Matteo Ricci

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The year 1982 was a ‘Ricci-year’: scholarly meetings in different places around the world, from Chicago (US), over Macerata (Italy) to Taibei (Taiwan), commemorated Matteo Ricci’s entry in China. It was exactly four hundred years since his arrival in the Portuguese settlement of Macao in 1582 and his entry into the mainland one year later. In 2001, there were new celebrations of Ricci, in Hong Kong and in Beijing, commemorating his definitive settling in Beijing in 1601. The year 2010 is again a ‘Ricci-year’, this time commemorating his death in Beijing in 1610. Is there anything new to be said about Matteo Ricci after this time-lapse of twenty-seven years, which corresponds to the period of Ricci’s own ascent to and settling in Beijing? Well, his writings have become more accessible to the academic and wider community: for instance, in Chinese there are now readily available editions of his Chinese writings and several translations of his Della entrata della Compagnia di Giesù e Christianità nella Cina (‘About the Christian expedition to China undertaken by the Society of Jesus’) – a strong contrast to the prudent two-page article in Renmin huabao(‘China Pictorial’) of July 1982. But publications not only flourished in Chinese. The Ruggieri-Ricci manuscript of the Portuguese-Chinese dictionary was published for the first time; Ricci’s letters and the Italian version of Della entratawere reprinted (2000-2001)[1]; others works have been translated: the catechism Tianzhu shiyi (‘The True Meaning of God’) into English, Japanese, Korean and Italian; the treatise on friendship Jiaoyoulun into Italian, German, and French; the treatise on mnemotechnics (the art of memory), Xiguo jifa into German. There were numerous secondary sources: at least 200 articles, many of them in Chinese, illuminate various aspects of his life and works. The most well-known work is possibly Jonathan Spence’s Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1984), also translated into Chinese (two translations), French, Spanish and Dutch.[2] All this is very impressive and underscores the fact that Ricci remains an attractive figure both on the academic and the more popular level. Yet a close look at these writings reveals in particular the excellence of research accomplished earlier: the quality of Pasquale d’Elia’s annotated edition of the primary sources (Fonti Ricciane, 3 vols., 1942-1949)[3] and the analysis of the method of evangelisation by d’Elia’s student Johannes Bettray (Die Akkommodationsmethode des P. Matteo Ricci S.I. in China, 1955)[4] is rarely matched today. Since these writings are in Italian and German respectively, they have unfortunately often been neglected. Compared to these writings, recent publications rarely bring to light new elements about Ricci himself, they rather nuance Ricci’s ‘success story’ by putting his accomplishments and writings in a broader context. For instance, it appears that Ricci was less accommodative than often assumed,[5] and that fellow Jesuits such as Niccolò Longobardo (1565-1655) had a better knowledge of the Chinese Classics and the Neo-Confucian commentaries than Ricci himself. How then to tell Ricci's story in the year 2010? One major development in recent years is the historiography of the contacts between cultures, with a primary question of the perspective from which one needs to look at the missionary: from his own perspective or from the perspective of the receiving culture? Taking benefit from these developments, this article will reread Ricci's story and ask how Ricci was shaped by the other, especially by the Chinese.[6]

Four characteristics of Jesuit missionary strategy in China

As a starting point one can make a first – rather traditional – reading of Ricci’s life by focusing on the missionary himself. The ‘Jesuit missionary strategy’ in China was conceived by Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), who was the former novice master of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and who was Jesuit visitor for East Asia during...
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