Guide Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East

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Learn more and compare subscriptions. Or, if you are already a subscriber Sign in. Close drawer menu Financial Times International Edition. Our Lord will make known and discover to us little by little the appropriate means for bringing about in this matter His holy will. Ricci was able to write on science, philosophy or literature. He wrote on substantial issues with a fine and moving accent that never left the readers indifferent although some criticized that he remained too close to the Medieval world and the thought of Aquinas and was not yet fully a man of the Renaissance.

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The extraordinary fact is that he is still read in Asia by the most distinguished scholars. In it he discussed the existence and attributes of God, as well as his providence. He explained how a man might know God through the natural law, the Mosaic law, and the Christian law.

Matteo Ricci's Chinese World Map : 1584 - 1608 : 坤輿萬國全圖

He wrote of the incarnation of Christ the Word and discussed the sacraments. Through this dialogue between a Chinese scholar and a Western scholar Ricci guides the reader toward his original conscience that is similar in the East and in the West. He said in the introduction:. Ricci is remembered for his capacity of listening to the Chinese and tuning to their culture, making numerous friends.

It is no wonder that in he wrote the famous essay De amicitia, On Friendship. Having been welcome by the duke Kien Ngan the latter expressed that he never failed to invite people of virtue and establish friendship with them and that he was curious to know about friendship in the West.

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Ricci immediately took his pen to express the best that he knew about friendship. In the introduction he said:. When Ricci died more than 2, Chinese from all levels of society had confessed their faith in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, however, Ricci's Jesuits were largely men of their times, firmly convinced that they should also promote Western objectives while planting the Roman Catholic Church in China. As a result, they became involved with the colonial and imperialistic designs of Portugal.

Ricci achieved his work at the end of the declining Ming dynasty.


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Only 34 years after he died came to power the Jurchen who created the Qing Dynasty. At first many important Chinese intellectuals resisted this change and even committed suicide. However the new Manchu leaders were able to harmonize their action with the Han Chinese culture and to open China to new ideas coming from the West particularly in terms of sciences.

The foundation that Ricci made gave many fruits for the Jesuit missions in a second glorious moment before a tragic ending. What was needed for a fruitful exchange East-West was the friendship and the confidence, the sharing and the helping in creative projects. The Jesuit successors of Ricci applied what Ricci's wished, combining scientific competence and Christian values. In the seventeenth century two Chinese emperors gave their full confidence and admirations to the Jesuits, living close to them, learning directly from them and even giving them the highest responsibilities such as director of the astronomy observatory or diplomatic missions.

Two Jesuits of that period have been notorious, the German Adam Schall von Bell and the Belgian Ferdinand Verbiest excellent mathematicians and astronomers who stimulated the Chinese researches in the scientific fields. Verbiest was named president of the Mathematics bureau.

He reformed the Chinese calendar , made a draft on solar and lunar eclipses, and even worked at the invention of a steam engine for ships. Before he died Verbiest educated another Belgian Jesuit Antoine Thomas who gained the same confidence from the emperor. At the request of the emperor Thomas established before Europe the base of the metric system. He also did works of geography establishing a new itinerary between China and Europe. But he was saddened at the end of his life to see the evolution of events. The Jesuits did not limit their work to science. They were able to explore at the same time the various fields of the humanities.

They continued in the th centuries to translate at the beginning often in Latin difficult classics like the Yijing, the Analects, the Book of Rites…. Although there were various problems due to a projection of Christian ideas on the Chinese texts the Europeans could read for the first time original Chinese philosophical texts. European readers got enthusiastic, among them the great philosophers of the Enlightenment Leibniz and Voltaire Malebranche remained critical of Neo-Confucianism but it was an exception.

Father Bouvet did bring in 49 books as a gift from the emperor. It is even difficult to imagine the extraordinary exchange between China and Europe at a time when communications were still so poor.

Travels took months; people had to wait for letters, and still Leibniz could correspond with Jesuits in China; he could study the I Ching Book of Changes and get inspiration for his own philosophy, his binary system in Mathematics and his reflection on a world language. It has been said that Chinese Thought has influenced the development of the European enlightenment in preparing the political changes of the American and French Revolutions.

The dynamic work initiated by the Jesuits was a promising beginning if people on both sides had maintained the same friendship and wisdom. However as often in history narrow-mindedness and mistakes were the cause of a tragedy from which East-West relations still suffer.


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In the early eighteenth century, a dispute within the Catholic Church arose over whether Chinese folk religion rituals and offerings to the emperor constituted paganism or idolatry. This tension led to what became known as the "Rites Controversy," a bitter struggle that broke out after Ricci's death and lasted for over a hundred years. At first the focal point of dissension was Ricci's contention that the ceremonial rites of Confucianism and ancestor worship were primarily social and political in nature and could be practiced by converts.

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The Dominicans charged that they were idolatrous; all acts of respect to the sage and one's ancestors were nothing less than the worship of demons. A Dominican carried the case to Rome , where the controversy dragged on and on, largely because there was no one in the Vatican who knew Chinese culture sufficiently to provide the pope with a ruling. Naturally, the Jesuits appealed to the Chinese emperor, who endorsed Ricci's position. Understandably, he was confused: missionaries attacked missionaries in the Chinese capital. The Chinese reaction was to consider expelling all forgeign Christians.

In the sixteenth century, the vast and sophisticated empire of China lay almost entirely unknown to Western travellers. As global trade expanded, this land of reputedly boundless wealth, pale-faced women, and indecipherable tongues began to feed the fantasies of European merchants and adventurers. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, saw in this great people millions of souls who would be damned unless the Christian message could be brought to them.

In Mission to China Mary Laven brings this remote world vividly to life.