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

April 21, 2011

University of Cambridge historian Mary Laven, whose new book makes compelling reading, acknowledges that Matteo Ricci's story has been told before from a wide range of perspectives. So what more can be said about an apparently over-studied subject?

Jesuits Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) and Ricci (1552-1610) entered China in 1583 to establish a mission. Ricci never returned home, and the Emperor Wanli granted a piece of burial ground for his tomb outside the walled city of Peking, the capital of the Ming Empire. A talented scholar with a gift for the Chinese language, Ricci became the first European to gain access to the imperial Forbidden City.

In his attempt to "accommodate" Christian teachings to Chinese culture, he played a key role in spreading European knowledge of cartography, mathematics, astronomy, mechanics and philosophy. Convinced that the literati he hoped to reach were exclusively Confucian, he engaged in an intensive study of Confucian texts.

The availability of printing allowed Ricci to print his works in Chinese, and thus build a scholarly reputation among the literati and scholar-officials who became his protectors, interlocutors and friends, some of whom wrote prefaces to his works.

Laven supplies her own reasons for producing another study of Ricci. At a time when Western rulers vacillate in their attitudes towards ethnic minorities and flit between policies intended to encourage cultural diversity, it is particularly timely to consider how "our" European ancestors handled cultural difference, she argues, and it is in this context that she approaches Ricci in a different vein.

Since the mission has proved "a rich seam for intellectual historians", as Ricci was a "thoroughly intellectual man", Laven claims that a "more tangible history" grounded in China is needed, rooted in the objects, emotions and human relationships essential "to the everyday unfolding of the mission". For example, the book's first chapter, on the Jesuits' residence in Guangdong province from 1583 to 1589, stresses the "interplay of curiosity and hostility that would come to mark the mission as a whole".

Later in the book, Laven's consideration of Ricci's first treatise in Chinese, On Friendship, leads to an analysis of the Jesuits' dependence on both patronage and strategic and functional friendship.

Laven avoids the major themes of Ricci's apostolate by looking for alternative viewpoints. While recognising the central place of science in the Jesuit mission to China, she nevertheless focuses on the mathematical instruments and clocks displayed as ornaments by the Chinese, and the prisms valued as tools of alchemy. Furthermore, the Jesuits' relationship with the Confucian literati is here overshadowed by their links with the court's eunuchs.

In the book's final chapter, Ricci's catechism, "The true meaning of the Lord of Heaven", which targeted the educated elite by shaping doctrine through reason, here becomes a springboard from which to immerse the reader in the "marvels" and "miracles" of the evangelisation experience, especially the cases of female converts.

Although the "doggedly cerebral" Jesuits insisted on "the power of reason, books and science" to convert the Chinese literati, Laven contends, their mission to China went beyond reason. She emphasises how much more effective evangelisation could be when steeped in non-verbal communication by means of images, objects and rituals - something that is not difficult to understand, given that the Jesuit culture was rooted in emotive devotion. However, it is by no means certain that notions of devotion and effectiveness were the same in China as in Europe.

In sum, Laven artfully and playfully chooses topics that arouse the reader's curiosity, and makes interesting use of some of her sources. But at times her either-or approach, for example seeing reason in opposition to emotion, risks undervaluing many preceding attempts to tackle a theme that can probably never be overstudied.

When it comes to Matteo Ricci and the mission to China, there is always more to consider.

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

By Mary Laven. Faber & Faber, 352pp, £17.99. ISBN 9780571225170. Published 17 February 2011

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