Diplomat priest built bridges to China


'Dissident And Diplomat' by Chris JohnstonAs the diplomatic crisis unfolded between the United States and China over the fate of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng , hard questions about Chinese politics, society and culture surfaced, and the West embarked on its familiar cycle of attempted comprehension on the one hand, and obstinate mystification on the other.

One figure in the history of Sino-Western relations that offers a tantalising alternative to this cycle is Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, the 400th anniversary of whose death was celebrated from Beijing to Rome two years ago. As the revered leader of the first Jesuit mission in China, established in 1583, Ricci still commands widespread respect and admiration.

Viewed as a rare exception to the bellicose and bigoted European culture of the day, Ricci represents for many a beacon of early toleration. He openly admired the Chinese: 'though they have a well-equipped army and navy that could easily conquer the neighbouring nations, neither the King nor his people ever think of waging a war of aggression ... while the nations of the West seem to be entirely consumed with the idea of supreme domination'.

For modern observers, yearning to make sense of our rapidly globalising world, Ricci stands as an irresistibly compelling bridge between the East and West.

The reality was more complicated. Ricci was desperately homesick, missing his friends and teachers, and feeling on the fringes of the vast Jesuit enterprise, with its heart in the exciting Baroque Rome that he left behind. Far from demonstrating a comprehensive respect for Chinese culture, he vilified Confucianism in some of his letters.

Even the much-admired 'sweet method' of conversion pioneered by Ricci, involving the cultural accommodation of missionaries to local customs and mores, in many ways was a pragmatic response to the problem that Jesuits encountered in lands such as China and Japan. Missionaries were unsupported by the trappings of Empire and so were forced to accommodate themselves to the dominant culture in which they found themselves.

Ricci made relatively few converts too. The mandarin elites among whom he proselytised were reluctant to abandon the rituals provided by Confucianism and its rich spiritual, philosophical, social and cultural meaning.

Yet, he had a terrific impact on the many elites with whom he interacted, especially at the court of Beijing: he wrote many treatises in Chinese, not just on religious subjects, but also on much-valued philosophical, scientific and mathematical topics, including the first ever world map in Chinese.

His many literary and scholarly endeavours reflect a profound sensitivity and appreciation towards Chinese culture, which in turn earned him deep personal and intellectual respect that remains for many Chinese today.

Ricci, then, was both open and closed to China's deep and complex culture, admiring some aspects and despising others. His responses are not all that different from the types of attitudes we can still observe today. So what can Ricci's enterprise tell us about our own encounters with China?

Aside from some obvious limitations, the early Jesuit mission in China represents a remarkable example of early cultural tolerance in the long and often torturous history of Christian missions. It illuminates a side of European-Western culture that is capable of immense intellectual and cultural openness towards other cultures.

This side is often overshadowed by a dangerous and more familiar side of the European character: one that insists on superiority, a monopoly on cultural sophistication, and an expansionist, violent and militaristic approach to those who are different or vulnerable. While these sides regularly overlap, even during Ricci's lifetime, for the most part he stood on the side of openness.

Ricci was not operating in a vacuum, but drew on the rich and ancient Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions that constitute the intellectual heritage of Europe and the West. In the Renaissance culture of Italy in which Ricci was steeped, these traditions viewed the East with awe and respect.

At the same time, the cultural world of the Renaissance was beginning to question, innovate, explore, translate, and critique the very texts that made up the core of European identity, providing a dual process of tradition and innovation, knowledge and curiosity, all of which Ricci brought with him to China, and applied to his intellectual and scholarly endeavours, if not to his baser, cruder responses.

As successors of this European outlook, we would do well to recover the openness and curiosity that enabled Ricci to experience Chinese culture in an accommodating way. It can provide the ennobling tools we need to encounter other societies such as that of China, including its dissidents who sometimes call out for assistance.

Camilla RussellCamilla Russell is Lecturer in Early-Modern European History at Newcastle University and currently is working on a collective biography of the first century of Italian Jesuits. 

Topic tags: Camilla Russell, China, US, Chen Guangcheng, Matteo Ricci


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Existing comments

I am like the centre of a circle equivalent from all points on the circumference(La Vita Nouva -Dante).Buddhism is the successor of the tribal Hindu faith. LaoZi is the greatest prophet of the Dao. Siddhartha Gautama is Saint Ioasaph in the Orthodox & Catholic Christian Churches. Jesus Christ-( The Prince of Peace ) can, in truth, be called a Buddha. He is the Eternal Dao, who is also One with the Father & Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity. Apostolic Christianity is the successor of not only the tribal Jewish religion but also the 3 in 1 San Jiao He Yi faith of Buddhism, Daoism & Confucianism combined. Souce : Ecumenical Buddhism & Daoism & Confucianism.
Myra | 14 May 2012

It is such a pity the Church did not side with the Jesuits on the controversy over the Chinese Rites. The Church was initially favourable to the Rites, then condemned them, and then relented from its condemnation as recently as 1939. more than 200 years of lost opportunities. Wikipedia has some excellent quotations on the issue, including this one from the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in 1659: "Do not act with zeal, do not put forward any arguments to convince these peoples to change their rites, their customs or their usages, except if they are evidently contrary to the religion [i.e., Catholic Christianity] and morality. What would be more absurd than to bring France, Spain, Italy or any other European country to the Chinese? Do not bring to them our countries, but instead bring to them the Faith, a Faith that does not reject or hurt the rites, nor the usages of any people, provided that these are not distasteful, but that instead keeps and protects them." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Rites_controversy
Zac | 14 May 2012

Thank you Camilla for a most interesting article. The best way to understand Ricci is to read his own diary, which many people don't realise is available in English: China in the 16th Centtury: The Journals of Matthew Riccdi 1583 -1610" translated by Louis J. Gallagher, S.J. Amazaon sometimes has copies. After reading this diary, one gets a really positive picture of Ricci...and one wonders why the Church has not canonised him. Lots of info re Ricci at www.riccicenter.com
John Wotherspoon (Hong Kong) | 14 May 2012

Matteo Ricci despite his flaws has long been a Jesuit hero of mine. Like those courageous astronomers who put the sun at the centre of the universe, he was clever enough when he drew a map of the known world and its two hemispheres his was centred on the Middle Kingdom and not Western Europe. This acceptance of spatial relativity merged into an ethical relativity where he thought Confucian morals could be fused with Christianity. Rome, being the Eternal Imperial City and housing rival factions, not the least being the Jesuits and the Dominicans, became the battleground for The Recognition of Chinese Rites. A papal Bull "Ex Illa Die" in 1742 suffocated the Jesuit approach to missionary activity for almost two centuries, by which time Mao Tse Tung's brand of Communism was undermining the Confucian tradition. To build a bridge between Rome and Peking required a pylon in each city. Rome was too busy playing ecclesial politics to put down the foundations of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness to change, so there was no way it would provide the pylon that Ricci's bridgespan needed. I thank Camilla Russell for holding up Ricci as an example of open-mindedness and curiosity.
Uncle Pat | 14 May 2012

It's a pity Christianity/Catholicsm has drifted from its roots and descended into tribalism once again. Generally when people talk of Christian values, they means Western values rather than Christ-likeness. So when we hear of Christians being persecuted these days, I suspect it's not for behaving like Christians, but for being perceived to represent Western ideology. We need to embrace the spiritual/mystical once again and take a few risks like Matteo Ricci.
AURELIUS | 14 May 2012

Very good and erudite. really enjoyed it
Theo Verbeek | 14 May 2012

Both of Vincent Cronin's books Wise Man from the West on Ricci and Pearl to India on de Nobili opened up for me the principle of inculturation that Rome closed down. Both these men worked with the educated and influential in China and India bringing their scientific and philosophical knowledge to people who were open to them. What a powerful base that would have been 400 years ago for the growth of the People of God. The Holy Spirit must have been whispering so quietly that She could not be heard in Rome.
Chris | 14 May 2012

Just a minor thing, but at the opening, the guy who presented this article seemed to pronounce"Ricki", as opposed to the pronunciation"Richi". In any case, it seems as if Ricci was a very pragmatic leader, who, I believe, like Jesus, aimed to bring equality to all peoples, regardless of status, gender, religion, or otherwise, and, so bring reconciliation to all peoples, so on the whole he sounded, like Jesus, to be likewise a revolutionary. We just started a new DVD series presented my one of my favourite theologians, New Zealand's Lloyd Geering entitled "The Unconscious & Us", and the first session was on personality types, which we(myself included) all have, and it seems like, with all due respect to the great man that he no doubt was, was his version of our 'shadow" side, namely his seeming scepticism, cynicism even towards Confucianist, which seems sad, as, and this is just my opinion, he seemed to my mind a bit wary of people who were, I don't know, other than Christian. I could have the wrong end of the stick, but that was my impression. Good otherwise, and on-the-whole, like the presenter of the audio of this article said, we would do well to follow his lead in bringing compassion, justice, and equality to all human beings, regardless of any distinction.
Phillip | 14 May 2012

Thanks for your article on Matteo Ricci. I read his bio many years ago, was impressed, and have heard nothing about him since. The same can be said of Roberto de Nobili the Jesuit who went to India c. 1600. The Vatican rejected their efforts in a manner that is similar to today. They had the right approach, and we have a real need to know about them as we struggle with The Curia today.
Donald Conroy | 16 May 2012

Why do you refer to the heroic pro-life activist Chen Guangcheng as merely a "blind Chinese dissident"? He is not campaigning for the blind or for general dissent from the Chinese government. His campaigns are solely directed at ending the Chinese government's forced abortions and forced sterilizations and its persecution of those who try to resist them. Donald Conroy, ":The Vatican" fdid not "reject" the efforts of Frs Ricci and de Nobili, it warmly welcomed and admanatly supported them. It was only 200 years later that anti-Jesuit forces from outside the Vatican (principally arising from the European governments who resented the Jesuits' interference in their attempts to impose colonialism on non-Europeans) used lies and political, military and financial pressure to persuade the Vatican to reverse its position on the Chinese ancestor rites, though it still supported the Jesuit missions.
Sharon | 17 May 2012

-----“After years of enduring physical and psychological torture, imprisonment, and hate, the man, Chen Guangcheng, who defended Chinese women from the crime of forced abortion is finally free,” Smith told LifeNews. “America welcomes this extraordinary family with open arms.”“I want to extend my gratitude and thankfulness to all those who care and love my family and myself and our situation, especially to the American people who show they care about the policies and justice — those are universal values — I am very, very grateful to all of you,” Chen said. “I’m not a hero. I am just doing what my conscience asks me to do. I cannot be silent. I cannot be quiet when facing this evil against women and children. This is what I should do''...In China, Chen documented 7,000 such forced abortion cases, taking down the names and addresses of those women who were victimized, as well as the particulars of the officials who committed these crimes. That is why the Chinese Communist Party is so eager to silence Chen. Not only has he exposed their crimes against the Chinese people, he has at least the potential to generate massive protests against the brutal one-child policy...
Myra | 20 May 2012

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