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Matteo Ricci

Matteo RicciBorn: 6-Oct-1552
Birthplace: Macerata, Italy
Died: 11-May-1610
Location of death: Beijing, China
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Zhalan Cemetery, Beijing, China

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Religion

Nationality: Italy
Executive summary: Jesuit missionary to China

Italian missionary to China, born of a noble family at Macerata in the March of Ancona on the 7th of October 1552. After some education at a Jesuit college in his native town he went to study law at Rome, where in 1571, in opposition to his father's wishes, he joined the Society of Jesus.

In 1577 Ricci and other students offered themselves for the East Indian missions. Ricci, without visiting his family to take leave, proceeded to Portugal. His comrades were Rudolfo Acquaviva, 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 fruitless 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. 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 until 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 Ruggieri and then of Ricci. After various disappointments they found access to Chow-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 his favor were able to establish themselves there for some 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 projection of maps. They conciliated some influential friends, and their reputation spread 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 at Chow-king compelled them to seek a new home; and in 1589, with the viceroy's sanction, they migrated to Chang-chow 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, 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-chow, as a station, did not prove a happy selection, but it was not until 1595 that an opportunity occurred of travelling northward. For some time Ricci's residence was at Nan-chang-fu, the capital of Kiang-si; but in 1598 he was able to proceed under favorable conditions to Nan-king, and from there 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 Nan-king. The fame of the presents which they carried had, however, reached the court, and the Jesuits were summoned north again, and on the 24th of January 1601 they entered the capital. Wan-li, the emperor of the Ming dynasty, in those days lived in seclusion, and saw no one but his women and the eunuchs. But the missionairies were summoned to the palace; their presents were immensely admired, and the emperor had the curiosity to send for portraits of the fathers themselves.

They obtained a settlement, with an allowance for subsistence, 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 labors. Visitors thronged the mission house incessantly; and inquiries came to him from all parts of the empire respecting the doctrines which he taught, or the numerous Chinese publications which he issued. 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. New converts had to be attended to -- always welcomed, and never hustled away. Besides these came the composition 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 well up to date. Thus his labors were wearing and incessant. In May 1610 he broke down, and after an illness of eight days died on the 11th of that month. His colleague Pantoja applied to the emperor for a burying-place outside the city. This was granted, with the most honorable official testimonies to the reputation and character of Ricci; and a large building in the neighborhood of the city was at the same time bestowed upon the mission for their residence.

Ricci's work was the foundation of the subsequent success attained by the Roman Catholic Church in China. When the missionaries of other Roman Catholic orders made their way into China, twenty years later, 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. The chief points 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 Tien-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 honor of Confucius, and of personal ancestors, which Ricci had recognized as merely civil observances; (3) the erection of tablets in honor of ancestors in private houses; and (4), more generally, sanction and favor accorded to ancient Chinese sacred books and philosophical doctrine, as not really trespassing on Christian faith.

Probably no European name of past centuries is so well known in China as that of Li-ma-ku, the form in which the name of Ricci (Ri-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 Athanasius Kircher's China Illustrata, and also in Abel Rémusat's Nouveaux Mélanges Asiatiques. 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 reputation 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 Expeditione 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 constant intercourse with scholars of high position, Ricci brought out the T'ien-chu shih-i, or "Veritable Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven", which deals with the divine character and attributes under eight heads. "This work", says A. Wylie, "contains some acute reasomng 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-wu yen, a series of short articles of moral bearing, but exhibiting little of the essential doctrines of Christianity. Chi-jęn shih pien is another of his productions, completed in 1608, and consisting of a record of ten conversations 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) Preparation 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 thus indicated may have suggested the bitterness of attacks afterwards made upon Ricci's theology. An example of these is found in the work called Anecdotes sur l'état de religion dans la Chine (Paris, 1733-35), the author of which (Abbé 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."

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-chow, who had abandoned the literary status for the Buddhist cloister. He wrote three articles against the doctrine of the missionaries. These were brought to Ricci's notice in an ostensible tone of candor 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 practiced 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 later in a complete form at Lyons under the name De Expeditione Christiana apud Sinas Suscepta, ab Soc. Jesu, Ex P. Mat. Ricci ejusdem Societatis Commentariis, Trigault himself adding many interesting notes on China and the Chinese.

Among the scientific works which Ricci took into China was a set of maps, which at first created great interest, but afterwards disgust when the Chinese came to perceive the insignificant place assigned to the "Middle Kingdom", thrust, as it seemed, into a corner, instead of being set in the center 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 around it. All the names were then entered in Chinese calligraphy. This map obtained immense favor, and was immediately engraved at the expense of the viceroy and widely circulated.

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