Padre Matteo Ricci
 

Scientific and technological innovations

 

 The  results  obtained  by  Ricci  in  this  field,  the  goal  that  he  pursued  with  his  scientific  activity  (that  is,  to  enhance  the  reputation  of  the  Christian  religion),  and  the  strategic  objectives  that  he  set  himself  (first  of  all,  the  reform  of  the  Chinese  calendar)  were  well  expressed  in  the  following  passage  of  a  letter  he  wrote  on  May  12, 1605  to  J.  Alvares,  an  assistant  of  the  general  superior  of  the  Society,  C.  Acquaviva:  

As  I,  with  these  maps  of  the  world,  clocks,  spheres,  astrolabes,  and  other  devices  that  I  made  and  taught,  acquired  the  reputation  of  the  greatest  mathematician  in  the  world,  and  even  though  I  don't  have  any  books  on  astrology  here,  with  certain  Portuguese  nautical  almanacs  and  collections  I  sometimes  predict  eclipses  more  accurately  than  them.  And  thus  when  I  say  that  I  don't  have  any  books  and  don't  want  to  start  revising  their  rules,  few  of  them  believe  me.  I  also  say  that,  if  the  mathematician  I  was  talking  about  were  to  come  here,  we  could  change  our  tables  into  Chinese  letters,  which  I  can  do  very  easily,  and  undertake  the  task  of  revising  the  year,  which  would  greatly  enhance  our  reputation,  widening  this  entry  into  China  and  making  us  more  firmly  established  and  freer  (L,  408).

 

Geography and cartography

 The  first  and  immediate  instrument  for  opening  China  to  the  world  was  the  preparation  in  Chinese  of  maps  of  the  whole  world.  On  the  basis  of  the  information  provided  by  Ricci  and  the  subsequent  maps,  we  can  reconstruct  the  first  map  he  prepared  in  Zhaoqing  and  its  presentation  to  the  governor,  Wang  Pan,  an  epoch-making  event  in  the  history  of  China.  

 For  his  Chinese  map,  Ricci  had  adopted,  transferring  it  to  the  new  observers,  the  construction  criterion  of  European  cartographers.  The  latter  had  placed  the  European  continent  and  Africa  in  the  center,  the  Americas  to  the  left  and  Asia  to  the  right,  with  China  and  Japan  at  the  outer  limits  of  the  East.  Ricci  moved  to  the  center  the  continent  of  his  observer,  who  saw  Europe  and  Africa  to  the  left  and  the  Americas  to  the  right.  Observing  that  the  world  was  so  large  and  China  -  even  though  it  was  placed  almost  in  the  center  of  it  -  so  small  with  respect  to  how  they  imagined  it,  the  more  ignorant  visitors  were  incredulous  and  made  fun  of  that  representation  of  the  world.  But  the  more  educated  and  judicious  ones  were  able  to  understand  and  appreciate  the  nicely  ordered  meridians  and  parallels,  the  lines  of  the  equinoxes  and  tropics,  and  all  the  lands  and  mountains  and  seas  with  their  Chinese  names,  translated  from  the  European  map  of  the  world  for  the  first  time.  Thus  they  could  not  but  believe  that  everything  they  saw  printed  on  that  map  was  true,  even  though  until  then  it  had  been  unimaginable.
 

Geometry

Shortly  after  Ricci's  death,  surprised  by  the  imperial  concession  of  a  plot  of  land  for  the  burial  of  the  foreigner Matteo  Ricci,  a  eunuch  wondered  what  the  latter  had  done  to  merit  such  a  privilege.  A  high  mandarin  replied:  "His  translation  of  Euclid's  Elements  of  Geometry  would  be  sufficient."  

Ricci  had  understood  from  the  beginning  the  strategic  importance  of  translating  the  work  into  Chinese:  

1.  to  provide  indispensable  support  to  the  natural  and  applied  sciences;

2.  to  introduce  Aristotelian  logic,  on  which  much  of  Christian  theology  was  also  based; 

3.  to  enhance  his  reputation  and  that  of  Europe  among  Chinese  intellectuals  as  bearers  of  the  Christian  religion.

Ricci  had  tried  early  on  to  translate  the  Elements,  first  in  Shaozhou,  with  the  help  of  Qu  Taisu,  between  1588 and  1590,  and  then  by  himself,  but  had  had  to  give  up,  because  of  the  difficulty  of  the  undertaking.  He eventually  tried  again,  in  Beijing  with  his  friend  Xu  Guangqi,  this  time  successfully.  

 

Sciences and techniques of measurement

The  novelty  and  importance  of  such  techniques  -  regarding  spatial  distances  both  on  earth  and  between  celestial  bodies  and  the  measurement  of  time  -  were  in  the  introduction  of  mathematical  methods  applied  to  empirical  observation.  The  most  important  works  expounding  such  theories  and  techniques  were  Hungai  tongxian  tushuo  (astrolabe  and  sphere,  with  figures  and  commentary),  Beijing  1607;  Riqiu  dayu  diqiu,  diqiu  dayu  yueqiu  (solar  disk  larger  than  the  terrestrial  globe  and  the  latter  larger  than  the  lunar  disk),  Beijing,  after  1606‐7;  Huangrong  jiaoyi  (treatise  on  isoperimetric  figures),  Beijing  1609;  Tongwen  suanzhi  (treatise  on  arithmetic),  printed  posthumously,  Beijing  1613;  and  Celiang  Fayi  (theory  and  method  of  measurement),  printed  posthumously  in  1617.  

 Beyond  the  overall  theoretical  cosmological  and  astronomical  model  based  on  Aristotle  and  Ptolemy,  which  would  soon  be  abandoned  in  Europe  and  the  rest  of  the  world,  the  introduction  of  these  theories  of  mathematical  measurement  constituted  the  truly  important  and  enduring  contribution  of  Wetern  science  to  China.
 

Astronomy

 Thanks  to  his  reputation  as  an  astronomer  -  which  he  acquired  mainly  through  his  maps  of  the  world,  in  addition  to  the  instruments  for  measuring  and  representing  the  sky  he  continually  made  -  Ricci  was  invited  by  the  minister  of  rites  in  Nanjing,  Wang  Zhongming,  to  become  involved  in  the  reform  of  the  Chinese  calendar,  an  undertaking  that  he  considered  the  most  important  of  all  his  possible  scientific  activities.  He  first  attempted  to  initiate  this  reform  when  he  went  to  Beijing  as  part  of  the  minister's  retinue  in  1598,  but  failed  because  of  the  suspicion  of  foreigners  that  was  in  the  air  in  consequence  of  the  Japanese  invasion  of  Korea.  

 It  was  during  his  Beijing  years  that  Ricci  dedicated  the  most  time  and  effort  to  astronomy,  thanks  especially  to  the  assistance  of  the  geographer  and  man  of  letters  Li  Zhizao.  Just  as  another  close  friend,  Xu  Guangqi,  collaborated  with  Ricci  on  the  translation  of  the  first  six  books  of  Euclid's  Elements  of  Geometry,  Li  Zhizao  worked  on  the  translation  of  geographical  and  astronomical  works.  With  him,  Ricci  made  his  large  map  of  the  world  in  six  panels  in  1602,  on  which  the  extension  in  eight  panels  in  1603  was  based.  And  in  1607,  in  addition  to  the  Chinese  translation  of  the  Elements  of  Geometry,  the  Chinese  translation  of  Clavius's  Astrolabe  by  Li  Zhizao  was  also  published.  

 Ricci  transmitted  to  China  the  principles  of  Aristotelian  and  Ptolemaic  cosmology  and  astronomy,  presented  as  "truths"  and,  according  to  the  author's  claim,  accepted  as  such  by  the  Chinese.  The  result  of  this  teaching,  which  in  turn  aimed  at  a  further  result  i.e.,  the  opening  of  China  to  the  preaching  of  Christianity  -  had  thus  been  the  earning  of  respect  and  recognition  by  the  Chinese  of  the  equal  civilization  of  the  West.  It  seems  to  us  paradoxical  that  this  recognition  was  achieved  with  astronomical  knowledge  that  the  West  was  abandoning  in  thos  very  years.  Precisely  in  1610,  while  Ricci  was  dying  in  Beijing,  Galileo  published  Sidereus  nuncius,  which

contained  his  new  observations,  made  with  a  telescope,  on  the  moon,  the  Medicean  planets  of  Jupiter,  and  the  Milky  Way.  

 However,  although  Ricci's  lesson  would  soon  be  outdated,  it  was  neither  fruitless  nor  short‐lived  from  the  point  of  view  of  the  transmission  of  the  scientific  method  in  the  observation  of  the  sky,  as  well  as  its  geometrical  and  mathematical  foundation.  As  with  the  preaching  of  Christianity,  Ricci  had  taken  on  the  task  of  "breaking  up  the  ground"  with  regard  to  science,  i.e.,  preparing  the  ground  for  the  science  of  the  future.  He  enabled  China  to  follow  the  development  of  Western  science  and,  perhaps  mindful  of  and  grateful  for  his  contribution,  the  country  decided  to  portray  Ricci  on  the  altar  of  the  millennium  with  a  telescope  in  his  hand.  
 

Mechanics

It  can  be  affirmed  that  Matteo  Ricci  paved  the  way  to  China  for  himself  with  his  solar  and  mechanical  clocks  for  knowing  the  hors  of  both  the  day  and  the  night.  (He  gave  "a  clock  for  knowing  the  time  at  night  by  the  stars  of  the  arctic  pole"  to  the  viceroy  of  Nanchang).  The  emperor  ordered  him  to  draw  and  explain  the  structure  of  the  clocks,  piece  by  piece,  to  the  court  mathematicians,  and  Ricci  coined  the  related  Chinese  terminology.  Still  today,  the  watchmakers  of  Canton  worship  "Budda  Ricci"  as  their  patron.  

See  the  quotation  below  concerning  Xu  Guangqi.  Called  to  Beijing  by  Ricci  during  his  last  years,  Sabatino  De  Ursis  wrote  a  treatise  on  hydraulic  machines,  which  has  come  down  to  us:  Taixi  shuifa  (treatise  on  hydraulic  pumps).  

Ricci  and  subsequent  Jesuits  also  began  to  transmit  the  Western  techniques  of  melting  bronze,  including  for  the  purpose  of  making  firearms.  The  Jesuits'  interest  in  the  strengthening  of  the  Chinese  army  was  also  aimed  at  making  their  presence  in  China  indispensable.  According  to  the  History  of  the  Ming  Dynasty,  Ricci  also  taught  Xu  Guangqi  how  to  melt  bronze  for  use  in  making  firearms:  «[Xu  Guangqi]  studied  astronomy,  the  calculation  of  the  calendar,  and  the  making  of  firearms  with  Li  Madou,  a  man  from  the  West.  He  knew  all  of  these  arts,  and  wrote  several  books  on  warfare,  breaking  up  uncultivated  land,  the  art  of  governing,  and  hydraulic  works.  

All  bells  are  rung  with  wooden  hammers  and  could  not  take  iron  hammers  and.  Thus,  with  regard  to  sound,  they  cannot  be  compared  to  ours."
 

Architecture

 Ricci  built  the  first  house  in  the  European  style  in  Zhaoqing,  as  well  as  the  first  Christian  church,  also  in  that  style,  in  Beijing.  He  continually  requested  Rome  to  send  him  books  on  architecture  and  showed  those  he  had,  as  can  be  inferred  from  the  passage  quoted  below.  He  also  asked  for  engravings  on  bronze  of  historic  European  buildings  to  show  and  give  to  the  Chinese,  as  he  did  with  the  emperor,  to  whom  he  presented  an  engraving  of  the  Doges'  Palace  in  Venice.  There  was  no  immediate  influence  on  Chinese  architecture.  The  first  significant  influence  came  only  during  Qianlong's  reign  in  the  second  half  of  the  eighteenth  century,  when  he  entrusted  Giuseppe  Castiglione  with  the  task  of  designing  the  Summer  Palace  in  Beijing,  and  it  was  not  until  the  twentieth  century  that  there  was  a  massive  presence  of  Western  architecture  in  China.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Copyright © 2009 Comitato Celebrazioni Padre Matteo Ricci

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