Matteo Ricci, a pioneering Italian sinologist, died four hundred years ago today. He was one of the first Jesuit missionaries to be allowed into China, and never returned to Europe. He wrote several important books in Chinese and composed a now famous map of the world. However, his most important legacy, at least in the West, may be the manuscript he wrote in Italian, which was translated soon after into Latin, but not into English until more than 300 years later: China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matteo Ricci.
Matteo (or Matthew in English) Ricci was born in 1552 of a noble family in Macerata, then part of the Papal States but today a city in central Italy, 130 km east of Perugia. Aged 16, he went to Rome to study law but soon decided on joining the Jesuits. The Jesuits had only been given Papal legitimacy some 30 years earlier, but were already making a name for themselves in scientific research and with voyages to the New World.
In 1577, Ricci set out for Lisbon where he continued his studies while waiting for a ship to the East. He arrived in Goa in 1578, and stayed on the west coast of India for several years (he was ordained in Cochin in 1580) before being ordered to China in 1582. Once in the Portuguese province of Macau, Ricci started learning the Chinese language and Chinese customs - the Jesuits having recently decided on a strategy of adopting local customs.
In 1583, Ricci and Michele Ruggieri, another Jesuit priest now considered to be the first European sinologist, were given permission to settle in Zhaoqing, then the capital of Kwangtun province. Within the next few years, Ruggieri is credited with publishing the first Catholic catechism in Chinese, and Ricci is credited with producing the first edition of his Map of the Myriad Countries of the World, sometimes now called The Black Tulip of Cartography, because of its rarity, importance and exoticism. Together, Ricci and Ruggieri are also credited with compiling a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, for which they developed a consistent system of transcribing Chinese words in the Latin alphabet.
Ruggieri returned to Italy in 1588, leaving Ricci in charge of the Jesuit mission in China. He was expelled from Zhaoqing in 1589, but relocated in Shaoguan. Further travels took him to Nanchang (1595-1598), where he became a friend of two princes of royal blood and wrote his first book in Chinese (On Friendship), and to Nanking (1599-1601) where he was engaged mostly in the study of astronomy and mathematics. In 1601, he won permission to settle in Beijing, where he remained until his death on 11 May 1610 - exactly 400 years ago today - teaching science, preaching the gospel, and writing several more books in Chinese. For further biographical information see Wikipedia, the Catholic Encyclopaedia, the University of Scranton website, or Prof Joseph MacDonnell’s website at Fairfield University.
However, Ricci’s most important and enduring book, written in Italian, was based on his journals and entitled De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu (About Christian expeditions to China undertaken by the Society of Jesus). It was expanded and translated into Latin by Nicolas Trigault, and first published in 1615. A well-referenced Wikipedia article provides good details of the book’s history. It explains that excerpts first appeared in English in Purchas his Pilgrimes in 1625, but a complete English translation of the Latin text (by the Jesuit Louis J Gallagher) was not published until 1942. It was reprinted by Random House ten years later as China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matteo Ricci.
At the time, Kenneth Roxroth, writing in The New Republic, said: ‘It is not often that a classic, previously unknown to the world at large, appears on the book market. The only other example I can think of nowadays is the publication of the Boswell manuscripts. Matteo Ricci was of course a much greater man and occupied a much more important place in history, and was at least as interesting a writer. I am inclined to agree with the publishers that this is one of the most important books they have ever issued.’ (This review can be found online at the Bureau of Public Secrets.)
A little more from that review: ‘The best sinologists were the early Jesuits, and their Latin translations of the Chinese classics are still at least the equal of anything produced in the succeeding 300 years. They completely merged themselves with the Chinese; in fact they became Chinese literati, with considerable personal influence on the Emperor. They introduced Western science and philosophy to the Orient and Chinese culture to the Occident with such success that the eighteenth century was the century of chinoiserie. Even the Chinese Communists still respect Ricci as the greatest and least predatory of the culture-bearers from the West.’
Here are two extracts from the book (although not in diary form) reproduced on the Brooklyn College Chinese Culture website
‘The Chinese can distinguish between their magistrates by the parasols they use as protection against the sun when they go out in public. Some of these are blue and others yellow. Sometimes for effect they will have two or three of these sunshades, but only one if their rank does not permit of more. They may also be recognized by their mode of transportation in public. The lower ranks ride on horseback, the higher are carried about on the shoulders of their servants in gestatorial chairs. The number of carriers also has significance of rank; some are only allowed four, others may have eight. There are other ways also of distinguishing the magistracy and the rank of dignity therein; by banners and pennants, chains and censer cups, and by the number of guards who give orders to make way for the passage of the dignitary. The escort itself is held in such high esteem by the public that no one would question their orders. Even in crowded city everyone gives way at the sound of their voices with a spontaneity that correspond to the rank of the approaching celebrity. . .’
‘Another remarkable fact and quite worthy of note as marking a difference from the West, is that the entire kingdom is administered by the Order of the Learned, commonly known as The Philosophers. The responsibility for the orderly management of the entire realm is wholly and completely committed to their charge and care. The army, both officers and soldiers, hold them in high respect and show them the promptest obedience and deference, and not infrequently the military are disciplined by them as a schoolboy might be punished by his master. Policies of war are formulated and military; questions are decided by the Philosophers only, and their advice and counsel has more weight with the King than that of the military leaders. In fact very few of these and only on rare occasions, are admitted to war consultations. Hence it follows that those who aspire to be cultured frown upon war and would prefer the lowest rank in the philosophical order to the highest in the military, realizing that the Philosophers far excel military leaders in the good will and the respect of the people and in opportunities of acquiring wealth.’