Saturday, July 11, 2009

Matteo Ricci

A year ago, none of us had ever heard of Matteo Ricci. Then, one day, Glenn Mott mentioned something to the effect that Matteo Ricci is considered to be one of the most important foreigners in all of Chinese history. So important, in fact, that he is buried right here in Beijing. Sure enough, when Qing Ming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Day) arrived back in April, Glenn and Yan Ke made a trip out to Ricci's grave, and, in the process, stoked our curiosity about this mysterious (to us) figure from the past.

Our interest grew even more when Julie, in a church history lesson on missionaries, learned a bit about Ricci and his life here in China. Turns out, Ricci was a Jesuit who, over the course of several decades of living in China, became fluent in written and spoken Mandarin. Ricci, in fact, produced the first ever Chinese-Portuguese dictionary, an important feat at a time when Portugal was one of the world's leading powers. Ricci was a also a skilled cartographer (feeling jealous yet!?), and laid down the first ever Chinese-language, European-style map of the world.

Because of the way he assimilated into Chinese culture, Ricci gained the favor of the emperor, and became the first ever foreigner to be allowed into the Forbidden City. Ricci's immersion into Chinese society also impacted his approach to being a missionary. Rather than explain Catholicism as something foreign to China, he emphasized that the Chinese people, through their existing religious practices, had long believed in God. He and other missionaries were simply bringing to China a more perfect way to exercise their spiritual beliefs.

This culture-specific approach to evangelization was controversial among Catholic leaders, even in Ricci's lifetime, and eventually the Vatican prohibited its practice altogether. In the end, the association of Catholicism with European culture lead to the expulsion of missionaries from China, and to a rift that, to this day, has not been fully breached.

With all of this as background, we set out, with Yan Ke as our guide, eager to see the grave site of Ricci, and several dozen other missionaries who also were permitted to be buried within China's borders. This expedition lead us to, of all places, a campus that houses a college where government administrators are trained. Yes, there, right in the middle of a Communist Party school, is the tombstone of Ricci, cared for and maintained in a lovely park-like setting.

This place of honor was not always bestowed upon Ricci and the others, though. As we strolled through the cemetery (courtesy of Yan Ke's unrelenting, and ultimately successful, search for someone with a key), a university representative told us that, during the Cultural Revolution, many of the tombstones were hacked into pieces. The evidence of this damage was apparent in the multitude of fault lines we witnessed, indicators of just where the graves had been repaired and reassembled.

As we stood there, our conversation inevitably turned to the historical relationship between China and the West. There is a dominant narrative on this history in today's China, coming on the heels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the decadence and military weakness of the nation's imperial leaders was exposed for all the world to see. This narrative, in a nutshell, is that foreign powers, in their competitive quest for trade and world domination, robbed China of its pride and independence. Without denying such chapters in East-West history, this narrative unfairly pushes to the side the many centuries of fruitful exchange that actually occurred in areas of religion, science, culture, and beyond. The life of Matteo Ricci challenges all of us to rethink just what we all might share in common, an important consideration in a time when China has undeniably entered into a new period of engagement with the West.



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