Early Modern Times – an embarrassment of Ricci

Early Modern Times - an embarrassment of Ricci

Dear readers,

This week in the Foundation Year Program, I’ll be lecturing on ‘Jesuits in China: Cross-Cultural Encounters’. The assigned readings are drawn from the Journals of Matteo Ricci: 1583-1610 and Chinese responses, positive and negative, to the Jesuit mission. Ricci (depicted above with his convert Xu Guangqi) is the most famous of the China Jesuits, though the mission eventually ended in failure–which would surely have caused an embarrassment of Ricci.

To set the stage for the Jesuit encounter, much of the lecture is devoted to the syncretism of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in China once the Jesuits had finally managed to establish themselves in the mainland in the late 16th century. The orthodox teaching in Ming China (1368-1644) was the neo-Confucian synthesis by the Song philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Zhu Xi, like his neo-Confucian predecessors, championed Confucian ethics but grounded it on a metaphysical foundation with significant Daoist and Buddhist elements. He maintained the superiority of classical Confucian virtues of righteousness, filial piety, ritual propriety and benevolence, but drew heavily on the ancient Chinese cosmology which informed Daoism as well as asserting the Daoist and Buddhist goal of transcending desires in order to achieve harmony in society and with heaven. In his philosophy, then, to follow your base passions is to be nothing better than a Zhu animal living in your own Xi.

Neo-Confucianism was the great rival to the Jesuits’ goal of converting China to Christianity. In the Sept. 25, 2021 issue of Early Modern Times, I mentioned how the Jesuit mission was meant to counter the Protestant threat in Europe through conversion in Asia, the Americas, and beyond, and that the Jesuits pursued a strategy of trying to accommodate Christianity and classical Confucianism against the neo-Confucian syncretism of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This was especially spearheaded by Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), an Italian-born Jesuit who learned the Chinese language so well that he memorised the Confucian Classics and could not only write works in literary Chinese but even translated Euclid’s Elements from ancient Greek to his adopted language. As recounted by historian Jonathan Spence, Ricci used the mnemonic technique of a ‘memory palace’ to remember thousands of Chinese characters. Since he was such a Ricci emperor in his palace, no doubt aspiring Jesuits sought letters of recommendation from him, as he could provide excellent character references.

Ricci’s prodigious abilities and stratagems were arguably a reason for the mission’s ultimate failure. Unlike his mentor Michele Ruggieri who saw affinities between Christianity and Buddhism, Ricci changed the apparel of the missionaries from Buddhist to Confucian robes. He wanted to impress upon the local authorities that the Jesuits were peers of Confucian scholar-officials, not Buddhist monks. Ricci, then, wanted to convert China from the top-down, persuading mandarins of the compatibility of Christianity with Confucianism against Buddhist, Daoist, and neo-Confucian rivals. Such was his fame that he was allowed residence in the imperial capital itself. But relatively few scholars in fact converted to Christianity, especially once they learned that Ricci was preaching a religion founded by a person detractors described as a carpenter’s bastard son crucified for rebelling against the state.  Attempts to sway imperial scholars to the religion of the crucified Christ only made them more cross.

The Jesuits were more successful among the lower ranks of society, but surpassed by non-Jesuit missionaries who focused on the common people in the provinces rather than officials in the capital. In fact, Ricci and his fellows only got as far as they did because of their linguistic abilities, knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, and hoard of clocks, prisms, other scientific instruments, and a world map showing China near the centre. Given both the strategy of accommodation between Christianity and Confucianism and their reliance on curiosities rather than Christian teachings, the enemies of the Jesuits back in Europe were able to convince the Papacy that these missionaries had fatally compromised the Christian religion. Meanwhile, the mission itself was split between Portuguese Jesuits (led by Ricci and his successors) and French Jesuits more loyal to King Louis XIV than the Pope. News of dissension in Europe further fuelled Chinese suspicions of the Jesuits. Christianity was eventually proscribed by imperial edict in 1724, and the Jesuit order was shut down by the Holy See later in the century. The early modern Catholic mission in China went from rags to Ricci to rags, as the Jesuit Ricci failed to exceed his grasp.

Till next week,

Simon Kow

Early Modern Jesuit-yourself Studies Program

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