Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology

By D. E. Mungello | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
RICCI'S FORMULATION OF JESUIT ACCOMMODATION IN CHINA: THE STRUGGLE FOR LITERATI ACCEPTANCE

1. FR. RICCI'S BACKGROUND

The primary formulator of Jesuit accommodation in China was a monumental figure. Born in Macerata on October 16th 1552 of a wealthy family, Matteo Ricci is described by Chinese sources as possessing a curly beard, blue eyes, a voice like a great bell and a powerful memory1. He excelled in languages, was a charming and tactful conversationalist, an excellent mathematician and a quite competent astronomer2. Fr. Ricci possessed a remarkable flexibility of intellect and character which enabled Mm to absorb enormous amounts of Chinese culture and to formulate a policy of accommodation which was both a daring mission strategy and a profound formula for the meeting of Chinese and European cultures.

Morally, Ricci was more complex than many historians have described him. He appeared to have scrupulously subscribed to the Mosaic commandments dealing with killing, adultery, stealing, lying and envy. He did less well in honoring his parents and he showed some highly human equivocation in that most fundamental of Christian commandments -- love. His intolerance and dislike of the Buddhist monks in China was surprising in its intensity. The tendency has been to treat this dislike as part of a quite orthodox Christian opposition to idolatry and it was true that Ricci's dislike of Buddhists as idolaters pales to only moderate dimensions when compared with the standard of his times. Nevertheless, his dislike of Buddhists sharply contrasted with a normally sympathetic attitude toward the Chinese. In his journals, even the notorious eunuchs of Ming times were less severely criticized than the monks.

Ricci's attitude toward his parents was ambiguous and this is surprising when one considers his great success and affinity with the parental-worshipping Chinese literati. According to Fr. Trigault, Ricci entered the Society of Jesus

____________________
1
This description of Matteo Ricci appeared in a Chinese local history, Jen-ho hsien chih ch. 22, fol. 21-22, and was translated by A. C. Moule in "The First arrival of the Jesuits at the capital of China," The New China Review 4: 455. In his article, Moule also made a tentative translation of the most widely disseminated Chinese account of the arrival of the Jesuits in Peking, namely, the four-page passage in the Ming shih (Annals of the Ming dynasty). See Chang T'ing-yü et al, Ming shih 28 vols. ( Peking, 1678- 1739); reprinted 1974) XXVIII (chüan 326), 8458-8462.
2
Ricci was a good student of the eminent Jesuit astronomer, Christopher Clavius, but not a creative astronomer in his own right.

-44-

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