Matteo Ricci’s “Maxims” and Friends

The methods of the 16th-century Jesuit missionary to China offer lessons for Christians living in suspicious or hostile cultures

“It seems that the best of Ricci’s efforts to write something unique blended of Chinese and European ideas were either rejected or misread by Chinese contemporaries. And this, perhaps, is the inevitable fate of such an intercultural text—to be misrecognized as familiar when the ideas are truly strange, and to be rejected as strange when the ideas are meant to be familiar—where communication, when it does happen, is as accidental as bumping into an old friend on a distant voyage, or just as surprising and as welcome as making a new one.” — Timothy Billings, “Introduction”, Matteo Ricci, On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince, translated by Timothy Billings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 64-65.


Next year, Ignatius Press will be reissuing The Wiseman from the West, Vincent Cronin’s 1955 biography of Matteo Ricci, SJ (1552-1610). Ricci, the most famous of the early Jesuit missionaries to China was an Italian from Macerate, and he has become an icon, as it were, of how to approach or present the Christian faith to a non-western culture. Ricci was himself a learned man. He had a phenomenal memory, a basic requirement for learning to speak and write elegant Chinese. He knew European classical literature. He was also something of an engineer and scientist. His knowledge of astronomy and calendar calculations turned out to be most helpful to him in becoming acceptable at the center of the Middle Kingdom which was, by its own choice and standards, largely isolated from knowledge as found in Europe at the time.

The narrative of Ricci’s life, which is not unrelated to our understanding (or lack of it) of China today, includes the unhappy conclusion, when Pope Clement XI in 1704 banned the use of the “Chinese rites” that looked on Chinese ancestor customs as merely normal human respect for ancestors. This ban was reconfirmed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742. This move resulted in the closing off of much of China to Christianity until the 19th century. It is widely held by many historians and critics, including later popes, that the Ricci approach was the wiser one. The history of China might have been quite different had Ricci’s endeavors been affirmed. But the point raised by the Billings commentary, quoted above, still remains. Cultural differences are not that easy to discern or reconcile. The reestablishment of Chinese military, economic, scientific, and cultural power in the world today does bring up memories of the Middle Kingdom’s presumption that the center of the world is in China—not Rome, London, Moscow, or Washington. The real rival of China on the world stage today may well be Mecca.

When Ricci and his Jesuit companion Ruggieri calculated that if they dressed themselves not as priests or Portuguese merchants, but as Buddhist monks in their poverty, they would impress the Chinese. After some time, they realized that the Chinese mandarins looked with some contempt on the ignorance, poverty, and lack of culture that they saw in the monks. So the Jesuits decided that they had better change their ways and their dress. To gain respect, they should look and dress like Chinese aristocrats and learn the language, the literature, the manners, and ways of life.

This approach is almost the exact opposite of the poverty approach that we hear today as the way to impress other cultures. No doubt there is a lesson here. Can we deal with the poor apart from dealing with the notions of truth that are (or are not) found in the minds of the mandarins of any culture? Just a few decades ago, China was considered to be one of the poorest and most backward countries in the world. Without changing its culture or ideology, but by an imitation of successful economies built on work, discipline, growth, and innovation, it has managed to become one the major powers in the world, evidently ready to exercise its power for its own purposes. Ricci’s lesson thus remains central. One still needs to get to the “Emperor” if one is to change such a society.

As a part of his efforts to find points of agreement between Chinese ways and those of the “Far West” from whence he came, Ricci gradually realized the centrality and importance of friendship for the Chinese. Since he had read Cicero, Aristotle, Plutarch, and other classical writers on this same subject, Ricci thought that he would present to the Emperor his little book of aphorisms on the subject of friendship. He had learned enough Chinese and had Chinese friends to be sure that his text was worthy of Confucian style and content. The assumption was that the Chinese could see that these basic ideas of friendship were also alive in the West. They compared favorably with or confirmed Chinese thought on the same topic. With this information, it would become obvious that a culture about which the Chinese knew practically nothing had something to teach them. It would make them recognize, at the very least, that other learned cultures did exist.


Ricci’s original text evidently contained seventy-six aphorisms or short paragraphs. It was later expanded to include one hundred altogether. The text in the Columbia University edition is given both in Chinese and English, in a very elegant presentation. The editor gives a complete history of the various versions of the text and how it was received and cited or reproduced in later Chinese anthologies or writings. It was generally considered to be itself something of a classic, particularly noteworthy because it was not written by a native Chinese speaker or thinker.

The reason why this text was of particular importance at the time was that it did not deal with scientific issues but with a moral issue. Subsequent experience has shown that the oriental world could learn the science known and developed in the West without necessarily changing its culture and way of living. This approach is not unlike the approach that Benedict XVI often used, recognzing that science and the scientific methods are ways of knowing a part of reality. They are universal and can be learned by anyone who takes the time and has the talent to learn them. But “science” is not just intelligence or knowledge. For this latter knowledge other methods of knowing were available. It is in this area that Ricci’s treatise on friendship came into play.

Most of the great issues of friendship come up in one way or another in Ricci’s presentation except, perhaps, the issue that Aristotle touched on, namely, whether God could have friends. This issue was something that takes Christian thinkers to the notion of the Incarnation and Christ’s statement: “I no longer call you servants, but friends”. Friendship is first known to us as a human relationship. It is the reciprocal willing of another’s good in an active exchange of the highest things. In Aristotle’s view, God seemed to lack some perfection. He appeared to have no friends. He had, presumably, no “equal” with whom to exchange anything. Once the Trinity was revealed this problem was not as pressing for Christians as it was for Aristotle or the Chinese. There was a life of exchange, of persons within the one God. The Chinese likewise did not seem to speak of friendship with the gods as such.

Ricci discusses the question of whether friends have “all things in common” (#29). This famous question from Plato and Aristotle had its Chinese counterpart. A rich man and a poor man could be friends; they exchanged what they had, but not in some egalitarian notion of spreading the wealth. Having wealth was not an automatic sign of injustice. Each was to give to the other that which he had, whatever it was. It was considered appropriate for the rich man to help his less fortunate friend, but not to demean him.

The question of real friends versus flatterers came up. One especially interesting aspect of the Chinese discussion was over the question of how many friends one could have. The same question arises with Christianity’s command to love everyone as oneself. Aristotle had said that a “friend of everybody is a friend of nobody”, and some of the Chinese sages agreed with this. Yet there persisted the notion that having many friends was a sign of worth. The very last maxim in Ricci’s collection, for instance, reads: “When Wo-mo-pi (a renowned ancient scholar) cut open a large pomegranate, someone asked him: ‘Master, what things would you like to have as numerously as these seeds’? To which he responded: ‘Fruitful friends’” (137). Obviously, one cannot have it the same way at the same time. Without some idea of eternal life, probably it is not possible to resolve this difficulty.

But the notions of dignity and of having many friends persisted. Friends discussed virtue and they were virtuous. Friendship for the Chinese, as for Aristotle, was an aspect of a happy life, a virtuous life. One of the most interesting aspects of Billings’ discussion is his pointing out that for the Chinese people life included proper relation to the Emperor, to one’s family, to one’s brother, and to one’s friends. Ricci was puzzling to the Chinese. He came from a long way away, to make friends, as he implied, with people he did not know. He abandoned his own country and family. He thus seemed to lack some of the essentials of a good life.

Ricci’s real motive, which he largely kept hidden, was conversion. Thus, some controversy arose about whether he could be concerned just for friendship’s sake. Moreover, as noted, Ricci left his native land, left his paternal family, and he had no wife. So how could he fulfill the basic Confucian obligations? He could only be friends. But was this enough to make him a model to Chinese gentlemen who had to be “right” also on these other relationships?

Reading Ricci’s text is no doubt a charming exercise. He usually just states his maxim, but once in a while he will add a short commentary to explain it. For example, #58 reads: “The Lord on High gave people two eyes, two ears, two hands, and two feet so that two friends could help each other. Only in this way can deeds be brought successfully to completion” (113). Ricci thought that this consideration needed a bit of explanation. It is, after all, another way of stating Aristotle’s “man is by nature a social and political animal”. But would modern ideas of self-sufficiency and autonomy not be what most likely followed from the first premises about the double organs?

Ricci comments that in ancient Chinese script, two characters are given for “friend”. The first character means that “with two hands things are possible with them, and not possible without them”. Notice that Ricci attributes this “two-handedness” to the Lord on High. The other script for friends shows two wings. Without them, birds cannot fly. To this text Ricci adds: “Did not the ancient sages regard friendship in the same way”? Without the notion of doing something for a friend for his own sake, this argument might seem utilitarian. Aristotle had said that if a friend does something for us, it is as if we do it ourselves.


One is tempted to cite every one of the hundred maxims. The entire one hundred of the maxims can be read in a few hours, but they take longer to ponder. #98 reads: “In Shi-di-ya (the name of a country in the north) there is a custom that one may be called wealthy only if one has many friends” (135). But again this brings up the question of having no friends if one has too many. One of Aristotle’s limits on the number of friends was that our lives were too short to have many good friends. But we could have many friends of utility and pleasure. I did not see this latter distinction in the Ricci text. True friendship implied a living together for a lifetime, something that brought up the question of the Chinese family and the place of the wife and other wives or concubines. This proved to be one of the great difficulties that Ricci had to face in dealing with the conversion of Chinese scholars who had multiple marriages.

In retrospect, when we look at what might be called the Ricci project, though it had roots in Francis Xavier, we see that “evangelization” today has become politically almost impossible. The great project envisioned by the Christian mission from the beginning cannot be pursued today. This is especially true in China, India, the Islamic countries, and increasingly in the secularized and ideological West where Christians are either excluded or forced to accept positions antithetical to the faith. These groupings contain three quarters of the world population.

Ricci’s project of conversion from the top down, beginning with the learned and the Emperor himself, seems impossible with either Chinese or Muslim regimes. It is true that there may be “underground” Christian movements in both areas, but they have to keep silent and are allowed no public presence. The whole rhetoric of Catholicism in the West has been to establish a public presence where free speech and freedom of religion are basic to the law. The Church is not seen as part of the state but still public.

As Catholics are more and more forced to withdraw from schools, health organizations, and charity enterprises unless they conform to enforced state laws that mandate ways contrary to the faith, we have two sorts of groupings left. The first are those who choose to accommodate themselves to modernity and its tenets on the grounds that culture means to do what the culture does; only by so capitulating can we continue to exist. The other alternative is to become a small Church of relatively isolated groupings still faithful to the understanding of Church found in its beginnings.

Matteo Ricci’s sixth Maxim was: “If an honorable man with great accomplishments has no exceptional enemies, he must have excellent friends”. Ricci thought this passage needed some clarification. “If you have no exceptional enemies to admonish you, then you must have excellent friends to support you” (91). Either way, we need admonishing. We do seem to have “exceptional enemies”. In fact they do admonish us about the way we live. If this principle be true, it probably would not matter if we had friends. We would no listen to them.

Maxim #83 reads: “A friend who flatters is no friend, but merely a thief who steals that name and usurps it” (125). In book 8 of Augustine’s Confessions, we read: “Just as friends may pervert by their flattery, so do enemies correct by their criticism”. Ricci’s book was often seen in the West as nothing but a collection of familiar sayings gathered to impress the Chinese scholars on how wise men have many things in common. Yet Ricci’s book was read with much interest and respect in China. It tried to cross a barrier that has yet to be broached. It has been the assumption of Christians that faith depends on no philosophy as such; it could be at home in any culture. Its purpose was only to deepen it, or open it to transcendence, but leave the rest alone after itself putting on the external garb of the culture. If I read him correctly, it is Billings’s view that this approach is much less obvious than Ricci and his followers once thought.

So we read on: #26: “The stability of friendship is both tested and revealed by the instability of life” (101). And #46: “The obligation of friends extends as far as virtuous conduct will allow and no further” (109). Probably no aphorism is more pertinent to our contemporary culture than #51: “Only business enterprises undertaken with friends can succeed” (111). Silicon Valley start-ups probably suggest that some also fail but the founders still remain friends.

And finally, #90: “A lasting virtue is the ideal nourishment for lasting friendship. There is nothing that people do not eventually grow sick of over time. Only a complete virtue will fully stir our human sensibilities even after a long period. Virtue is admired even by our enemies. How much more so by our friends?” (129).

On reading such passages, we realize that Ricci wanted to share the highest things with his Chinese friends whom he travelled so far to meet, as he says in the beginning aphorism. Ricci’s tomb is still in Beijing, though not always easy to find. He is not quite forgotten, but not well-remembered. This text of his friendship treatise goes some way to remedy this unfortunate unawareness of his endeavors. This collection of aphorisms on friendship remains a monument.

We have here a tribute to a man who crossed the oceans to teach China, as he thought, something it did not know. In the process, he made friends with those honorable Chinese gentlemen who, as he soon discovered, did know something of friendship and sought to know more. Ricci’s place in history is perhaps best captured by his willingness to receive the reciprocity implied in all friendship. Not just that we exchange with our friend what we know but that we also receive into our souls what he knows.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).