1902 Encyclopedia > Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci
Christian missionary to China

MATTEO RICCI (1552-1610), is eminent as practically the founder of Christian missions in modern China.

He was born of a noble family at Macerata in the March of Ancona on 7th October 1552, two months before Francis Xavier, burning with the desire to carry his message into China, died at its gates. After some education at a Jesuit college in his native town, Ricci, at the age of sixteen, was sent by his father to study law at Rome. But the youth had already contemplated entering the Jesuit Company, and this purpose he accomplished about 1571, without informing his father, of whose opposition he was aware, until the step had been taken. The father instantly started for Bome, but was stopped by illness, and abandoned opposition.

In 1577 Ricci and several other Italian students of noble birth offered themselves for the East Indian mis-sions ; and Ricci, without visiting his family to take leave, proceeded to Portugal. His comrades were Rudolfo &.cquaviva, Nicolas Spinola, Francesco Pasio, and Michele Ruggieri, all afterwards, like Ricci himself, famous in the Jesuit annals. They arrived at Goa in September 1578. After four years spent in India, Ricci was summoned to the task of opening China to evangelization.

Several attempts had been made by Xavier, and since his death, to introduce the church into China,—as by Melchior Nunes of the Jesuit society operating from Sanchian in 1555; by Gaspar da Cruz, a Dominican, in that or the following year; by the Augustinians under Martin Herrada, 1575; and in 1579 by the Franciscans led by Pedro d'Alfaro; but all these attempts proved abortive. In 1571 a house of the Jesuits had been set up at Macao (where the Portuguese were established in 1557), but their attention was then occupied with Japan, and it was not till the arrival at Macao of Alessandro Valignani on a visitation in 1582 that work in China was really taken up. For this object he had obtained the services first of M. Ruggieri and then of Ricci. After various disappointments they found access to Chau-king-fu on the Si-Kiang or West River of Canton, where the viceroy of the two provinces of Kwang-tung and Kwang-si then had his residence, and by favour of this personage they were enabled to establish themselves, and there spent several years. Their proceedings were very cautious and tentative; they excited the curiosity and interest of even the more intelligent Chinese by their clocks, their globes and maps, their books of European engravings,' and by Ricci's knowledge of mathematics, including dialling and the like, and the projection of maps. They conciliated some influential friends, and their reputation spread pretty widely in China. This was facilitated by the Chinese system of transfer of public officers from one province of the empire to another, and in the later movements of the missionaries they frequently met with one and another of their old acquaintances in office, who were more or less well disposed. Eventually troubles arose at Chau-king which compelled them to seek a new locality; and in 1589, with the viceroy's sanction, they migrated to Chang-chau in the northern part of Kwang-tung, not far from the well known Meiling Pass.

During his stay here Ricci was convinced that a mistake had been made in adopting a dress resembling that of the bonzes, thus identifying the missionaries with a class who were the objects either of superstition or of contempt. With the sanction of the visitor it was ordered that in future the missionaries should adopt the costumes of Chinese literates. And, in fact, they before long adopted Chinese manners altogether.

Chang-chau, as a station, did not prove a happy selec-tion, but it was not till 1595 that an opportunity occurred of travelling northward. We cannot follow Ricci's move-ments in detail, or the vicissitudes of favour and trouble which attended his plans. The latter were, on the whole, never very grave. For some time his residence was at Nan-chang-fu, the capital of Kiang-si; but in 1598 he was enabled to proceed under favourable conditions to Nan-king, and thence, for the first time, to Peking, which had all along been the goal of his missionary ambition. But circumstances were not then propitious, and the party had to return to Nanking. The fame of the presents which they carried had, however, reached the court, and the Jesuits were summoned north again, and on the 24th January 1601 they entered the capital. Wan-lieh, the emperor of the Ming dynasty, in those days lived in seclu-sion, and saw no one but his women and the eunuchs. But the missionaries were summoned to the palace; their presents were immensely admired; and the emperor had the curiosity to send for portraits of the fathers them-selves.

They obtained a settlement, with an allowance for sub-sistence, in Peking, and from this time to the end of his life Ricci's estimation among the Chinese was constantly increasing, as was at the same time the amount of his labours. Visitors, who were never turned away, thronged the mission residence incessantly; inquiries coming to him from all parts of the empire, from strangers as well as acquaint-ances, respecting the doctrines which he taught, or the numerous Chinese publications which he issued, had to be answered. This in itself was a great burden, as Chinese composition, if wrong impressions are to be avoided, demands extreme care and accuracy. As head of the mission, which now had four stations in China, he also devoted much time to answering the letters of the priests under him, a matter on which he spared no pains or detail. The new converts had to be attended to—always welcomed, and never hustled away. Besides these came the composi-tion of his Chinese books, the teaching of his people, and the maintenance of the record of the mission history which had been enjoined upon him by the general of the order, and which he kept up to the most recent dates. Thus his labours were wearing and incessant. In May 1610 he broke down, and after an illness of eight days died on the 11th of that month, aged fifty-eight. His coadjutor Pantoja applied to the emperor for a burying-place outside the city. This, after due consideration by the boards concerned, was granted, with the most honourable official testimonies to the reputation and character of Ricci; and a large building in the vicinity of the city was at the same time bestowed upon the mission for their residence.

Ricci's character, his acquirements, and the use he made oi them were certainly worthy of all honour. "We do not know what amount of success in conversion had rewarded his labours during his life, but some eminent and creditable converts there were, and his work was the foundation of the considerable spread which the Roman Catholic Church has since attained in China. When the missionaries of other Roman Catholic orders made their way into China, some twenty years after the death of Ricci, they found great fault with the manner in which certain Chinese practices had been dealt with by the Jesuits, a matter in which Ricci's action and policy had given the tone to the mission in China,—though in fact that tone was rather inherent in the Jesuit system than the outcome of individual character, for controversies of an exactly parallel nature arose two generations later in southern India, between the Jesuits and Capuchins, regarding what were called "Malabar rites." The controversy thus kindled in China burned for considerably more than a century with great fierceness. and we can here, in connexion with the career of Ricci, but indicate its existence. The chief points of controversy were (1) the lawfulness and expediency of certain terms employed by the Jesuits in naming God Almighty, such as Tien, "Heaven," and Shang-ti, "Supreme Ruler" or "Emperor," instead of Ticn-Chu, "Lord of Heaven," and in particular the erection of inscribed tablets in the churches, on which these terms were made use of; (2) in respect to the ceremonial offerings made in honour of Confucius, and of personal ancestors, which Ricci had recognized as merely "civil" observances; (3) the erection of tablets in honour of ancestors in private houses ; and (4), more generally, sanction and favour accorded to ancient Chinese sacred books and philosophical doctrine, as not reallv trespassing on Christian faith.

Probably no European name of past centuries is so well known in China as that of Li-ma-teu, the form in which the name of our missionary (iji-cci Mat-teo) was adapted to Chinese usage, and by which he appears in Chinese records. The works which he composed in Chinese are numerous ; a list of them (apparently by no means complete, however) will be found in Kircher's China Illustrate,, and also in Abel Remusat's Nouveaux Melanges Asiatiques (ii. pp. 213-215). They are said to display an aptitude for clothing ideas in a Chinese dress very rare and remarkable in a foreigner. One of the first which attracted attention and re-putation among Chinese readers was a Treatise upon Friendship, in the form of a dialogue containing short and pithy paragraphs ; this is stated in the De Expeditions to have been suggested during Ricci's stay at Nan-chang by a conversation with the prince of Kien-ngan, who asked questions regarding the laws of friendship in the West.

In the early part of his residence at Peking, when enjoying con-stant intercourse with scholars of high position, Ricci brought out the T'ien-chushih-i, or "Veritable doctrine of the Lord of Heaven," which deals with the divine character and attributes under eight heads. "This work," says Mr A. Wylie, "contains some acute reasoning in support of the propositions laid down, but the doctrine of faith in Christ is very slightly touched upon. The teachings of Buddhism are vigorously attacked, whilst the author tries to draw a parallel between Christianity and .the teachings of the Chinese literati."

In 1604 Ricci completed the Erh-shih-icu yen, a series of short articles of moral bearing, but exhibiting little of the essential doctrines of Christianity. Chi-jen shih pien is another of his pro-ductions, completed in 1608, and consisting of a record of ten con-versations held with Chinese of high position. The subjects are :— (1) Years past no longer ours ; (2) Man a sojourner on earth ; (3) Advantage of frequent contemplation of eternity ; (4) Prepara-tion for judgment by such contemplation ; (5) The good man not desirous of talking; (6) Abstinence, and its distinction from the prohibition to take life ; (7) Self-examination and self-reproof inconsistent with inaction; (8) Future reward and punishment; (9) Prying into futurity hastens calamity ; (10) Wealth with covetousness more wretched than poverty with contentment. To this work is appended a translation of eight European hymns, with elucidations, written in 1609.

Some of the characteristics briefly indicated here may have suggested, though probably they are far from justifying, the bitterness of attacks made upon Ricci's theology, long after he had been in his grave, by some of the opponents of the Jesuits in the controversies to which we have referred. An example of these is found in the work called Anecdotes sur I'Etat de Religion dans la Chine, Paris, 1733—35, the author of which (Abbe Villers) speaks of the T'ien-chu shih-i in this fashion—" The Jesuit was also so ill versed in the particulars of the faith that, as the holy bishop of Conon, Monsgr. Maigrot, says of him, one need merely read his book on the true religion to convince oneself that he had never imbibed the first elements of theology". . . . The writer goes on to say other things even much more bitter.

Ricci's pointed attacks on Buddhism, and the wide circulation of his books, called forth the opposition of the Buddhist clergy.

One of the ablest who took their part was Chu-hang, a priest of Hang-cbau, who had abandoned the literary status for the Bud-dhist cloister. Ho wrote three articles against the doctrine of the missionaries. These were brought to Ricci's notice in an ostensible tone of candour by Yu-chun-he, a high mandarin at the capital. This letter, with Ricci's reply, the three Buddhist declamations, and Ricci's confutation, were published in a collected form by the Christian Sen-Kwang-K'e.

Another work of Ricci's which attracted attention was the Hsi-kuo fa, or " Art of Memory as practised in the West." Ricci was himself a great expert in memoria technica, and astonished the Chinese by his performances in this line. He also wrote or edited various Chinese works on geography, the celestial and terrestrial spheres, geometry, and arithmetic. And the detailed history of the mission was drawn out by him, which after his death was brought home by P. Nicolas Trigault, and published at Augsburg, and in a complete form at Lyons a year later under the name Dc Expeditione Christiana a/pud Sinas Suscepta, ab Soc. Jesu, Ex P. Mat. Ricci ejusdem Societatis Commentariis, in which Tri-gault himself added a large amount of interesting matter respecting China and the Chinese.

Among the scientific works of his time which Ricci took with him into China, there was a fine set of maps, which at first created great interest, but disgust afterwards when the Chinese came to perceive the insignificant place assigned therein to the "Middle Kingdom," thrust, as it seemed, into a corner, instead of being set in the centre of the world like the gem in a ring. Ricci, seeing their dissatisfaction, set about constructing a map of the hemisphere on a great scale, so adjusted that China, with its subject states, filled the central area, and, without deviating from truth of projection, occupied a large space in proportion to the other kingdoms gathered round it. All the names were then entered in Chinese calligraphy. This map obtained immense favour, and was immediately engraved at the expense of the viceroy, and widely circulated.

In the accompanying cut we have endeavoured to realize this Jesuitical map. as we fear it must be called. The projection we have adopted is a perspective of the hemisphere, as viewed from a point at the distance of one diameter from the surface, and situated on the production of the radius which passes through the intersec-tion of 115° E. long. (Green-wich) with 30° N. lat. Some-thing pretty near this must have been Li-ma-ten's projec-tion. With a vertex much more distant the desired effect would be impaired, and with one nearer neither of the poles would be seen, whilst the exaggeration of China would have been too gross for a professed representation of the hemisphere.

The chief facts of Ricci's career arc derived from Trigault; some contemporary works on the rites controversy have also been consulted ; in the notice of Ricci's Chinese writings valuable matter has been derived from Notes on Chinese Literature by Mr A. Wylie, an indefatigable scholar, and perhaps our only contemporary who can speak of these from actual examination. The projection of the sphere by the present writer appeared in the (now defunct) Geographical Magazine for July 1874. A number of Ricci's letters are extant in the possession of the family, and access to them was afforded to Giuseppe La Farina, author of the work called La China, considerata nella sua Storia, &c, Florence, 1843, by the Marchese Amico Ricci of Macerata, Jiving at Bologna (see vol. i. p. 112 sg.j. La Farina's quotations contain nothing of interest. There is a curious Chinese account of Ricci published by Dr Breitschneider in the China Review, iv. 301 sq. (H. Y.)


1 The island (properly Shang-chuan) on which the Portuguese had a temporary settlement before they got Macao, and on which F. Xavier.

2 The list of the literature of this controversy occupies forty-one columns in M. Cordier's excellent Bibliographie de la Chine.

The above article was written by: Col. Henry Yule, C.B.

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