Academic journal article Church History

A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610

Academic journal article Church History

A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610

Article excerpt

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This is a fine book, one which makes a signal contribution to our understanding of early modern Europe's interactions with East Asia. The author gives the reader several layers of narrative, description, and analysis. One is centered on Matteo Ricci, the focal point for much of the book. More than anything else, this work is a critical biography of Ricci. Hsia gives us the most well-rounded picture available today of Ricci, of whose fifty-eight years about twenty-seven were spent in China, the last decade (1600-1610) in Beijing, the great capital of the Ming Dynasty. Hsia avoids hagiography, and is judicious and convincing in his judgments. But Ricci is always the touchstone, and the story never loses track of him. We follow his upbringing in Macerata and Rome, his initial time in Goa in India, his assignment to the China field and first entry into China in 1583. This period of several years through the 1570s was the most difficult and frustrating for Ricci and his confreres, partly because there were so few of them, and Ricci's own language skills were still being developed, while newer members of the China Mission were at a much more elementary level still. Then the story becomes one of Ricci's "ascent" through networks of Chinese friends and acquaintances through the 1590s to the status of permanent resident in the imperial capital, specifically authorized by the reigning Wan-li emperor (Jonathan D. Spence, "Matteo Ricci and the Ascent to Peking," in East Meets West: The Jesuits in China, 1582-1773 , Charles E. Ronan, S. J., and Bonnie B. C. Oh, eds., [Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1988], 3-18). Hsia elucidates clearly the provincial base of personal connections, which Ricci carefully cultivated in cities such as Shaozhou, Nanchang, and Nanjing, as he gradually moved northward towards the capital. These connections facilitated his eventual move to Beijing in 1600 and enhanced his influence there. He had friends and acquaintances scattered among the Chinese elite and they magnified Ricci's presence in the capital.

Hsia has very conscientiously used all conceivable Western and Chinese sources. The result is a sensitively drawn portrait of Ricci in all his facets: a Jesuit, product of both the Renaissance and the Catholic Reformation in Europe; well educated in sciences and mathematics; a self-conscious cultural intermediary between china and the West; withal a sincere missionary of the faith. …

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