Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy, the son of an apothecary who, as a member of the lesser nobility, also served as a member of the town council. He was tutored by a Roman Catholic priest until the age of seven, when the priest joined the Society of Jesus. He then studied at the new Jesuit college opened in the city and became known as one of the best pupils, manifesting a sense of religious vocation early in life.
His father sent him to Rome to study law at the university in 1568. Ricci soon decided that he was not meant for the law, and entered the Marian congregation attached to the Roman College, the Jesuit university in Rome, in 1569. In 1571 he was admitted as a novitiate in the Society of Jesus in 1571. His spiritual advisor while a probationer was Alessandro Valigno, thirteen years his senior, who would later become his mentor and Superior as a missionary in Asia.
His father, dismayed at Ricci’s change of career, set out to Rome to dissuade him but was stopped by a fever on the way and had to return home. He wrote his son that he accepted the decision to become a Jesuit.
For the next five years, Ricci lived at the college in Rome and underwent the rigorous academic training required of all Jesuits. The Society of Jesus prized education of above, aiming to exercise influence as teachers to children of the elite in Europe and around the world. The curriculum called for two years of rhetoric, followed by three of philosophy and then three of theology. Ricci studied Latin, the language in which the courses were taught, as well as Hebrew and Greek.
Aside from languages, the students received instruction in the literature of classical Greece and Rome, which had re-entered European culture and education in the Renaissance. They mastered the elements of Aristotelian logic, ethics, and physics along with Stoic ethics and philosophy. They also learned mathematics, geometry, and cartography. His teacher in mathematics, including geometry, was Christopher Clavius, a friend of Kepler and Galileo, who became known for his work in reforming the Gregorian calendar. Other courses included astronomy, music, geography, and architecture. During this time Ricci became skilled at making clocks, astrolabes, sundials, and other machines.
Early in his time at the college, Ricci offered himself for serviced as a foreign missionary. He was accepted while he was completing his third year. After receiving the blessing of Pope Gregory XIII, he and another student, Franceso Pasio left Rome for Lisbon. They spent almost a year learning Portuguese and studying theology while waiting for the annual departure of the ships to Asia in the spring.
After a journey of five months involving not only great danger but almost unbearably difficult living conditions they arrived at the Portuguese colony of Goa in September, 1578. He continued his theological studies at the Jesuit college there, where he also taught Latin and Greek to local boys until serious illness necessitated his removal to Cochin. There he continued to study theology and taught Latin and Greek for nearly a year. He was ordained to the priesthood in Cochin in July, 1580. He then returned to Goa for the second and third year of theological studies while awaiting his assignment to missionary work.
During this time, Ricci would have immersed himself in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, the main resource for Roman Catholic teaching. Aquinas held that we can know a great deal about God from observing the universe; that we can begin our study of theology (as Ricci had done) with mastery of science and reason; and that the deeper mysteries of the faith, known only by revelation from God in the Bible and church tradition, should be introduced later. This is precisely the approach Ricci would take in China.
While in India, Ricci observed the policy of forcible conversion of natives to the Roman Catholic faith. He thought that was wrong, and also objected to the prohibition of Indian candidates for the priesthood from studying philosophy. Clearly, he was moving toward an entirely different missionary approach.
Alessandro Valignano, the Jesuit superior in Asia, instituted a policy of inculturating Romand Catholic Christianity in Asia and assigned Ricci to Macao to study Chinese. His fellow Jesuit Michele Ruggieri had been laboriously trying to acquire the language, with little success, and had also made some trips into China. Ricci joined him in Macao in August, 1582, and commenced Mandarin lessons. He also sought to learn all he could about the customs, culture, etiquette, history, and land of the people among whom he lived.
In 1583 Ricci and Ruggieri received permission from Chinese officials to settle at Chao-ch’ing (Zhaoqing), west of Canton (Guangzhou). Gifts from Europe, including a prism and a clock, won the favor of local officials. The local population and many of the literati, however, feared the foreigners, who were suspected of being spies and even an advance guard from the hated Portuguese, whose aggressive actions had already alienated the Chinese. This connection with foreign imperialism would hinder Ricci and the other Jesuits throughout their years in China.
In an attempt to reduce such an association with Westerners, the Jesuits adopted the dress and hair style of Buddhist monks, though they retained their beards and the caps worn by Roman Catholic priests. They also made it clear that they were not Buddhists, but worshipped the Lord of Heaven. The set up their own shrine, adorned with a crucifix and picture of Mary, which aroused the curiosity of the Chinese, who thought that they worshipped a female god. This sort of confusion caused by images of Mary recurred frequently.
Gradually, Ricci began to realize that real political and culture power resided with the mandarins, who were rationalistic adherents of Confucian doctrine and who disdained what they considered the superstitions of Buddhism. The missionary then began a careful study of the Confucian classics.
The Jesuits later saw their decision to dress as Buddhist monks as a mistake, though they tried to correct the impression that they agreed with the Buddhists. At the same time, they employed gifts, especially of astronomical instruments, as a way not only to abide by social customs but also to demonstrate their knowledge of Western science and thus gain respect as scholars.
Aware of the tremendous respect Chinese had for the written word, they published a catechism which had been prepared by Ruggieri with the help of a Chinese. They also had the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Creed translated into Chinese. In the process, they decided to use the term Tianzhu, “Lord of Heaven,” to render the word, “God.” They were unaware that this title had already been employed to refer to Buddhist and Daoist deities, and that using a term that already possessed meaning in Chinese culture might cause confusion.
At this point, Ricci decided that he would change his strategy as soon as possible and focus on the literati as soon as he attained the requisite facility in the language and had gained more social standing.
He and Ruggieri took for themselves Chinese names, his being Li Madou. In addition, he adopted an honorific title, Xitai, meaning “from the Far West. “We have become Chinese in dress, mien, ceremony, and all outward appearances,” he said. He wrote to a friend that he had “become a barbarian for the love of God” in a remote place that he referred to as “this sterility here… I am adapting to the land and growing as fond of it as I can.” (Fontana, 68, 69).
Despite these efforts, or perhaps because of them, he was often overcome with bouts of homesickness, longing for the close camaraderie he had enjoyed with other students and the Roman College. With a large capacity for friendship, Ricci felt the loss of their presence keenly. He responded to the departure or death of Jesuit colleagues in coming decades with intense sorrow.
During this period, they preached to the poorer classes, who proved receptive to their message, and who were also not burdened with numerous concubines, whom they could not afford. This made them much more willing to accept baptism, with its requirement of monogamy, than the literati would later be.
Ricci and Ruggieri continued their assiduous study of the Chinese written language, to the point of compiling a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary. In a preview of his future ministry, Ricci was now besieged with visits from literati who wanted to see his clocks, prisms, books, and paintings. “Ricci was able to establish good relations with [scholars and officials] thanks to his mastery of Chinese, his capacity for learned conversation, and his knowledge of the local rules of conduct, as well as his personal gifts of affability, modesty, and discretion.” (Fontana, 73).
He won favor also by making a world map which placed China in the center, though it also included other countries, about most of which the Chinese knew nothing. Copies of this map enjoyed wide circulation. The interest of Chinese visitors in the world map displayed in the Jesuit residence led Ricci to translate the place names into Chinese.
Neither at this time nor later were the Jesuits immune from rumors that they were alchemists, since they always seemed to have enough silver, which they got from their base in Macao. Ricci always tried strenuously to express his opposition to all forms of superstition, including belief in fortune-telling and feng shui, or geomancy. Much worse was the suspicion that they were agents for the Portuguese. Local hostility found expression in various ways, including finally an order from the governor to leave - not that last of such ejections Ricci would face. They left Zhaoqing in August, 1589.
After a brief stay in a Buddhist monastery, which confirmed Ricci’s poor impression of that religion, he and his new colleague, Antonio de Almeida, were given permission to live in the commercial town of Shaozhou. This time they chose to build a one-storey house in Chinese style. Here he was asked to become a teacher to a young scholar named Qu Taisu, to whom he taught mathematics, especially the geometry of Euclid. Qu eventually translated the first five books of the Elements under Ricci’s guidance. Because he would not either marry or repudiate his concubine, however, Qu never submitted to baptism.
Having learned the local dialect, Ricci was again deluged by visits from scholars and officials. As a result, friendships developed from this constant socializing, many of the inhabitants wanted to learn about Roman Catholicism and some sought baptism. Usually, Ricci insisted upon quality, not quantity, in accepting new converts. He refused to seek superficial numerical growth to impress his superiors. By the time they left the city, there were twenty-two converts in their little community.
Ricci finally obtained permission from Valignano to change his dress from that of a monk to the silk garments and long hair of a scholar. Even greater respect and more visits from the literati, including some officials, ensued. Valignano had wanted him to translate the Four Books - the essential Confucian classics - for some time. Ricci engaged a tutor and at the age of forty became a student again, this time with the goal of producing the first translation - really a paraphrase with comments - of the Four Books into Latin. He published it in1594, and later Jesuit missionaries used it in their study of the philosophy of China.
After an abortive trip to Beijing and a frustrated attempt to settle in Nanjing, he settled in Nanchang. His new identity as a scholar, which he carried off with aplomb and meticulous adherence to the rules of etiquette, including giving precious gifts, won him friends in high place.
Despite his ability with the language and facility in quoting the Confucian Classics, Ricci found that convincing the literati of the superiority of his philosophy encountered formidable obstacles. They did not believe in the afterlife, heaven and hell, a transcendent God, the sinfulness of mankind, or anything smacking of “superstition,” which they associated with Daoism and Buddhism, and his Western logic failed to persuade them. Some people from other classes, including the military, did become Roman Catholics, however.
The literati did value friendship, however, so Ricci decided to compose a Treatise on Friendship in Chinese, which employed maxims and sayings from Western Classical authors like Aristotle, Horace and Seneca, and Christians like St. Augustine. The publication was an immediate success and earned Ricci even greater fame as a man of learning and culture. His reputation only grew when in 1596 he published a “Treaties on Mnemonic Arts” to explain how he could memorize vast amounts of material, something that astounded his Chinese friends.
During this period he also began to use his knowledge of Ptolemaic astronomy to impress his conversation partners. He never abandoned “the ambitious goal he had set for himself of persuading the literati to convert by showing them the superiority of European science and culture and by emphasizing the compatibility of Confucianism and Christianity.” (Fontana, 141)
As before, and for the rest of his life, he had to find time for study, reflection, answering letters from Europe and from Chinese who had met him or heard of his fame, receiving visitors, training younger missionaries, and attending an endless round of banquets, sometimes several a day. His responsibilities only increased when in 1597 Valignano appointed him superior of the Jesuit mission in China, with oversight over several houses, which would eventually number four.
Always he kept before him the ultimate aim: to reside in Beijing, receive permission from the emperor for himself and other Jesuits to live permanently in China, and to meet and eventually convert the emperor. To this end, he made another attempt to reach Beijing, which he did in 1598, but had to leave again after only six months. He first returned to Nanjing, where he was received by a high official, and where he presented himself as a “scientist, moral thinker, and man of culture.” (Fontana, 158). He made a new map of the world, which now included comments about other countries and their customs. In conversation, Ricci extolled the virtues of European culture without mentioning the horrible religious wars or the cruel suppression of heresy by the Inquisition.
In May 1599, along with new three Jesuits, their servants, and some new converts, Ricci moved into a house which he was able to purchase.
The next year, Ricci set off again for Beijing. Along the way, he was “detained” and then virtually held a prisoner in Tianjin for six months by the powerful eunuch Ma Tang. Eventually, however, after a long series of efforts to draw upon his extensive network of friends, he and his companions (another Jesuit and two Chinese lay brothers) gained permission to live in Beijing. The final stage of his missionary career had begun.
In 1601 Ricci returned to Peking to get imperial permission to preach Christianity. He presented foreign clocks and other items to the Wanli emperor, including a picture of Mary. Both the emperor and his mother found the portrait disturbingly vivid, however, and had it put into the archives. The clock fascinated the emperor. When it stopped running, he sent the eunuchs to Ricci to teach them how to rewind it. This and other skills, such as playing the harpsichord, enabled the Jesuits to gain frequent entrance to the palace, where they made friends with some of the highest officials and scholars in the land. He composed eight songs to be sung with the harpsichord and taught these also to the eunuchs. The emperor’s curiosity about the foreigners led to their portraits being painted for him to look at, and his desire to learn more about European culture in general prompted Ricci to make models of royal palaces and other buildings.
The emperor’s interest in the world map Ricci had made earlier induced Ricci to present a special edition for use in the palace. He became acquainted with several leading scholars and statesmen, among them Xu Guangqi (Hsu Kuang-ch’i). Because of Ricci’s publications, which ranged from Christian ethics to translations of the first six chapters of Euclid’s Elements, scholars from every province going to Peking to take the metropolitan examinations wanted to meet him. Ricci also entertained high government officials and prominent scholars, to whom he gave gifts like sundials, small clocks, and gloves which he had made, and with whom he engaged in long conversations about philosophical and moral questions. He also emphasized the fact that Westerners had only one wife. For their part, the scholars admired his science and ethical teachings but were suspicious of his religious doctrines and unwilling to give up their concubines to receive baptism.
A few, however, did convert to Roman Catholicism, among them Li Yingshi, whose Christian name was Paul, and Xu Guangqi, who also took the name Paul. Ricci also preached among the poorer people, who were readier to receive the Roman Catholic faith but not always as ready to get rid of their worship of idols and superstitious practices, which they easily integrated with some of the practices of Roman Catholicism, such as prayer to Mary and the saints and the use of pictures in worship.
In 1604, Ricci finally published his “Catechism,” The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, which was really a work of apologetics, that sought to argue for the existence of God and of the soul and other teachings which, following Thomas Aquinas, he thought could be proved from sense experience and logic. He also stressed the similarities, especially in matters of ethics, between Confucianism and Roman Catholicism.
“Ricci wanted to convince the Chinese that Christianity was not only compatible with the doctrine of Confucius but was also the only religion that fully reflected the teaching of ancient Confucianism before its contamination by Buddhist and Taoist ideas and Neo-Confucian interpretations. His was a bold undertaking, an ingenious effort to reconcile the irreconcilable.” (Fontana, 226) Couched in the form of a dialogue, the work attained popularity and went through many editions.
In the first three years of his stay in Beijing, Ricci could count 150 conversions, out of about 1,000 for his (at that time) twenty-two years in China. For them, he published a real catechism, Christian Doctrine, which contained Chinese translations of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Creed, plus explanations of the seven Roman Catholic sacraments. He followed this with The Twenty-five Discourses, a book on moral philosophy that basically tried to show similarities between Stoicism and ancient Confucianism, and the likeness of both to Roman Catholic Christianity. In the next few years, Ricci wrote another ethical work called Ten Paradoxes; translated Euclid’s Elements of Geometry into Chinese; and composed a history of the Jesuit mission in China up to that time. The history began with five chapters about all aspects of China and Chinese, making him the first European sinologist. Ricci finally bought a house for the missionaries and their disciples, who now functioned like a small Jesuit college. The pressure of his manifold duties, along with the never-ending stream of visitors and invitations to banquets, took their toll on his health, which began visibly to decline. He died, basically of exhaustion, in May, 1610.
The emperor, whom Ricci had never met, granted him a burial place at Ch’a-la (Zhala), just outside the old western city gate. This recently restored site is known today as the Li Madou mu (Matteo Ricci cemetery), with more than sixty tombstones of Jesuits and other missionaries.
Matteo Ricci was a great man by any standard of measurement. His brilliant intellect; prodigious memory; mastery of Chinese language, literature, and etiquette; perseverance under various trials over many years; and great capacity for friendship won respect and affection from countless Chinese scholars and officials in his own time, and many others since then. He was personally very brave, often risking his health and even his life to help or rescue suffering Chinese and fellow Jesuits.
As a missionary, he must be evaluated by how much he achieved what he set out to accomplish. On the one hand, he succeeded in establishing four Jesuit houses, training new missionaries and Chinese co-workers, and converting dozens of Chinese to his religion. His maps of the world, astronomical instruments, moral treatises, and gifts won admiration for him as a person and a hearing for his faith. He gained permanent residence in China for himself and succeeding Jesuits. His books on ethics, science, and philosophy attracted some interest, which he followed up with deeper instruction in the tenets of Roman Catholicism for converts. Some of the most influential people in China became Roman Catholics as a result of his prayers and persistence.
On the other hand, he did not succeed in his ultimate goal: to meet and possibly convert the Emperor. He wanted to reach China’s millions “from the top down,” a strategy that bore limited fruit. The Rites Controversy that raged a century after his death led to the repudiation by the Pope of his accommodationist approach to presenting the gospel and allowing converts to continue participating in rites honoring Confucius and deceased relatives. Ricci had considered these to be simply civil and honorific in nature, not religious. Other Roman Catholic missionaries, especially Dominicans and Franciscans, who worked more among the common people, but also some Jesuits, thought that the acts of bowing and offering incense to the deceased would only confuse ordinary Chinese people, for whom these were the same rites they used in worshiping their ancestors and various gods.
Though this decision was reversed by Rome in the twentieth century, it remains controversial. Roman Catholics and more liberal Protestants applaud Ricci’s methods, while evangelical Protestants, both Chinese and foreign, tend to think that some of them represent a compromise of biblical teaching and are, at best, confusing to Chinese. Whereas Roman Catholics make a distinction between “worship” and “veneration” (latria), Protestants appeal to Exodus 20:5, which (even in the Greek translation) forbids both when directed towards images of any kind.
Matteo Ricci accepted the medieval Roman Catholicism in which he had been brought up. For example, he thought that among the relics he took to China was a piece of the original cross on which Christ was crucified. He transmitted this system, including belief in the entire Roman Catholic sacramental system and in the power of the Pope to grant plenary remission of sins to anyone who led another person to the faith, to his converts.
Roman Catholics will assess his ministry in a different way than evangelical Protestants, but all will agree that he was an extraordinary man, devoted missionary, and superb example of one who justly earned the respect of the Chinese through his character, conduct, and conscientious study of Chinese culture.
- Charbonnier, Jean-Pierre. Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2002.
- Cronin, Vincent. The Wise Man from the West. Matteo Ricci and his Mission to China. London: Fount Paperbacks, 1984. First published by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1955.
- Fontana, Michela. Matteo Ricci: A Jesuit in the Ming Court. New York, NY: Rowan & Littlefield, 2011.
- Spence, Jonathan. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1984.