This year marks the 400th anniversary of the passing of Matteo Ricci, one of the most important Roman Catholic evangelists to China and a model for the thousands of missionaries who followed him.
Born in Italy in 1552, Ricci became a Jesuit priest and arrived in Macao in 1582. A year later, he settled in a city in southern China and in 1601 succeeded in obtaining permission to live in the imperial capital, Beijing. A man whose mastery of Chinese language and literature exceeded that of any foreigner before him and most after him, he wrote and translated dozens of books before his death in Beijing in May 1610.
Such was his reputation that the Emperor waived the established rules and allowed him to be buried in the capital – the first westerner to be given this honour.
“For us in Macao and those working in China and for priests in general, he is an inspiration,” said Father Luis Sequeira, until recently head of the Jesuit order in Macao, his home for 30 years. “He was a man of great virtue. For me, he has been a model and an inspiration. I have followed the same route, in learning the Chinese language, customs and ways of thinking and making Chinese friends.”
Macao was an essential step on Ricci’s journey. He arrived in August 1582, joining an established Jesuit community, and began the long process of studying Chinese and the Chinese mind, customs and etiquette.
To honour his memory, the city’s Art Museum is hosting an exhibition of his life this summer. “Matteo Ricci was a great historical figure,” said museum director Chan Hou Seng. “We are very happy to have the exhibition here. It has great significance for Macao, in helping Macao people and visitors understand Macao’s role in history and reflect on its future role.”
The exhibition will show items provided by Ricci’s home city of Macerata, including religious objects, paintings and musical instruments of his time and models of buildings. In addition, there will be items from China, including art objects and books he translated into Chinese and an oil painting by Ricci himself from Shenyang museum. The museum is also seeking his books and other treasures in Macao libraries and St Joseph’s Seminary, a Jesuit establishment founded in 1728.
The exhibition began its journey in Beijing in February, before going on to Shanghai and Nanjing, and will reach Macao in August.
Mission to the East
The exhibition tells an extraordinary story. Ricci was born on October 6, 1552 in Macerata in east central Italy. He learned theology and law at a Jesuit school and joined the congregation in 1571. He studied at a Jesuit college in Rome and went to Coimbra, Portugal, where he studied Portuguese. In March 1578, he had an audience with the country’s King Sebastian, who ruled what was at that time one of the world’s two foremost maritime powers.
He was very impressed with the Portuguese king, who died in the battle of Alcazarquivir in August 1578 against the Muslims. So when, in the early 1580s, he was looking for a Chinese version of his name, he chose Li Madou. The second character, Ma, combines two ideographs, one meaning ‘king’ and the other meaning ‘horse’ - in honour of King Sebastian.
He applied to become a missionary in the Orient and left Lisbon in March, 1578 for the Portuguese colony of Goa, where he studied theology and taught Latin and Greek. He was ordained a priest in July 1580.
On August 7, 1582 he arrived in Macao and would spend the remaining 28 years of his life immersed in the life, customs and language of China. He was continuing the work of St Francis Xavier, a founder of the Jesuit order and pioneer missionary in Asia; he died in December 1552, on an island off the southeast coast of China, waiting for a boat to take him to the mainland.
“St Francis Xavier had the zeal to convert the East,” said Sequeira. “He went to India and Japan and realised that China was the most important. He was the first to have that vision. He died, while he could see south China. The next step was taken by Matteo Ricci. It took him 20 years to reach Beijing. The dragon drags slowly, it is not the Bullet Train.”
Ricci lived in several Chinese cities – Zhaoqing and Shaozhou (currently named Shaoguan) in Guangdong province, Nanchang and Nanjing – before finally being allowed to settle in Beijing in May 1601. His path was never smooth – hostile officials expelled him from cities, the public was suspicious of his intentions and he was left with a permanent limp after jumping from his house in Shaozhou when it was attacked by a gang of robbers.
Throughout this time, he deepened his knowledge of China, writing with another Jesuit the first dictionary of Chinese and a European language (Portuguese), translating Chinese classics and writing many books, including a Treatise on Friendship. He could read and write classical Chinese, the literary language of scholars and officials; no other foreigner of his time reached his proficiency and few have done since.
He became a close friend of prominent Chinese, some of whom converted to Catholicism. One of them was Paul Xu Guangqi, an official, agricultural scientist, astronomer and mathematician. The two men translated several western classics into Chinese, including parts of Euclid’s Elements.
Ricci died on May 11, 1610 in Beijing. According to the rules of the Ming dynasty, foreigners who died in China had to be buried in Macao. After a special plea from the Jesuits, Emperor Wan Li (emperor of Ming dynasty) allowed him to be buried in Beijing. The tomb is in the grounds of what is now the Central Party School.
Model of respect
“He is an inspiration in showing the way of dialogue between races, cultures and religions,” said Sequeira. “He showed respect for the other. His mission was to show the humanity of Christ and open the door and not behave as in Europe, where people were killing and pursuing each other (over religion). It was a dialogue with the other, to let the other know God.”
Museum director Chan Hou Seng also said that Ricci’s peaceful dialogue among equals had earned him a high reputation among Chinese. “In Macao, the churches were and are next to the temples; they co-exist peacefully, unlike in the Europe of Ricci’s time, a period of religious wars. Subsequent emperors used Jesuits as their advisers because of their expertise, in fields such as map-making, weather-forecasting, science and culture. They trusted them because they were loyal and died in China.”
These highly trained Jesuits introduced western science, astronomy, mathematics, geography and other disciplines to the Chinese court. They also transmitted Chinese knowledge to Europe, through translations of the works of Confucius and books on Chinese science and technology.
In exchange, the emperors gave them permission to build Catholic churches in Beijing, the first in 1605; the faithful still hold religious services in them four centuries later.
The method of the Jesuits was knowledge of Chinese, exchange of information and respect for the authority of the Emperor. It contrasts strongly with that taken by their governments from the time of the Opium War (1839-42) onwards -- use of superior military force, contempt for China, its language and culture and regarding its people as backward and uncivilised.
Steps to Sainthood
Residents of Macerata have started a campaign for the beatification of their town’s most famous son. The Vatican holds him in high esteem but the process toward sainthood is a long one.
In a homily at the Vatican on July 11, 2007, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone described Ricci’s qualities.
“He represents a remarkable model of evangelisation and dialogue with different cultural and religious realities … He spent nearly 28 years in China, following a detailed study of the language, history and culture of China, through which he showed a deep respect for this great people. He always held the conviction that the spread of Christianity in China needed official approval for the preachers and for the freedom of China to accept it and proclaim it publicly. He was firmly convinced that this approval and liberty could only be obtained if he went to the court in Beijing, in the imperial palace, where he was welcomed not as a ‘bizarre stranger’ but a respected scholar.
“While he professed a sincere admiration for China, he let the Chinese know that there was something they did not know and that he could teach them this was the method of Matteo Ricci – a profound respect for the traditions he encountered and, at the same time, un unbreakable faith in the transmission of the Truth which is Christ and the Catholic doctrine,” he said.
Like every other missionary in China, Ricci faced the question of how to reconcile his faith with the values and convictions of people belonging to one of the world’s oldest civilisations. He did this by presenting the two not in contradiction but in harmony.
In a message in October 1982, to mark the 400th anniversary of Ricci’s arrival in China, Pope John-Paul II said that Ricci was convinced that the Christian faith not only brought no harm to Chinese culture but would make it richer and more perfect.
Important role of Macao
The city of Macao has an important place in the Ricci story and that of the other Jesuit missionaries who lived and studied here before going to mainland China. “Without Macao, Ricci would not have gone to mainland China,” said Chan Peng Fai, a researcher at the Macao Museum of Art. “It was a place where he could come and settle and learn Chinese language, culture and habits. Other Jesuits came here; they made contact with Guangdong officials, who introduced them and enabled them to go to Beijing.”
The Jesuits have played a major role in the city’s history. In 1568, they founded the St Raphael’s Hospital to treat lepers and the next year the Holy House of Mercy, to serve the poor and needy.
In 1594, they built the College of St Paul, the first western university in the Far East; its printing press produced many important books; and next door, in 1602, the Church of the Mother of God, the largest Christian church in Asia. In 1728, they founded St Joseph’s Seminary to train foreigners and Chinese as missionaries in China.
“With the founding of the College of St Paul, Macao became a centre of culture and knowledge,” said Sequeira. “It has always been a place for meetings, for mixing of people, open to the continent and the world. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a place of welcome, for the needy and those in danger. Macao is the ‘city of the name of God’.” This was the title given to it in 1576 at the time of the creation of Macao as a diocese by Rome.
Sequeira said that Macao remained a strategic place, a platform, with a new meaning since China’s opening to the outside world. “As Hong Kong is a platform for relations with Britain and Anglo-Saxon countries, so Macao is a platform for relations with the Portuguese Speaking Countries and Latin-language countries. This is the identity of Macao.
“Ricci’s life is an example for modern China, which wants to enter the world of geo-politics, with countries that have different cultures, values and religions. Chinese needs to respect those values. In seeking its place in the world and the global decision-making process, it needs the openness which Ricci had. It must respect the values and culture of the other side.”
In 1955, the Jesuits set up the Matteo Ricci College in Macao, with classes from kindergarten up to secondary school and nearly 2,000 students, teaching in Chinese.
In 1999, Sequeira founded the Matteo Ricci Institute in Macao as a non-profit study and research institution dedicated to fostering better mutual understanding between China and the world community. “I set it up to guard the past and prepare the future and continue the dialogue of religions, with the dimensions of history and society and a magazine in two languages (Chinese and English).” This year the institute is publishing a book on Matteo Ricci, to mark the anniversary.
The city has 18 resident Jesuits, both foreign and Chinese; some go to China to teach. As in Ricci’s day, it remains the order’s principal base for services in mainland China.
The mission statement of the institute summarises well the historical role of Macao and Ricci.
“Macao continues to be an ideal lens through which to broaden understanding of the thoughts and ideals of peoples from different cultures … Others before Ricci ventured toward China but did not succeed in remaining there for life, let alone to receive the respect and admiration from the Chinese people that Ricci enjoys even to this day. The root of his success lies in his achieved integration as a human person that made it possible for him to enter so fully into another culture without losing himself.”
Exhibition of historical treasures
The exhibition consists of two parts. One is exhibits from museums in Italy, including Rome, Milan, Naples and Macerata, including oil paintings, prints and models of buildings from the period of the Renaissance and items from the early period of the Jesuits. There are instruments and documents related to weather forecasting, geography, mechanics, scientific measuring and cartography, as well as musical instruments, crystal and gold art works. The oil paintings include ‘Portrait of Matteo Ricci’ painted in 1610 by Emmanuele Yu Wen-hui; ‘Portrait of Philip II’ painted about 1553 by Tiziano Vecellio; and ‘Baptism’, about 1555, by Lorenzo Lotto.
The second part are oil paintings, maps and writings in Chinese from Matteo Ricci’s time in China from museums in China and other institutions in Macao. They include the first book by Ricci in Chinese -- ‘Essay of Friendship’ written in Nanchang in 1601; ‘the True Meaning of God’ written by him in 1603; and ‘Elements of Geography’ which Ricci jointly translated with a Chinese scientist, Xu Guangqi, at the end of the Ming dynasty.
By Mark O'Neill in Macao
(Issue N. 3, April 2010)