading ripples of influence that continue to this day. They wrote apologetics, gathered Christian writings about China, composed works of theology, established charities, and founded a Marian sodality. Xu, who had a keen interest in mathematics, also helped Ricci translate Euclid’s Elements of Geometry into Chinese. Ironically, even the Communist Party has acknowledged the historical importance of Paul Xu.

The matter of the emperor’s clocks was only one example of Western technology and science aiding Ricci’s reputation with the court. In 1602, he published a huge—36 feet wide—version of the world map he had made while living in Zhaoqing. Shocking though it was to Chinese assumptions about the shape of the world and the size of China, even the Wanli emperor displayed a copy in his quarters. (In January 2010, the University of Minnesota’s library bought one of five surviving examples of this great map for $1,000,000.)

Not only was Ricci well-versed in the “natural philosophy” of his era, he deeply appreciated the complementary roles of faith and reason. Ricci’s college studies with Christoph Clavius, the Jesuit who devised the Gregorian calendar, had covered mathematics, astronomy, optics, geography, and the use of scientific instruments. Such knowledge was applied in the same spirit by his Jesuit successors in Peking who brought the telescope, constructed a globe, and corrected the Chinese calendar, among other accomplishments.

In 1603, Ricci published his key work, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (Tianzhu shiyi). This pre-evangelization dialogue invites readers to escape the prison of a merely natural existence to find lasting joy in God. (Well over a century later, this book came into the hands of a Korean and sparked the first Catholic evangelization of his country.)

Ricci became a minor celebrity at Peking. He was in constant demand at elite dinner parties and candidates taking the imperial examinations flocked to meet him. After a visiting Chinese Jew mistook Ricci for a fellow Jew, he was invited to become the rabbi of a synagogue in Kaifeng. The Wanli emperor may have considered Ricci an exotic pet. The Wise Man from the West simply wore out in his silken harness. He died of a fever on May 11, 1610. His tomb and those of other pioneer Jesuits still survive undamaged in Bejing.

Alas, Ricci’s accommodations with Confucian culture alarmed later missionaries who were hostile to the Jesuits. They claimed he promoted “idolatrous” Chinese rites, a complicated matter debated in Rome for years, until in 1704 Pope Clement XI condemned reverence for Confucius and one’s ancestors. He reconfirmed his decision in 1715. The formerly tolerant Kangxi emperor banned Christian missions in 1721. His successor exiled most of the Jesuits in Peking. Catholic evangelization in China was hampered until Pius XII relaxed the former policy in 1939 to permit civic and familial honors.

Nevertheless, posthumous honors have continued for Ricci. A Jesuit colleague who had worked in Japan praised him for doing “more with his death than with his life.” Peking Buddhists revered him as the bodhisattva (“saint”) Li Madou pusa. Ricci and Marco Polo are the only Westerners depicted in the Millennium Building in Beijing. On January 24, 2010, beatification proceedings reopened for Ricci in his home diocese of Macerata-Tolentino.

Matteo Ricci wrote, “This life is for us but a journey, we are not here forever, nor does our final goal lie here below.” Li Madou’s own path to heaven went by way of Peking. Ten million Chinese Catholics now follow in his wake.


About Sandra Miesel 11 Articles
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer. She is the author of hundreds of articles on history and art, among other subjects, and has written several books, including The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, which she co-authored with Carl E. Olson.