Thursday, June 25, 2009

Matteo Ricci

Well, the first post was of a famous king. Now the not so famous. Matteo Ricci S.J. For non-Catholics S. J. means Society of Jesus. In other words, a Jesuit.
Matteo Ricci was born October 6, 1652 in Italy. He died May 11, 1610. He studied theology and law at a Jesuit school. In 1577 he applied to be a missionary to India and in 1578 he was dispatched to Goa, a Portuguese colony in India. In 1582 he left India and went to China. And it is here that his story gets interesting.
Right before arriving in China he spent some time on the Portuguese island of Macao. There he began to learn the Chinese language and customs.He became one of the very few western scholars to master the classical Chinese script. He moved inland and settle in Zhaoqing, where he stayed for 6 years. It was here that he composed the first European style map of the world in Chinese. He, along with Michele Ruggieri, also complied the first ever European-Chinese dictionary. They developed a consistent system for transcribing Chinese words into the Latin alphabet. Unfortuneately the manuscript was lost in the Jesuit archives in Rome and not re-discovered until 1931. It was published in 2001.
Ricci traveled around China for a few years. He spent a couple of months in Beijing but had to leave because of a war with Japan. He did not return to Beijing until 1601. After presenting the Emperor with a chiming clock he became the first westerner to be allowed in the Forbidden City. He did not meet the Emperor himself for several years but was given free access to the city and met other important
officials and leading members of the cultural scene.
The Emperor did grant him patronage and allotted him a generous stipend that helped the Jesuits in China.
What got me interested in Matteo Ricci was a book I read several years ago called The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan D. Spence. It was a common memorization tool in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to place what you wanted to remember in a mental room, house, etc. depending on how much you wanted to remember. People had to rely on their memories back then. There were no notepads to jot things down, computers, blackberries. The majority of people didn't read or write, especially in the Middle Ages. They kept everything in their memory. Father Ricci showed the Chinese how to do this. He told them that the size of the building depended on them. It could be an intricate palace with hundreds of buildings or a simple pavillion. They could even just use a corner of a room or a closet. The structures were solely in their head and could be based on real places, made-up places, or a combination of both. To everything that we wish to remember, wrote Ricci, we should give an image; and to every one of these images we should assign a position where it can repose peacefully until we are ready to reclaim it by an act of memory. Since this entire memory system can work only if the images stay in the assigned positions and if we can instantly remember where we stored them, obviously it would seem easiest to rely on real locations which we know so well that we cannot ever forget them.But that would be a mistake, thought Ricci. For it is by expanding the number of locations and the corresponding number of images that can be stored in them that we increase and strengthen our memory. Therefore the Chinese should struggle with the difficult task of creating fictive places, or mixing the fictive with the real, fixing them permanently in their minds by constant practice and review so that at last the fictive spaces become "as if real, and can never be erased."*(from J. Spence's book).
Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese about Christianity and Catholicism by using concepts they already knew. He also allowed them to keep certain customs that were part of their heritage, such as veneration of the dead. Later missionaries such as the Dominicans and Franciscans complained to the Vatican about Fr. Ricci's methods.
When Father Ricci was still in Beijing when he died. Foreigners were not allowed to be buried in China, they were buried in Macao. The Chinese made an acception for Father Ricci. His tomb is located in the campus of the Beijing Communist Administrative College. His statue stands in front of Beijing's South Cathedral.
In China today, Father Ricci is still hailed as the world's greatest "foreign guest".His contributions to Chinese science, math, and various other subjects continued to be appreciated by the Chinese.
Next year is the 400 anniversary of Father Ricci's death. Pope Benedict XVI has asked the bishop of Macerata, Italy (Fr. Ricci's birthplace) to prepare for a Jubilee Year in honor of this anniversary.
for more on Matteo Ricci:
The picture above is Matteo Ricci (left) and Xu Guangqi (徐光啟) (right) in the Chinese edition of Euclid's Elements (幾何原本) published in 1607.

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