Legend and legacy: Matteo Ricci and others

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Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary who visited China during the late Ming Dynasty, died almost four hundred years ago. However, the legendary figure in the history of cultural exchanges between China and the West has remained fascinating to scholars around the world and is the subject of numerous essays and books. At the International Conference on "Matteo Ricci and After: Four Centuries of Cultural Interactions between China and the West", the talks given at the panel discussions emphasized once again his unique position in history. Bulletin reports on some of the discussions.

"Matteo Ricci can be described as a pivotal figure in history. Only through a thorough understanding of him can we learn about the subsequent historical development of China," said Zhu Weizheng, a professor in the Department of History at FudanUniversity in China, at the first panel discussion.

Professor Zhu is the editor of Matteo Ricci's Writings and Translations in Chinese, published jointly by the City University of Hong Kong Press, the Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies, and FudanUniversity in 2001. He believes that the historical legacy left by Ricci is the reason why he remains a popular academic topic worldwide.

"From a religious point of view, Ricci was the first missionary to succeed in securing a foothold for Christianity in China and it has survived there since," he said. "As far as culture is concerned, he initiated the interactions which have taken place between China and the West for the past four hundred years, so he had a huge impact."

Professor Zhu pointed out that it was because of Ricci's writings in Chinese and translations of Western writings into Chinese that Chinese people started to learn about European culture after the Renaissance. He introduced Western knowledge of such topics as astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine, architecture and irrigation to China. On the other hand, his letters and memoirs written in Latin on his impressions of China and experiences in the country, as well as Sishu (The Four Books) which he translated into Latin, provided Europeans with a basic knowledge of Chinese culture.

"In the past, Western scholars' research relied mainly on Ricci's diaries and letters in Latin. In fact, most of Ricci's works were published in Chinese. But for a long time, his Chinese works were not well organized," said Professor Zhu. He believes that to get a thorough understanding of Ricci's thoughts, academics have to start with original materials, which was the main reason for the compilation of Matteo Ricci's Writings and Translations in Chinese.

Using Daoism to promote Christianity

Professor Haun Saussy, Associate Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at StanfordUniversity, is a scholar with a high regard for Matteo Ricci. "What I find most incredible about Ricci is that he was able to think of a very clever and innovative way of participating in conversations on philosophical topics that had been discussed in China for more than two thousand years, including such concepts as good nature, bad nature, reason and manners. It is a talent most scholars do not have," he said.

At the conference, Professor Saussy read an essay titled "Matteo Ricci, the Daoist". Based on descriptions by late Ming literati who were acquainted with Ricci, as well as on the book Jiren Shipian (Ten Essays on Exceptional Men), written in Chinese by Ricci himself, the essay explores how Ricci decided to assume the guise of a Daoist after being mistaken as a believer in Daoism, in an effort to achieve his purpose of spreading Jesuit beliefs. Professor Saussy believes that Matteo Ricci was not really interested in Daoism, nor did he learn about Daoism to acquire knowledge. His ultimate purpose was to spread Jesuit beliefs. "He knew that those who were reading Daoist books were after another kind of knowledge and would be more easily influenced. They were his best targets for conversion," he said.

Analyzing the poem "For Li Xi Tai", written by the poet Li Zhi for Matteo Ricci, Professor Saussy pointed out that although Ricci did not lead a xiaoyao (leisurely and care-free) life on his mission in China, Li Zhi used the philosopher Zhuangzi's term, xiaoyao, to describe him. "This shows that Chinese literati at the time treated Ricci as a modern-day Zhuangzi who came to enlighten and disturb," he said. "Ricci must have determined that the echo of Zhuangzi would be strategic-it would help to establish him in the world of Chinese letters. It was, for Chinese readers, a familiar sign of unfamiliarity."
This is also why he believes that in his book Jiren Shipian Ricci used Zhuangzi's term jiren (exceptional man) to describe himself and to explain the God-related concepts, which were outside Chinese traditional thinking.

Using Chinese terms to introduce Western knowledge

When Matteo Ricci arrived in China, the Chinese knew little about the Western world. How did he manage to build a bridge between the two cultures and start a dialogue between the two? Many scholars agree that his success lay in his strategy of "using the Chinese way to enter China".

"Matteo Ricci understood that alien Western knowledge would be resisted by the Chinese. So he made use of gezhixue (the investigation of things and fathoming of principles)-which already existed in Chinese philosophy -to explain Western natural philosophy, science and religion, etc., to make it easier for the Chinese to accept. Using this approach, he converted several fairly influential Chinese literati, such as Xu Guangqi and Li Zhizao," explained Professor Hsu Kuang-tai of the Institute of History at Taiwan's NationalTsingHuaUniversity.

In recent years, Professor Hsu, a specialist in the history of science, has focused on Ricci's discussions over gezhixue. At the conference, he read his essay "The Encounters of Chinese and Western Intellectuals Relating to the Issue of li in the Late Ming Dynasty-Pioneered by Matteo Ricci".

The concept of gezhixue comes from the philosopher Zhu Xi's gewu zhizhi theory, which refers to the knowledge system involving nature, science and especially yinyang, developed by a group of intellectuals in the Song and Ming Dynasty, whom Zhu represented. It is also known as li xue. Professor Hsu explained the different traditions related to li held by Jesuit missionaries and Chinese literati in the late Ming Dynasty period. He analysed how the Jesuits used the traditional Chinese li concept as a means of introducing Western theories on humanitarianism and the origin of the universe to Chinese literati at the time.

Professor Hsu noted that Ricci first adopted the li concept in his book Tianzhu shiyi (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven), then expanded the concept to include mathematics in Euclid's Elements, before putting all of Western learning under the umbrella of gezhixue. "However, after detailed analyses, it is not difficult to see that although Matteo Ricci introduced a lot of Western thinking and scientific knowledge to China, his real purpose did not lie in the introduction of knowledge, but in the introduction of God," he said.

Professor Hsu also pointed out that missionary work is normally done through two approaches-to bring people to the church is only one of them, the other way is to preach through nature, the works of God. And Matteo Ricci used the latter.

The impact of Jesuit missionaries on politics

Professor Huang Yi-long, also from the Institute of History at the National Tsing Hua University of Taiwan, chose an area that has been less discussed to explore the impact of Jesuit missionaries such as Matteo Ricci on politics in late Ming period and its meaning in the history of science and technology.

"How did the Manchu, with only a few hundred thousand people, conquer the Ming Empire in such a short time? Historians may give you all the political, social and economic reasons. But undeniably, military technology also played an important role," Professor Huang said. Based on this thinking, he focused his research on the advanced weapons Jesuit missionaries brought to China, the topic of his presentation: "Cross-bearing Western Cannons-Strategies of the Jesuits during the Transition between Ming and Qing Dynasties".

He pointed out that the Jesuits, led by Matteo Ricci, introduced Western military knowledge and cannons to help Ming rulers resist foreign invaders. The scientist and translator, and early Christian convert, Xu Guangqi was one of Ricci's best students in this area at that time. Unfortunately, the Ming court did not pay enough attention to the advantages of using Western weapons and only used them in critical situations. Later, those advanced cannons were used by the Manchu to conquer the Ming court. "The missionaries were there to help defend the Ming against the Manchu," Professor Huang said. "Little did the Ming expect that their techniques would be totally assimilated by the Manchu, to whom they lost their empire."

Through thorough research and visits to the remains of ancient forts on mainland China, Professor Huang concludes that although Western cannons were introduced during Ricci's stay in China, they gradually fell into disuse once the Qing Dynasty accomplished its task of unifying China. This was why cannon-related knowledge and technology developments towards the end of the Qing dynasty fell a long way behind the level of the late Ming dynasty, far from enough to meet later challenges from Western powers. "Through the introduction of Western cannon technology to China, we can see clearly the huge impact technology has on history," he said. "We also realize that technology may not necessarily develop in a continuous manner, as it is closely related to the demands of society."

Talking about death with Chinese intellectuals

Today, many people are still not clear about when the first steps were taken in the cultural interactions between China and the West. Professor Timothy Brook, from the University of Toronto's Department of History, believes that the exchanges between Matteo Ricci and late Ming intellectuals provide a clear answer. "Past research mostly focused on the positive influence Matteo Ricci brought to China. But I think the focus should be on the Ming Chinese side-how they really got to know Matteo Ricci's thinking and how they were influenced by him. Only through this can we see the real picture of Sino-Western cultural exchanges at the time."

Professor Brook also chose Jiren Shipian as the starting point of his discussion. In his talk, "Dialogues between Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi", he explored the conversations between the two over the issue of death. "Death is an important philosophical concept in Western Christian culture, but not in Chinese culture," he said. "In the late Ming, when intellectuals held deep-rooted beliefs about death and related philosophical issues, could they really understand and accept the language and interpretations Matteo Ricci adopted? Did Matteo Ricci really understand Chinese and the Chinese culture as we now imagine?"

To answer these questions, Professor Brook analysed, word-by-word, the fourth article in Jiren Shipian, "Thinking of Death and Preparing for the Last Judgment". He concluded, "If you read Jiren Shipian carefully, you will realize that Matteo Ricci was only using his knowledge of Chinese culture for his missionary work, and not for promoting cultural exchanges. Thus his efforts cannot be considered a very good cross-culture performance."

Exploring scientific transmission between cultures

In his talk, "Some Reflections on Scientific Transmissions and Scientific Changes", Professor Kim Yung-sik, of SeoulNationalUniversity's Department of Science, explored the processes and results of scientific transmission between different cultures. He believes that scientific transmission between different cultures produces changes in the technological area of the accepting cultures. Many important technological revolutions in history took place this way.

"Some of the transmitted concepts can be adopted, others can lead to major conflicts within the dominant belief-systems of the accepting culture. It is worth exploring what transmitted science experiences after being introduced to a new culture," he said.

Professor Kim focuses on developing the possible research area of "comparative history of science" from the point of view of scientific history. In his talk, he explored the scientific transmission between East Asian countries and Europe initiated by Jesuit missionaries led by Matteo Ricci. His topic generated heated discussions among participants at the conference.

Using Euclid's Elements as a religious tool

Professor Roger Hart, from the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin provided innovative thoughts on Euclid's Elements, which was translated jointly by Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi. In his talk titled "Western Learning in Seventeenth-Century China-A Micro-historical Approach to World History", Professor Hart pointed out that the introduction of Euclid's Elements to China was just a means by Jesuit missionaries to bring Catholicism to the country. They used the certainty of the Elements to eliminate the doubts that late-Ming intellectuals expressed about the existence of God and attract them to the Western religion.

On the other hand, since the Chinese literati elite also wanted to spread the religion, though they knew little about science, they passionately sang the praises of the superiority and practical efficacy of Western learning. Professor Hart concluded that the transmission of Western learning to China at the end of the Ming Dynasty was a result of the patronage of the patriotic but also God-loving converts who saw it as a means of saving the country.

The conference included many other discussions about the Western learning introduced by Jesuit missionaries in the late Ming dynasty, such as mathematics, physics and astronomy. For example, in his talk titled "From Xu Guangqi to Hua Look-keng: The Legacy of Matteo Ricci and the Rise of Modern Mathematics in China", Professor Joseph W Dauben, Professor of History and the History of Science from City University of New York, shared his thoughts on how China, since the introduction of Euclid by Ricci, gradually established modern Chinese mathematics. Professor Iwo Amelung, from the Department of Middle Eastern and Far Eastern Languages and Cultures D Chinese Studies at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, talked about the long process of physics becoming a widely acknowledged science after the initial introduction by Jesuit missionaries. And Professor Fung Kam-wing of the University of Hong Kong, Professor Jiang Xiaoyuan from Shanghai's JiaoTongUniversity, and Dr Shi Yunli from the University of Science and Technology of China, gave their views on the transmission of Western astronomy to China.

Although a wide variety of topics was covered at the conference, Professor Richard Smith of RiceUniversity in the United States said he hopes to see more emphasis on inter-science research at future conferences, so that discussions will not be restricted to history, philosophy and religion. "The early history of cultural exchanges between China and the West is very complex. It's not just that the Western viewpoints somehow got translated, and that the Chinese viewpoints tried to assimilate to the world," he said. "I think this kind of study should be multi-disciplinary. Psychology, sociology and other branches should be involved. After all, it seems to me that human interaction is the most important feature."


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