Matteo Ricci: an encounter of civilisations

Four hundred years ago, an Italian Jesuit introduced China to the best of the West.
Seamus Grimes | May 18 2010 | comment  



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Shanghai in the middle of Expo-mania, one of the most impressive events is the Shanghai Museum’s commemoration of the Jesuit scholar Matteo Ricci. He introduced the Ming dynasty of the 16th century to the West.

I am currently spending some weeks in Shanghai as part of my research into foreign investment in research and development in China. This exhibition tells the fascinating story of a much earlier introduction of innovation into China. Today the Chinese are very conscious of their local economy being dominated by technology from foreign companies, and they are determined to develop their own. The Ricci exhibition also tells the story of this much earlier transmission of innovation, technology and culture from the West.

In his fascinating book The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark quotes a study group of Chinese scholars who have been trying for at least two decades to figure out the success of the West, as compared with China itself and Islamic culture:

One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

While there is nothing new about China’s fascination with the effectiveness of the institutional aspect of the Catholic Church, there is little evidence in my view of any clear link between Christianity in China today and China’s very impressive economic progress.  The Matteo Ricci exhibition, however, explains how Western civilization in general, much of which was deeply inspired by Christian thinking, provided a whole range of new ideas, technologies and cultural achievements to China.

This famous Italian Jesuit priest of outstanding scholarly accomplishment was born in Italy in 1552 and died in Beijing in 1610. The Japanese writer Hirakawa Sukehiro referred to him as “the first giant in the history of humankind to embody all the knowledge of the European Renaissance and all the wisdom of the Chinese classics”.

Ricci was sent to the Far East in 1578 and arrived in Macau in 1582. A year later he moved to Zhaoqing and later to Shaozhou, Nanchang, and Nanjing. Eventually he arrived in Beijing in 1601, where he presented an impressive array of gifts, including mechanical clocks and musical instruments to the Emperor, and was granted permission to stay. Ricci wrote that “true unity without differences” does not exist, and spent his life using both scientific and literary culture to create good relations between West and East. The Chinese literati were amazed to discover the range of learning from the West introduced by Ricci and in particular they were surprised that so many impressive books existed outside their own range of knowledge. 

In addition to introducing key texts, including the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Summa Theologica, Ricci also made a huge contribution in key works in science and technology to China. He collaborated with the Chinese scholar Xu Guangqi in translating Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and the Practical Arithmetic, and translated the Treatise on the Astrolabe with Li Zhizao. His major contribution was the introduction of the mathematical method in the observation of nature, and in particular through the techniques of measuring terrestrial and celestial space, as well as time with clocks. An important outcome of his published work in China was the reform of the Chinese calendar.

Among Ricci’s key objectives in introducing the works of his own German master Christophe Clavius in arithmetic and geometry to China was to provide support for natural and applied sciences, to gain credit with Chinese intellectuals and to introduce Aristotelian logic, on which much of Christian theology was based.

He and his companions with great patience and exemplary lives spent many years seeking to break down the considerable suspicion and fear they encountered. His first major work in Chinese was “On Friendship” a trait which he realised was central to Confucian culture. He was widely regarded as a “man of friendship” who had come to China “in search of friends”. In addition to opening the Chinese intellectual world to key achievements in the West, his main contribution was to help China and Europe realize that they were two halves of a single civilization.

He spent his final years in Beijing where with his Chinese friends he produced his most important works, including a great six-panel map of the world in 1602 with Li Zhizao. He also wrote Europe’s first first-hand account of the history of China. Just before he died in 1610, such was his reputation that he was still receiving many visitors from various parts of China. Having made such a phenomenal contribution to opening China to the best of Europe’s culture and spirituality, he died a very cheerful and exhausted priest.

Seamus Grimes is a professor of geography at the National University of Ireland in Galway and a visiting professor of geography at East China Normal University, Shanghai.



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