In Our Time: Matteo Ricci and the Ming Dynasty

Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit priest who went to China in the 16th Century with the aim of converting the Chinese to Christianity. He wasn't particularly successful in that goal, but he was influential on European attitudes to China & vice versa. Discussing him and his mission on In Our Time were Mary Laven (University of Cambridge), Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) and Anne Gerritsen (University of Warwick).

Ricci was born in the Papal States and educated by the Jesuits up to university age. He then went to Rome to study to become a lawyer, but soon decided to become Jesuit priest instead. The Jesuits were a fairly new order at the time, part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The central difference between them and the other orders was that they were directly obedient to the Pope. They vowed to travel wherever they were sent, making them more mobile than the monastic orders. Their raison d'être was to convert the world to Catholicism - as part of showing the superiority of their branch of the faith over the Protestant variant.

The Jesuits saw China as a chance to replicate the success of the conversion of South America, with a hope that perhaps they might even replicate the Spanish conquest of South America. Europeans at the time were aware of China, but it wasn't a particularly well known country nor was it understood. Before the Ming Dynasty came to power (in 1368AD) there had started to be some trade and contact between Yuan China and Europe (c.f. Marco Polo, who I'm sure we listened to an In Our Time about but I can't find a post writing about it). However when the Hongzhu Emperor came to power & founded the Ming Dynasty trade with the outside world was forbidden. In practice this didn't stop contact between China and Europe, but it did reduce it significantly.

Ricci's over-arching strategy was a tried and tested one for the Catholic Church, although he took some of it to further extremes that his superiors were happy with. His aim was to integrate himself into Chinese society and to make contact with the elite - the idea was that if you can convert the top (the Emperor in this case) then you will convert the whole country. Another part of the strategy was to make accommodations for the current beliefs of the people when explaining Christianity to them, to make it sound not so far from their pagan religion. The theological rationale for this was God had left "hints" in the pagan faiths so that the Catholics would be able to convert the pagans. And then presumably after converting the country the idea would be to tighten up the theology, but Ricci didn't get anywhere near that far in the process.

When Ricci first entered the country the Buddhist faith seemed like a good point of entry to hook in his audience - so he dressed like a Buddhist monk, and his teaching made analogies to Buddhism. However as he slowly progressed through the country to Beijing he came to realise that Confucianism was more important in Chinese culture, and so began to dress like a Confucian scholar. He learnt Chinese, and invented a romanisation system so that he could write the words down for other Europeans to learn from.

His role as an analogue of a Confucian scholar dovetailed nicely with his purpose as a missionary - he met with Confucian mandarins to discuss philosophy and other learned subjects. One point of entry into scholarly society was his creation of a world map - he tactfully put China in the centre, flanked by Europe and the Americas. This was interesting to the Chinese as they didn't know much about either Europe or the Americas, and let Ricci start talking about the Pope and Christianity too. He also translated books between Latin and Chinese so that knowledge flowed both ways between the cultures.

Ricci was successful in working his way across the country and in meeting the elite of Chinese society. He eventually was able to enter the Forbidden Palace and "meet" the Emperor - this wasn't an actual meeting, the Emperor didn't do such things, but Ricci was able to meet senior officials and courtiers (and eunuchs) several times. From the Emperor's perspective this was part of the normal diplomatic business - a foreigner arriving to pay his respects to the Emperor and tell him how wonderful he was. There was not the chance that Ricci had hoped for to interest the Emperor in Christianity.

Ricci used the accommodations strategy that the Church endorsed, but took it much further than his superiors would've preferred. He wrote a book in Chinese comparing Christianity and Confucianism in order to point out how similar they were. And in this book the life, death and resurrection of Christ were relegated to a sort of footnote - covered in a single paragraph near the end. When the Pope eventually found out about this demotion of such a crucial part of the Christian faith he was not pleased with Ricci.

The biggest stumbling block for the conversion of the Chinese was the Christian insistence on exclusivity - the Chinese culture was very tolerant of multiple religions and generally people would use appropriate rituals from more than one religion during the course of their lives. The Christian idea that you should just worship one God was alien to them. While Ricci did have some small success in converting people (not that many tho) they didn't always give up their other rituals and observances. Long after Ricci's death this was to cause tension between the Pope and the Chinese Emperor. The Pope had discovered that Chinese Catholics were still honouring their ancestors in the Confucian fashion, and forbade this. And the Chinese Emperor unsurprisingly saw this as foreign interference in the governance of China.

Ricci remained in China until he died, and was honoured after death by the Emperor granting permission for his burial in Beijing (rather than in the designated foreigners' graveyard). Whilst he wasn't the only member of the Catholic mission to China he was the person who had the most influence. His grave has been a tourist attraction in Beijing from the time of his burial through to the present day.

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