Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci (b. October 6, 1552, Macerata, Papal States - d. May 11, 1610, Beijing, Ming Empire) was an Italian Jesuit missionary who gave the Chinese their first understanding of the West and provided Europeans with an accurate description of China.

Early life

Matteo Ricci was born in 1552 in Macerata, part of the Papal States, and today a city in the Italian region of Marche. Ricci started learning theology and law in a Roman Jesuit school. He entered the order in 1571, and in 1577 he volunteered for service in the East and in 1578 went to India. His journey began in March 1578 in Lisbon, Portugal. He arrived in Goa, a Portuguese Colony, in September 1578. Four years later, he was dispatched to China.

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. The cathedral was established by Matteo Ricci in 1605, making it the oldest Catholic church in Beijing, the current building in the Baroque style dates from 1904.

Ricci in China

In August 1582, Ricci arrived at Macau, a Portuguese trading post on the South China Sea. At the time, Christian missionary activity in China was almost completely limited to Macau, where some of the local Chinese people had converted to Christianity and lived in the Portuguese manner. No Christian missionary had attempted seriously to learn the Chinese language until 1579 (three years before Ricci's arrival), when Michele Ruggieri was invited from Portuguese India expressly to study Chinese, by Alessandro Valignano, founder of St. Paul Jesuit College (Macau), and to prepare for the Jesuits' mission from Macau into Mainland China.

Once in Macau,, Ricci started learning Chinese language and customs. This was the beginning of a long project that made him one of the first Western scholars to master Chinese script and Classical Chinese. With Ruggieri, he traveled to Guangdong's major cities, Canton and Zhaoqing (then the residence of the Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi), seeking to establish a permanent Jesuit mission outside Macau.

In 1583, Ricci and Ruggieri settled in Zhaoqing, at the invitation of the governor of Zhaoqing, Wang Pan, who had heard of Ricci's skill as a mathematician and cartographer. Ricci stayed in Zhaoqing from 1583 to 1589, when he was expelled by a new viceroy. It was in Zhaoqing, in 1584, that Ricci composed the first European-style map of the world in Chinese, now called the "Impossible Black Tulip" after its rarity. No prints of the 1584 map survive, but six re-copied, rice-paper versions survive from 1602.

It is thought that, during their time in Zhaoqing, Ricci and Ruggieri compiled a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, the first in any European language, for which they developed a system for transcribing Chinese words in the Latin alphabet. The manuscript was misplaced in the Jesuit Archives in Rome, not re-discovered until 1934, and published until 2001.


Map of the Far East by Matteo Ricci
1602 Map of the Far East by Matteo Ricci.
There is now a memorial plaque in Zhaoqing to commemorate Ricci's six-year stay there, as well as a "Ricci Memorial Centre", in a building dating from the 1860's.

Expelled from Zhaoqing in 1589, Ricci obtained permission to relocate to Shaoguan (Shaozhou, in Ricci's account) in the north of the province, and reestablish his mission there.

Further travels saw Ricci reach Nanjing and Nanchang in 1595. In August 1597, Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), his superior, appointed him Major Superior of the mission in China, with the rank and powers of a Provincial, a charge that he fulfilled until his death. He moved to Tongzhou (a port of Beijing) in 1598, and first reached Beijing itself on 7 September 1598. However, because of a Korean/Japanese war at the time, Ricci could not reach the Imperial Palace. After waiting for two months, he left Beijing; first for Nanjing and then Suzhou in Jiangsu Province.

During the winter of 1598, Ricci, with the help of his Jesuit colleague Lazzaro Cattaneo, compiled another Chinese-Portuguese dictionary, in which tones in Chinese syllables were indicated in Roman text with diacritical marks. Unlike Ricci's and Ruggieri's earlier Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, this work has not been found.

In 1601, Ricci was invited by the Emperor to become an adviser to the Imperial court of the Wanli Emperor; the first Westerner to be invited into the Forbidden City. This honour was in recognition of Ricci's scientific abilities, chiefly his predictions of solar eclipses, which were significant events in the Chinese world. He established the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, the oldest Catholic church in the city. Ricci was given free access to the Forbidden City, but he never met the reclusive Wanli Emperor. Wanli did grant him patronage, however, with a generous stipend.

Once established in Beijing, Ricci was able to meet important officials and leading members of the Beijing cultural scene, and convert a number of them to Christianity. One conversion, which he called "extraordinary", occurred in 1602, when Li Yingshi, a decorated veteran of the Japanese/Korean War and a well-known astrologer and feng shui expert, became a Christian. This man provided the Jesuits with a wealth of information useful in communicating with the "heathens."

Ricci was also the first European to learn about the Kaifeng Jews, being contacted by a member of that community who was visiting Beijing in 1605. Ricci never visited Kaifeng, Henan Province, but he did send a junior missionary there in 1608, the first of many such missions. In fact, the elderly Chief Rabbi of the Jews was ready to cede his power to Ricci, as long as he gave up eating pork, but he never accepted the position.
Matteo Ricci's grave
Matteo Ricci's grave in the backyard of the Beijing Administrative College.

Ricci died in Beijing on May 11, 1610, at 58. By the code of the Ming Dynasty, foreigners who died in China had to be buried in Macau. Diego de Pantoja made a special plea to the court, requesting a burial plot in Beijing, in the light of Ricci's contributions to China. Emperor Wanli granted this request and designated a Buddhist temple for the purpose. In October 1610, Ricci's remains were transferred there. The graves of Ferdinand Verbiest, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, and other missionaries are also there, and it became known as the Zhalan cemetery. It is now part of the campus of Beijing Administrative College (located at 6 Chegongzhuang Road, Xicheng District).

Matteo Ricci was succeeded as Superior General of the China mission by Nicolò Longobardo, in 1610. Longobardo entrusted another Jesuit, Nicolas Trigault, with expanding and editing, as well as translating into Latin, those of Ricci's papers that were found in his office after his death. This work was first published in 1615 in Augsburg as De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, and soon was translated into a number of other European languages.

Ricci's approach to Chinese culture

Ricci could speak Chinese as well as read and write classical Chinese, the literary language of scholars and officials. He was known for his appreciation of Chinese culture in general, but did condemn the prostitution which was widespread in Beijing at the time. During his research he discovered that, in contrast to the cultures of South Asia, Chinese culture was strongly intertwined with Confucian values and therefore decided to use existing Chinese concepts to explain Christianity. He did not explain the Catholic faith as something foreign or new, instead, he said that the Chinese culture and people always believed in God, and that Christianity is simply the most perfect manifestation of their faith. Thus the Chinese Lord of Heaven is identical with God. He supported Chinese traditions by agreeing with the veneration of the dead. Dominican and Franciscan missionaries felt he went too far in accommodation and convinced the Vatican to outlaw Ricci's approach. Similarly to developments in India, the identification of European culture with Christianity led to the virtual end of Catholic missions in China.

Later discovering that Confucian thought was dominant in the Ming Dynasty, Ricci became the first to translate the Confucian classics into a western language, Latin, with assistance from the scholar Xu Guangqi.

Ricci also met a Korean emissary to China, Yi Su-gwang. He taught Yi Su-gwang the basic tenets of Catholicism and transmitted western knowledge to him, giving Yi Su-gwang several books from the west which were incorporated in Jibong yuseol, which was the first Korean encyclopedia. Ricci's transmission of western knowledge to Yi Su-gwang influenced and helped shape the foundation of the Silhak movement in Korea.