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Monday, August 15, 2022

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Matteo Rici and the Catholic Mission to China

By R. Po-chia Hsia

by Ferdinand III


 

The late 16th century Catholic missionary Matteo Rici is one of the more remarkable characters of the late Middle Ages,and early modern period.  Rici is acknowledged as one of the greatest missionaries in world history.  Against overwhelming obstacles including linguistic, cultural, physical, financial, and racial, Ricci proselytised the faith in China, accommodating Chinese sensibilities with the Biblical tradition, based on his belief that mutual respect and a profound appreciation of Chinese philosophy and history, would better serve the needs of evangelisation than force, contempt, condescension, or imposition.

The power of this book is that it presents in a coherent and readable fashion the exploits of this remarkable but little-known missionary.  Ricci was Italian and much of the documentation about his life and activities in the ‘Middle Kingdom’ are in Italian, Portuguese or Chinese (in which he was fluent both as a speaker and writer).  It sets the exploits of Ricci against the backdrop of the Counter-Reformation, Portuguese Asia, and Late Ming dynasty in China.  There are translations of Ricci’s work in this slim volume and excerpts about Ricci by his Chinese contemporaries. 

There are four parts to this book.  Part 1 describes the trading empire of the Portuguese in Asia and the construction of military and trading posts in the 16th century.  Part 2 assesses this maritime expansion and the Catholic missions and their different models from coercion to cooperation and persuasion.  Francis Xavier the precursor to Ricci is discussed.  Part 3 gives a description of Ming China as encountered by the Jesuits (Ricci was one of many missionaries to China).  This section emphasises the most important aspects of Ming China relevant to Ricci’s mission, namely, Confucian learning, Buddhism, scholarly culture, the politics of the Ming court and its policy toward trade and religion.  Part 4 is a concise appraisal of Ricci himself and his activities of evangelisation, including his colleague, Michele Ruggieri.  There is a comparison of Ricci’s persuasive model against that of the Spanish in Central America, who used the coercive and punishment model.  The section outlines the magisterial career of Ricci within the Ming court, which included the introduction of Western geography and cartography, scientific encounters with Chinese scholars, religious encounters with Buddhists and Taoists, and his own perception of the Confucian elite, their culture along with contemporary Chinese appraisals of Ricci himself.  Ricci is one of the few and maybe the only Westerner, to be given a Chinese state burial (1611). 

Some notable dates of this remarkable man:

1571 Ricci joins the Jesuits.

1578 Ricci and Ruggieri embark for India

1580 Portugal and Spain unite

1582 Ricci arrives in Macao, Ruggieri leaves for Zhaoqing China

1583 Ricci follows Ruggieri and joins him in Zhaoqing

1589 Ricci and Ruggieri move from Zhaoqing to Shaozhu

1590 The wealthy and influential Chinese Qu Taisu becomes Ricci’s disciple

1593 Ricci exchanges Buddhist garb for Confucian clothing

1595 Ricci moves to Nanjing and Nanchang, settling in 1599 in Nanjing

1601 Ricci moves to Beijing

1605 Ricci baptises the influential Xu Guangqi in Beijing

1610 Ricci baptises Li Zhizao and dies

1611 State funeral for Ricci

From a young age Ricci demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for geography, science, and mathematics.  It was these skills which largely won over sceptical Chinese, Confucian and Buddhist scholars and court advisors.  From 1583 onward, Ricci (and Ruggieri) learnt Chinese, Chinese history and were avid students of Ming culture.  Ricci dressed in Buddhist attire given that for the Chinese, Catholic images, doctrines, devotions to Christ and Mary, rosary beads and prayers, heaven and hell, had homologies in Buddhism. 

Many of the early converts were Buddhists who probably saw much similarity in the two creeds.  This cultural appeal and sensitivity were a conscious choice made by Ricci and it did engender criticism from many quarters for being too pagan or not firm and strong enough in its Catholic purity.  Given that Buddhism was the most popular religion in China, it made sense to Ricci and Ruggieri to work with Buddhists and their powerful supporters and not confront them.  Ricci’s most famous and important work, written in Chinese and called ‘A Veritable Record of the Lord of Heaven’, published in about 1602, contains many Buddhist terms, analogies, and statements. 

One of Ricci’s converts (Qu) convinced Riccia that the Confucian intellectuals had a low opinion of Buddhist philosopher and its teachers.  Ricci changed his look from a poor Buddhist monk to a Confucian scholar.  Dressed in black silk with a full length of hair and long beard, he imitated the Chinese elite and criticised Buddhism for its fatalism, vegetarianism and vague doctrines and beliefs.  He impressed the Mandarins with his deep learning including Latin, Greek, the history of Greece and Rome and the history of Christian evangelisation.  He translated Euclid and other mathematical and scientific works into Chinese and provided maps of the world.  Ricci was able to link the core tenets of Confucianism with Christianity, demonstrating that much of Catholic doctrine was already understood and practiced by the Chinese including toleration, forgiveness, respect for ancestors, virtues, and wisdom.  Even heaven, hell and Christ were made compatible with Confucian idealism. 

Thanks to Ricci, Catholicism was thus portrayed and sold to the Chinese as native and natural, not foreign, and irrelevant.  In this regard Ricci converted many thousands of Chinese and in Beijing and elsewhere, established a dozen or so churches and abbeys and give Catholicism a high profile with a great deal of respect given to the Church by the Chinese for its sophistication, learning, culture, and scientific achievements.  Ricci’s legacy survived persecutions, wars and intolerance by various Chinese empires and emperors, and Ricci’s name is still famous in China to this day. 


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