Padre Matteo Ricci

The Historical Experience of Father Matteo Ricci


In the cultural exchange between Occident and Orient, of which Matteo Ricci was the spokesman, there are six important matters of his historical experience: responsibility, care or charity towards all people of the world; difference and fear of the stranger; the daily presence of death as companion; the dream to be welcomed permanently and to be able to share freely Christianity with the Chinese Nation; the heritage of cultural knowledge transmitted   to China; the particular bond of friendship created with Confucian scholars and Chinese people.


Charity is the fundamental element that made possible the extraordinary encounter between European and Chinese cultures, through the activity of Father Matteo Ricci and his companions on one side and the activity of a large number of Confucian scholars on the other side. These intellectuals met each other, recognised each other and co-operated together in the shared ideal of charity, meant as the supreme expression of Christian and Confucian virtue. For those men, "charity" meant the exercise of responsibility or care towards oneself and others, in homage to a universal principle, either if this was the Christian God, the Confucian Heaven or Common Good for Aristotele. In fact, in his own vision of the world and in his personal experience, Ricci could assimilate and summarise the ancient occidental classics and precept of international charity towards all nations expressed by Ignatius of Loyola and the teaching of Confucian classics, paraphrased and translated for the first time in Latin by Matteo Ricci. Aspirating to build only one single human family, without considering differences of race, language and religion, Occidental and Chinese scholars made the unique and unrepeatable "exploit of China".

Fear of Stranger

The hardest difficulty that Matteo Ricci had to face was the diffidence and the ancestral fear of Chinese towards strangers. In Entrance and Letters, Ricci deeply analyses the reasons of this fear, due to the aversion to weapons and the numerous invasions by neighbouring countries, specially Japan. This mistrust together with the belief to be the only civil nation of the world, made China develop a great security and self-isolation device, that made vain every attempt to enter in the Dragon Reign made by Portuguese merchants and Occidental missionaries before the arrival of Matteo Ricci to Macao (1582). Moved by Ignatius Loyola, who wrote to his companions to become Turkish with Turkish, Arabian with Arabians, Indian with Indians, and following Valignano's guidelines, Ricci became Chinese with Chinese. Thank to this knowledge and virtue, Matteo Ricci opened a passage in the wall of fear and mistrust. During the period in Beijing, he underlined that never in history of China foreigners were welcomed in the nation, as happened to him and his companions, who could live there maintaining their identity with everyone's respect and admiration.


Facing death every day and aspiration to martyrdom were fundamental factors in Ricci's human and spiritual experience, since his departure from Lisbon on March 24th 1578 to May 11th 1610. Who sailed on a galleon to India knew that   there was a chance out of two to arrive at destination, due to dangers of the ocean, pirates assaults, frequent epidemics on board. As soon as he arrived in India Ricci got sick with malaria for a long time, afterwards, on the trip from Goa to Macao, he became ill again and he thought to die; in Zhaoqing and Shaozhou he faced three trials; in Shaozhou he lost two brethrens, who died of malaria; on the way to Beijing his   boat wrecked on Gan river and a young Chinese assistant died. Arrived in Nanchino in 1595 after numerous difficulties, Ricci was chased away with violence risking to be expelled. Moreover, he had to face daily dangers on rivers, suspects, reports, illnesses, more arrests from eunuchs Ma Tang and, later, from Ministry of Rites in "Barbarian Castle". One day Ricci wrote: "we always have death in front of our eyes". He was not complaining or dramatising; he had the secret hope that death could become the seal of his entire life.


A famous dream had at the end of June 1595 and told twice by Ricci in his works is the turning point between the first stage of his stay in China, characterised by the exterior status of Buddhist bonze, and the second, during which Ricci had the status of the scholar preacher and assimilated to Confucian scholars more and more. He had the dream on the boat that was going to Nanchang, where the Jesuit would found his third house during the most dramatic discouraging period of his experience in China. He dreamt an unknown man who walked towards him and bared his secret intention to replace the ancient Chinese religion with Christianity. The man revealed his identity and said to be God himself. When Ricci started crying uncontrollably and asked why he was not helping him, He answered "I will help you at the court", that is Beijing. This dream, that Ricci considered "more than a dream", has several interesting elements. It is enough to only consider this: the author attributes to God the same words said to the founder of the Jesuit order in the famous vision at La Storta ("I will help you in Rome"). In this way he puts the foundation of the mission in China and the foundation of the Society of Jesus on the same level.


The fundamental instruments that Ricci used in order to surpass Chinese mistrust towards strangers and realise the "exploit of China" were two: his knowledge, received during the years of education in Macerata and Rome, and the sincere feeling of friendship between him and Chinese people. His great literary, philosophic and scientific education gave him the chance to face and ­­­­win the challenge of a Nation convinced that it is the only one that has the knowledge and has nothing to learn from a foreigner. Thank to the universal geographic maps, the translated Euclidean Geometry, the moral philosophy works inspired by ancient Greek and Latin stoics, Ricci has been the major contradiction for Chinese culture: a barber who was able to teach to China. Matteo Ricci was commonly called Xitai, the "Occidental master".


When Ricci understood that "in China you do more with books that with words", he started to go to school of Chinese literary composition and, in 1595 in Nanchang, he wrote "per esercitio", his first work, dedicated to friendship. He knew how important this feeling was to Chinese culture, that considered friendship a natural social relation between all human beings and the base of the other four natural social relations: father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, sovereign and subject. Ricci chose a hundred sayings from Greek and Latin classics and shown to Chinese readers that ancient occidental masters had the same thoughts of ancient Confucian masters on this subject. Scholars who wrote prefaces for the work noticed that scholar Lì Mădòu demonstrated that far West and China were two halves of one whole, of one   converging human civilisation, although the two civilisations had not known each other until twelve years earlier. Friendship that Ricci and his Chinese co-workers wrote about is not only a private and interpersonal feeling, but also a fundamental political bond, that is born from charity and aims to build one single human family, through charity.


Copyright © 2009 Comitato Celebrazioni Padre Matteo Ricci

Sito realizzato con CMS per siti accessibili e-ntRA - RA Computer Spa