Padre Matteo Ricci
 

Opening China to the world


 The  first  and  most  important  obstacle  encountered  by  Ricci  in  his  undertaking  was  constituted  by  the  total  rejection  of  foreigers.  Ricci  was  extremely  clear  on  this  point,  especially  in  his  Letters.  He  constantly  referred  to  the  Chinese  fear,  mistrust,  and  almost  "natural  hatred"  of  foreigners  as  the  most  serious  obstacle  to  the  accomplishment  of  the  mission.  

 In  a  letter  to  Girolamo  Costa,  Ricci  lucidly  analyzed  the  causes  of  the  rejection  of  foreigners  by  China,  "a  kingdom  that  is  very  different  from  all  the  others  in  the  world".  First  of  all,  the  country  being  "very  large  and  with  an  abundance  of  all  things",  it  was  fully  self‐sufficient  and  did  not  need  to  establish  relations  with  other  nations.  Furthermore,  since  "military  skill  and  weapons  have  very  little  consideration  among  them",  the  Chinese  "are  afraid  and  suspicious  of  everything  and  fear  foreigners".  However,  their  rejection  of  foreigners  also  stemmed  from  their  conviction  that  they  were  the  only  great  civilization  in  the  world:  "From  the  very  beginning  to  the  present  day,  they  have  had  a  natural  hatred  of  all  foreigners,  thinking  that  they  are  all  barbarians  and  that  they  themselves  are  the  head,  nay  all  the  main  body  of  the  world."  Therefore,  "they  let  us  stay  in  their  land  only  with  an  inferior  status  and  don't  want  other  people  to  come  in"  (10/15/1596,  pp.  342‐43).  

 Ricci  never  lost  his  fear  of  being  expelled,  even  though  it  diminished  greatly  in  his  last  years,  when  he  had  understood  -  and  tried  to  get  the  Jesuits  who  came  after  him  to  understand  -  that  the  relative  certainty  of  staying  that  they  enjoyed  rested  on  an  even  deeper  fear  of  the  Chinese:  that,  having  acquired  such  extensive  knowledge  about  China,  foreigners  could  do  more  harm  to  it  by  leaving  than  by  staying  forever  within  its  borders.  

 It  seems  that  the  success  of  Ricci's  mission  -  which  consisted  even  in  the  simple  fact  of  having  succeeded  in  entering  and  remaining  so  long  in  that  "land  that  since  the  beginning  of  the  world  has  always  been  inhospitable  to  foreigners"  (3/8/1608,  p.  473)  -  depended  on  a  delicate  equilibrium  of  reciprocal  fears.  And  although  fear  was  a  kind  of  basso  continuo  in  Ricci's  undertaking,  other  factors  played  an  equally  decisive  role  in  overcoming  it,  albeit  not  definitively.  The  Chinese  had  a  natural  curiosity  to  get  to  know,  depending  on  the  different  cases,  the  "foreign  devil",  accompanied  by  a  wish  to  own  marvelous,  previously  unknown  objects  that  the  latter  had  introduced  for  the  first  time  and  could  give  or  sell  to  them.  Thanks  to  a  mechanical  clock  that  sounded  the  hours,  which  was  desired  by  the  viceroy  of  Guangdong,  the  fathers  entered  China,  while  thanks  to  the  offer  of  extraordinary  gift  to  the  emperor,  Ricci  was  called  to  Beijing.  

 The  emperor's  curiosity  to  see  the  two  foreigners,  who  could  not  be  admitted  to  his  presence,  led  him  to  order  full‐length  portraits  of  them  standing.  Many  literati  were  attracted  and  won  over  by  Ricci's  knowledge  of  the  sciences,  the  art  of  his  prodigious  memory,  the  philosophical  wisdom  he  was  able  to  transmit,  and  the  human  virtues  celebrated  by  the  Chinese  who  wrote  prefaces  to  his  works,  while  others  -  who  were  few  with  respect  to  the  large  number  of  people  who  met  and  got  to  know  him  -  also  accepted  his  Christian  message.  

 After  Ricci's  death,  a  Chinese  man  of  letters  wrote,  admirably  summarizing  his  work:"Doctor  Li    opened  China's  eyes  on  the  world."  The  victory  over  the  Chinese  fear  of  "foreign  devils"  and  the  sowing  of  the  seeds  of  Chinese  trust  in  and  friendship  with  Europe  -  which  had  been  unknown  "since  the  beginning  of  time"  -  can  be  considered  the  most  spectacular  achievement  of  Ricci's  undertaking.  This  result  seems  to  have  been  achieved  thanks  to  three  distinctive  characteristics  of  the  experience,  which  the  Letters  describe:  

 1.  Ricci's  natural,  personal  inclination  to  establish  relationships  with  foreigners,  which  he  talked  about  in  his  letter  to  Maselli  from  Goa  on  November  29,  1580.  The  cultural  and  psychological  origins  of  this  disposition  can  be  sought  elsewhere. 

 2.  His  ability  to  give  up  some  of  the  dreams  with  which  one's  personal  identity  is  constructed.  Deciding  to  "make  himself  China  in  everything"  in  order  to  communicate  with  this  "other  world",  Ricci  relinquished  the  exterior  signs  of  his  identity  as  a  European  (language,  food,  customs,  forms  of  social  relations)  and  did  not  hesitate  to  put  aside  even  many  signs  and  symbols,  which  he  considered  not  strictly  essential,  of  his  religious  faith.  

 3.  The  wealth  of  humanistic  and  scientific  knowledge  and  the  set  of  personal  moral  virtues  with  which  he  was  able  to  seduce  China.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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