Joining Confucian society on its own level
Peking, February 1601. It was five o'clock hi the morning, dark and frosty. The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci and his companion, the Spaniard Diego Pantoja, had been granted an audience to pay homage to the Emperor Wan-Li. They came, dressed in their red damask clothes and helmets of gilt-silver, and carrying ivory tablets some three inches wide and eight inches long with which they were to cover their mouths when speaking the words of homage. (Their mortal breath must never risk attaining the Son of Heaven.)
They walked the length of the courtyard of the Imperial Palace. The walls, roofs, and even the parchment windows of the building were yellow, colour of earth, and everywhere was emblazoned the dragon, a benevolent beast associated with life-giving rain, having a camel's head, a deer's horns, a hare's eyes, a bull's ears, a snake's neck, a carp's scales, an eagle's five claws, a tiger's paws. At the north end, approached by three flights of marble stairs, stood an open-sided arcade landscaped with painted screens, in the centre of which was raised the dragon throne. Empty.
An official called out in a high voice, "Kneel down." he Jesuits knelt. Then at another command, they rose, moved forward and bowed to the empty throne. Shielding their mouths with the piece of ivory, they exclaimed, "Ten thousand years!" a salutation of long life reserved for the Emperor alone.
The throne was empty. But for Ricci, the scene and gesture marked the high point of his extraordinary life.
Born near Ancona in 1552, Matteo Ricci, or Li Ma-t'ou (Ricci Mat-te-o) as he is known to this day in China, had become a Jesuit at the age of 19 and, shortly afterwards, been sent to the Portuguese colonies of Goa and Macao. There, after his ordination and an intensive period of linguistic, mathematical and astronomical studies, he prepared to become a missionary to China.
The bold, far-sighted plan consisted in breaking down the century-old isolationism of the Celestial Empire by sharing the culture of those on whom the government of the country depended, the intellectual aristocracy. Ricci would join Confucian society on its own level of language, social customs, and philosophical reflection. He would make the ascendancy of learning the beginning of Catholic apologetics. This intellectual ministry, he would later write, was worth far more to him than making thousands of piecemeal converts. It was, he dreamed the means that would eventually lead to "the universal conversion of the whole kingdom."
On September 10, 1583, he entered China and settled in Chao-ch'ing, where, to lessen suspicions, he adopted first the garb and manner of life of Buddhist monks. Later, when he was granted permission to enter the most respected class of the mandarinate, he put on the plum-coloured silk robes and tall black hat of the scholars.
Instantly he made his reputation as a scientist and man of letters. Venetian prisms, rare editions of European books, oil paintings, engravings, sundials, clocks, maps: all these attracted interest and earned respect. Works of art, musical compositions, literature, papers on apologetics, mathematics, and astronomy: He published, on average, a book a year and became what he is to this day, one of the most respected figures in Chinese literature.
By 1601, his intellectual fame as well as that of his scientific instruments and works of art reached the court of the Emperor. It was then that he was summoned to Peking, and was securely established there. Under the benign patronage of Wan-li, he held the respect of the intelligentsia.
But more: he began to make better known to the Chinese people the good news of Christ Our Lord. When he died in 1610, the 2,500 Catholics in China included many from the educated classes, and nine of the eighteen Jesuits in the country were Chinese. Ricci could rightly tell his colleagues, "I leave before you an open door ...."
No European name of past centuries is so well-known in China as that of Li Ma-t'ou. scientist, artist, philosopher. The wise man from the West, pioneer of cultural relations between Europe and China, founder of the modern Chinese Church, he remains one of the most remarkable and brilliant men in history.