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The Missionary Methods of Matteo Ricci in China
This is a paper I wrote in November 2009 for my history class (world civilization from 1500-present). Half the class did WWII, but I had wanted to do this for some time, ever since learning in Chinese class of this Jesuit, who had an amazing faculty for the Chinese language.

I think my analysis came out well, and I asked some good questions, but I wish I had delved more into primary sources. This was a tough topic because of its obscurity -- much of the commentary was in Christian, French, Italian, or even Latin.

The Missionary Methods of Matteo Ricci in China

“The time at which we now find ourselves in China is not yet that of the harvest, nor even that of sowing, but rather of opening up the wild woods and fighting with the wild beasts and poisonous snakes that lurk within.”

- Matteo Ricci[1]

China in the 1600s was not a hospitable place for Christianity. A highly developed civilization which, like Europe, thought it was the worldwide pinnacle of culture was hardly a great place for missionaries out to preach their foreign religion. Yet one Italian – Matteo Ricci – succeeded where his Spanish and Portuguese predecessors had failed. Ricci was part of a relatively new monastic order, the Jesuits, who had by Ricci's time established missions in Japan and India. Ricci, along with his confrère Michele Ruggieri, created such a mission in China from 1582-1610, and left it successful in numbers and intellect.

What made Ricci succeed? Ricci's missionary technique involved accommodating Christianity to traditional Chinese culture and pursuing intellectual dialogue with the political elites of the empire. This involved a long, difficult study of the Chinese culture. Ricci and his Jesuit brothers adopted such a policy because they saw that the elites were the figureheads of the nation, the best way to gain national legitimacy for this new religion, and that these people would never give up their native culture completely. Because this ruling class held a mainly Confucian worldview, he built on that, along the way tackling Buddhism.

Ricci's method was wildly different from that of previous missionaries, mainly from Spain and Portugal: they saw no merit in Chinese culture, and made converts take European names and clothing. They neither gained converts nor Chinese esteem.[2] Ricci's contrasting policy was not unique to him. John O'Malley, in his tome on the first decades of the Jesuits, points out that Jesuits had always placed a high value on rulers, and that “The Constitutions taught ... that greater good was achieved by those in a position to influence others.”[3] Francis Xavier, that famous Jesuit who oversaw missions to Japan and India, had died on his way into China. He considered China a holy grail, a place which would be glorious to make Christian. He saw that priests evangelizing in East Asia would have to be “priests of high scholastic caliber and a profound experience of life.”[4] His successor, Ricci's superior Allesandro Valignano, took the same approach.

The Jesuits saw that converting the political elite was key. If nobles adopted this new religion, it would be legitimate, and the lower classes would then be free to do so as well. Though their ultimate dream of converting emperor Wan Li would never translate to reality, they at least made themselves known to him. Before they could convince the Chinese that European Christian religion had merit, they first needed to demonstrate to the nobles that they were not barbarians. To this end, Ricci showed off a number of European cultural showpieces, including a clock, a harpsichord, advanced cartographic methods and a map of the world, and Euclid's ancient works on geometry, which Ricci translated into Chinese. Though not all the Chinese who appreciated these things accepted the Christian religion, they were useful in converting some.[5] Take the case of Xu Guangqi, a scholar from Shanghai who worked with Ricci to translate Euclid's elements into Chinese. He became a convert and later passed the civil service exam to become a bureaucrat.[6] Coincidentally, civil service exams were both the bane and the boon of Ricci's mission. His 1596 treatise on memory, which recommended remembering complicated ideas as images placed in a mental “memory palace,” was devoured by young men trying to memorize Confucian classics for the civil service exam, their only ticket into a government position.[7] The best test of this method was Ricci himself, who was able to learn the Chinese language after starting at 31[8], and who once got into a long and involved debate with a Buddhist priest and was able to summarize everything that had been said in the last hour.[9] However, the civil service exams may have also killed Ricci, for in 1610 he received so many exhausting social visits related to them that he fell sick and died.[10] Though both math and memory devices, like the clocks that Ricci impressed the emperor with, were either already invented or had a heritage in China, they helped the Westerners gain legitimacy, and attracted attention of many who would otherwise not care about these strange men preaching unorthodox things.

Once he had attracted the attention of the foreigners, Ricci focused on the intellect. Despite the fact that he taught a very literate Christianity, he never translated the Bible into Chinese, though he translated the Ten Commandments and expanded on his confrère Ruggieri's 1584 catechism.[11] His main program was proving a harmony between the Confucian principles in the original “Four Books” of Confucian learning (which he translated into Latin in 1591[12]) and the Thomistic Catholicism he was trained in. However, he was not all-compromising, and strongly rejected Buddhism's metaphysical and ethical doctrines. At the time, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism were often practiced syncretically, “preaching a simple doctrine of doing good and avoiding evil.”[13] One scholar argues that Confucian thought provided a useful social and political philosophy, but did not conflict with Buddhism because unlike the latter, it did not emphasize the spiritual or provide answers to questions of the afterlife and human suffering.[14] Ricci saw that he could simply knock aside Buddhism as Confucianism's companion and inject Christianity. In his monumental work, Tianzhu Shiyi (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven), he does just that, arguing that Buddhism's doctrine of reincarnation is logically untenable and should be replaced by a Christian heaven-or-hell eschatology. He then appeals to Confucian values, especially that of the “upright heart and sincere will,” and combines them with the Christian idea of free will to respond to Good's call in life. He then makes arguments for a Christian salvation.[15] At it at this point that “The Chinese scholar, hitherto an agnostic-humanist, now becomes a theistic-humanist.”[16] The book takes the format of a dialogue between a Western scholar (representing Christianity) and an Eastern scholar (representing Confucianism). This is symbolic of Ricci's larger intellectual project: discussion and dialogue, a sensitive understanding of Chinese culture few Westerners have ever cultivated.

It is also worth noting that Ricci's persuasive appeal to the intellect took two forms: this textual, philosophical form, and a presentation of his own self. Ironically, when he entered China, he came as a Buddhist monk with shaven head and beard, and only later realized that the ruling class scorned Buddhist monks. By 1595 he had completely made himself look a Confucian scholar.[17] Not only does this show a desire to put himself in a culture, to adopt the meanings of its dress for himself, but also demonstrates the growth of his understanding of the culture.

This understanding of Ricci's methods leaves us with three questions by way of conclusion. First, was he successful? Yes and no. Ricci did succeed in converting some of the intellectuals of the Middle Kingdom. In the twenty-seven years Ricci was in residence in China, they received eight Chinese-born Jesuits.[18] He did gain favor with the emperors on behalf of Christianity: emperor Wanli very much liked a religious print featuring Christ that the Jesuits gave him[19], and Kangxi himself spent six months reading The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven.[20] Kangxi also passed an edict in 1692 allowing Jesuits to preach at the Imperial Court. However, Ricci's goal of converting the emperor Wanli never even came close to reality. He never even got an audience with the emperor, though he did like the clock Ricci gave to him.[21] Whether or not this is because the emperor did not care about Christianity or because the eunuchs prevented it is unclear. Other Christian hopes were complete failures, such as previous missionaries' belief that several hundred horsemen could conquer China and baptize the whole nation.[22] Though Ricci's wilder goals turned out to be so unrealistic as to be useless, he did “open up the wild woods” and make Christian presence in China known.

Second, did this cultural understanding lead to a genuine respect for China in Ricci's mind? It appears so at first. Bernard Luk writes of the Jesuits in China:

They thought that there was only one matter in which China was not equal to the West, and that was religion. ... [T]hey did not have the haughty attitude of the missionaries in Macao or the Philippines. ... In the letters, which the Jesuits in China wrote back to Europe, they were always full of praise for what they saw and heard in China.[23]

These Jesuit letters to their homelands were one side of a very fruitful cultural dialogue which the Jesuits opened up. Educated Europeans found they had much to learn from what Gottfried Leibnitz called “the great event of our times”[24] However, the image of Ricci as a benevolent man with dialogue in mind has its limits: he encouraged new converts to destroy their Buddhist icons and statues[25] and condemned the lust and sensuality of Chinese civilization.[26] One Buddhist scholar wrote to him, telling him that he did not understand Buddhism well. Ricci's reply was that Buddhism violated the Ten Commandments and did not encourage the growth of morality – and Ricci did not take this scholar's advice and read the central Buddhist texts.[27] There is no reason to believe he ever read the Tao Te Ching either. His interpretation of Confucius “submitted the Chinese sage to distortions, often with little respect for the tenor of his thought.”[28] Being the complex man in a complex situation that he was, Ricci is hard to classify.

Lastly, what was the impact of Ricci's mission? The Chinese were obvious affected by it. Educated Europeans, who were charged with interest in China, took Chinese ideas for Western philosophy and theology. Most importantly, in Pierre Jeanne's words: “The steady stream of letters coming from the Jesuits out of China began to raise doubts about the commonly accepted belief of a Christian Europe as the one model for an ideal society.”[29] Jeanne also writes that the Jesuits mark the beginning of an intellectual dialogue between East and West, rather than a mere exchange of goods and technology.[30] Most famously, Voltaire held up China as an ideal state in his Enlightenment political philosophy: a state where leaders are chosen by merit (the civil service exams) and where religion and state are not intertwined.[31] Theologically, the mission in China sparked the Chinese Rites Controversy, where priests debated over how much cultural accommodation was too much.[32] Though the Europeans struggled to comprehend this society as rich in intellectual heritage as they were, they ultimately gained from it. The Jesuits, Ricci in particular, opened up this dialogue on more realms than the religious.

Works Cited

Charbonnier, Jean. “China-Christian Relations in the Spirit of Matteo Ricci.” Translated by Patrick Taveirne. Tripod (December 1982): 102-112.

Jeanne, Pierre. “Ricci: Precursor of Inter-Cultural Exchange.” Translated by Therese Le Blanc. Tripod (December 1982): 122-136.

Lancashire, Douglas. Introduction to The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, by Matteo Ricci. St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1985.

Lau, Maria Goretti. “Some Eschatological Thoughts in Matteo Ricci's The True Idea of God.” Tripod (December 1982): 93-101.

Luk, Bernard Hung-Key. “The Background in European History of Matteo Ricci's Mission.” Tripod (December 1982): 77-84.

Malatesta, Edward. “Matteo Ricci, Friend of China.” Tripod (December 1982): 85-92.

O'Malley, John W. The First Jesuits. Cambridge: Harvard, 1993.

Spence, Jonathan. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Tong, John. “Ricci's Contribution to China: A Reflection on the Insights of Two Modern Chinese Scholars.” Translated by Mary Louise Martin and Beatrice Leung. Tripod (December 1982): 113-121.

[1] Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 196.

[2] Bernard Hung-Key Luk, “The Background in European History of Matteo Ricci's Mission,” Tripod (December 1982): 79.

[3] O'Malley, John W., The First Jesuits (Cambridge: Harvard, 1993), 72.

[4] Douglas Lancashire, Introduction to The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, by Matteo Ricci (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1985), 11.

[5] John Tong, “Ricci's Contribution to China: A Reflection on the Insights of Two Modern Chinese Scholars,” trans. Mary Louise Martin and Beatrice Leung. Tripod (December 1982): 115.

[6] Spence, 152.

[7] Spence, 1-3, 140.

[8] Edward Malatesta, “Matteo Ricci, Friend of China,” Tripod (December 1982): 85.

[9] Spence, 254.

[10] Spence, 160.

[11] Lancashire, 7, 13.

[12] Lancashire, 5

[13] Luk, 83.

[14] Lau, 99.

[15] Maria Goretti Lau, “Some Eschatological Thoughts in Matteo Ricci's The True Idea of God,” Tripod (December 1982): 94-97.

[16] Ibid., 95.

[17] Spence, 114-115.

[18] Malatesta, 89.

[19] Spence, 213.

[20] Lau, 94,

[21] Spence, 214.

[22] Luk, 79.

[23] Luk, 82-3.

[24] Pierre Jeanne, “Ricci: Precursor of Inter-Cultural Exchange,” trans. Therese Le Blanc, Tripod (December 1982): 122.

[25] Spence, 249.

[26] Spence, 209.

[27] Spence, 252.

[28] Jean Charbonnier, “China-Christian Relations in the Spirit of Matteo Ricci,” trans. Patrick Taveirne, Tripod (December 1982): 105.

[29] Jeanne, 131.

[30] Jeanne, 125.

[31] Jeanne, 127.

[32] Jeanne, 129

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