Matteo Ricci: A Jesuit in the Ming Court


This latest full-length biography of the pioneer missionary Matteo Ricci will set the standard for future accounts of his life. While there are other excellent treatments of Ricci – notably Vincent Cronin’s The Wise Man from the West (recently revised and re-issued) and Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci – Fontana’s narrative is in some ways the most helpful.

The author, who holds a degree in mathematics and who has served as an award-winning science journalist, has also lived in China long enough to acquire a “feel” for its culture and history. An Italian like Ricci, she moves with ease among his letters and History of the Mission composed at the end of his life, as well as archives in Italy, but her notes also reveal familiarity with scholarship in English and French.

This review will not follow Fontana as she traces the steps of Ricci’s long career in China. For a brief biography informed by this book and the two mentioned above, see the entry on Ricci in the online Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.

In the Acknowledgements at the back of the book, Fontana states her reason for writing this biography and explains how her scientific background plays into its structure and content:

While Ricci used science as a means to the end of conversion, his commitment to the translation of scientific works into Chinese was of crucial important and left an imprint on the history of the Jesuit mission in China. Biographers have not always given this aspect of his activity the attention it deserves. The aim here is not only to present an overall description of Ricci’s life and work but also to highlight the constant attention that he and the most authoritative Chinese converts focused on science. (309)

Accordingly, at each point for Ricci, whose own scientific training and knowledge were first rate for his time (though not entirely reflective of the latest advances by Kepler and others in astronomy), Fontana applies her scientific expertise to explain both the nature and significance of what Ricci was trying to accomplish. She does this in a manner that even a science-challenged person like me could mostly understand her argument.

Her emphasis on science makes good sense, as we consider how Ricci used his maps of the world; knowledge of geometry and trigonometry; and mastery of Ptolemaic astronomy and techniques for making instruments useful in astronomy such as the astrolabe, to gain respect among scholars and lay the foundation for the great success of later Jesuits in reforming the state calendar and thus obtaining a permanent foothold in Beijing. Fontana places these in the settings of the state of science not only in Europe but also in China. She shows where Ricci made a real contribution, and where his ignorance of the impressive achievements in mathematics and astronomy by Chinese hindered his appreciation of that aspect of their culture.

By no means does Fontana neglect other significant features of Ricci’s life and ministry in China. Careful historical research gives us detailed descriptions of the Europe of his time; the Jesuits; the imperial strategies of the Portuguese; the land, people, and life of the Chinese as Ricci described them in his long letters to his superior and others back in Europe; the intricacies of Chinese etiquette; the examination system; Chinese religions; the power of the eunuchs; and a variety of other subjects vital to our understanding of the missionary and his long career.

She follows the progress of his negotiations with officials, some of whom helped, and many of whom hindered his missionary efforts. Literary productions were crucial to Ricci’s strategy for reaching the literati, and Fontana gives due consideration to his compositions and translations. Nor does she slight the private life of Ricci, of which we learn a bit in his letters and the History. In short, this is a very balanced and comprehensive biography of a many-sided genius and remarkable human being.

At various points, the author relates how Ricci applied the “accommodationist” approach which, with the advice and full support of his superior, he used to gain a respected position in society as a learned scholar, interest in his religion, and finally permanent residence in the capital city. We need to identify the different components of this strategy to understand both its strengths and potential weaknesses.

Ricci learned the language, customs, and culture of the Chinese so thoroughly that he eventually won recognition as a scholar of the highest level. This accomplishment has rarely, if ever, been equaled by Western missionaries.

He adopted the dress, diet, lifestyle, and manners of the Chinese so much that, in effect, he became a Chinese to the Chinese. Only his appearance marked him as a foreigner.

He took the time and the effort to build lasting friendships with Chinese. His affectionate personality broke down cultural barriers and opened hearts and then minds to his message.

He mastered Chinese classical literature, not only memorizing large portions of the Confucian Classics but also forging the necessary skill to compose works in Chinese that were considered of high literary value.

He deliberately sought out points of contact between Western and Chinese culture and philosophy, especially ethics, so as to reduce the sense of difference between himself as a foreigner and his Chinese conversation partners. Thus, he did his best to highlight similarities between Greek and Roman ethics and the general ethical principles of the Roman Catholic tradition with Chinese Confucian thought and ethics.

He used Western science and technology to create a role for himself as a useful, even indispensable, member of society, as a teacher of science and mathematics. In particular, his skill at clock-making made him and his fellow Jesuits necessary at the imperial palace, where the emperor ordered that they be invited regularly to re-wind the clock that fascinated him so much.

Finally, and most controversially, he decided that the ceremonies honoring Confucius were merely civil and not religious and that Chinese rites of venerating ancestors did not involve idolatry. At the climax of the Rites Controversy that raged for a hundred years after his death, the emperor of China agreed with the Jesuit position and completely rejected the contentions of the Dominicans and Franciscans that these ceremonies were religious in nature and thus idolatrous. The vast majority of Protestants, both Chinese and Western, have agreed with those who rejected Ricci’s arguments.

In the end, however, Fontana gives ample reasons for Ricci’s continued reputation as the “gold standard” for missionaries who want to earn the respect and affection of Chinese. She also sheds valuable light on this crucial first major cultural encounter between the civilizations of China and Europe.

Alas, some of the misunderstandings and prejudices that dogged Ricci during his entire stay in China remain as obstacles for Sino-Western relationships even today. Most importantly for Christians, the age-old suspicion of the Chinese government that Western missionaries are advance agents for hostile Western imperialistic nations has not evaporated with time. Indeed, such a prejudice forms an essential ingredient of government anti-Christian rhetoric even today. We can benefit from Ricci’s example of how to overcome such suspicion.

For more on what we can learn from Matteo Ricci, go to our analysis at China Institute: Reaching Chinese Worldwide.

As will have become quite clear by now, I highly recommend this superb biography of a great man.

ReviewsJason Truell