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Binding Friendship: Ricci, China and Jesuit Cultural Learnings

Jeremy Clarke, S.J.

Those who will live one hundred generations after us are not yet born, and I cannot tell what sort of people they will be. Yet thanks to the existence of written culture even those living ten thousand generations hence will be able to enter into my mind as if we were contemporaries. As for those worthy figures who lived a hundred generations ago, although they too are long gone, yet thanks to the books left behind we who come after can hear their modes of discourse, observe their grand demeanour, and understand both the good order and the chaos of their times, exactly as if we were living among them.

— Matteo Ricci to Cheng Dayue, 16061

During 2010, many articles and several books were published on the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), and commemorative activities and exhibitions were held throughout the world. While in large part this is due to the fact that the past year marked the four-hundredth anniversary of his death in Beijing, it is also because this remarkable priest’s endeavours over almost twenty-seven years in China still arouse both general interest and scholarly reflection. This fascination is a product of Ricci being involved in so many areas of academic and pastoral activity, including the fields of horology, hydraulics, geometry, catechetics, observational astronomy and music, among other things. At times, however, interest in these areas of cross-cultural exchange can obscure the fact that Ricci was first and foremost a Jesuit missionary who wished to talk about the things of God even if this meant going to the ends of the world. Ricci’s travels and travails were part of the explosion of activity that occurred in the first few generations after the foundation of the Society of Jesus in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola and his early companions. Within a few decades, Jesuits were to be found all around the world, from Lisbon to São Paolo, and had established an international network of schools and colleges. As John O’Malley, S.J. describes so comprehensively in his work The First Jesuits, these generations of highly learned men were living out their Ignatian charism by laboring at such things as conducting works of charity, promoting the Catholic faith, becoming the schoolmasters of Europe, being engaged in acts of reconciliation and being involved “in any ministry of the word of God whatsoever.”2 In the case of Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607), the Jesuit who proceeded Ricci both into China and in undertaking Chinese studies, being involved in any other ministry of the word entailed arduously applying themselves to the study of Chinese language and culture so as to be able to engage in Christian dialogue in culturally appropriate ways. In this regard, they were living out the missionary insights of Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), the Jesuit in charge of works east of Goa, who wrote guidelines for missionaries on how to conduct themselves in a manner which was not only cognizant of local cultural norms but also respectful of them.3 These principles covered everything from the most appropriate architectural style for the mission’s churches and residences to the way in which cups of tea ought to be served to visitors. Ricci is credited with having perfected these basic principles in China, although in truth, for all his personal genius (and his list of academic accomplishments is testimony to that fact that he was clearly most capable in this regard), he was obviously as much helped by his relationships with local scholars as he was by any code of cultural conduct. A prime example of the way in which his capacity for friendship enabled the advance of the Christian mission is the famous case of when the Jesuit

missionaries changed from wearing Buddhist garb to taking on the garments of scholar officials. When Ruggieri and Ricci left the Portuguese enclave of Macau and entered the south of China in 1583, they chose to clad themselves in the robes worn by Buddhist monks (and even shaved off all their facial and cranial hair for full effects) believing that this would best denote them as men of religion. They did not realize, however, that at that time many monks were looked down upon by the learned elite and thus by choosing to represent themselves as akin to monks they were shutting themselves off from easy interaction with the scholars, thereby placing their evangelical goals in jeopardy. Ricci’s own learning in such things as cartography and observational astronomy had nevertheless already brought him in contact with a few inquisitive scholars, and these new friends informed them of the mistake they had made. After discussing this momentous change with Valignano in Macau, Ricci and others began to wear scholar’s clothing in 1595, at Nanchang.4

Interestingly enough, such adaptability eventually brought the Jesuits into conflict with religious orders that arrived in the century after them, including the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Paris Foreign Mission Society. It was not as though the Jesuits had frivolously appropriated cultural customs at random, however, as their decisions were based on lengthy, considered and communal reflection on their accumulated experiences. Even so, this disagreement over the best way to preach the gospel in China, combined with political and theological debates in Europe, culminated in what has become known as the Chinese Rites controversy.5

The controversy flared up from the middle of the seventeenth century and lasted until the early decades of the eighteenth century, when Benedict XIV definitively banned the cultural adaptations that had been permitted by the Jesuits, especially regarding forms of cultural piety permissible to Chinese Catholics. Yet, before considering the intricacies of the Rites controversy further, it is important to continue to trace the development of the engagement by Ricci and his confreres with Chinese culture and society.

The shedding of Buddhist robes is an illustrative example not only of the flexibility of the Jesuits but also of the influence of their Chinese companions and friends. Over time, these relationships were to bear much fruit in terms of the numbers of Chinese who became Christians and also in the progress of east-west cultural exchange that was attendant upon the Jesuits’ mission in China. Although the Jesuits were intent on bringing Christ to China, they ultimately also brought many facets of Western learning as well, in fields as diverse as optics, perspective theory and astronomy. At the same time, they were responsible for transmitting aspects of Chinese culture and tradition to other parts of the world, including information on things like Confucian philosophy, Chinese garden design (as well as detailed descriptions of Chinese fauna and flora, including such things as tea and ginseng) and the imperial history of China.6 Their role was truly one of bridge-builders between the cultures, however much this was in addition to their self-perceived roles as missionaries.

Chinese Christian neophytes assisted the Jesuits in their task as mediators between different cultures and worldviews. This included not only those Chinese men who became Jesuits (the earliest Chinese Jesuits joined in 1591) but also a number of significant scholars, and indeed members of their families, male and female. These included one scholar whose official roles included a period as the President of the Board of Ceremonies, Xu Guangqi (1562-1633), and his granddaughter Candida Xu (1607-1680); Li Zhizao (1565-1630), who translated many European works on science and who worked for a time at the Imperial Bureau of Astronomy; and Yang Tingyun (1557-1627), who likewise wrote many Chinese texts about Christianity and protected the nascent Church during times of persecution.7 These Chinese Christians were more than just academic companions or co-religionists but were truly friends, living and working alongside the Jesuits and sponsoring and assisting their mission and ministry.

It is through the prism of friendship that one can perhaps best understand the undertakings of the Jesuits in China over this time, and it is no accident that one of the major works of Ricci during this period was a reflection upon the place of amicable relationships in society. This was his famous Jiaoyou Lun (On friendship), which was an annotated collection of classical sayings and quotations that Ricci not only remembered from his long years of education, steeped as they had been in Renaissance humanism, but which he also drew from such collections as the work of contemporary scholar Andreas Eborensis.8

The current exhibition picks up this theme of friendship and reflects upon the way in which the work of the Jesuits and their companions in China was a cross-cultural exchange that exerted much influence in both China and other parts of the world. As the quotation at the beginning of this essay reveals, the Jesuits knew that the ministry of publishing and writing could have the most effect. In this case their desire to perform any other ministry of the word of God whatsoever was to be taken quite literally if their exertions were to bear the most fruit. Such labor was not to be restricted to Chinese soil, however, but also consisted of significant communication between the missionaries based throughout China and the friends and patrons, benefactors and detractors back in their home countries as well.

At the same time as communicating the intricacies of Euclidean geometry to China, for instance, the Jesuits were also writing to scholars in the French Academy of Science or the Royal Society in London about such things as their astronomical observations and their new understandings of Chinese philosophy. Such learned exchange is discussed in the essay in this catalogue by Lake Coreth (College of Arts and Sciences, 2011). As the debate about cultural accommodation and its influence on religious practice became more pronounced (the Chinese Rites controversy mentioned above), Jesuits in both China and Europe began to write treatises and commentaries defending their position on these matters and refuting the accusations made against them. This body of work was addressed to theologians as well as to patrons and interested parties, and the arguments waged back and forth for over a century. One cabinet in the exhibition displays some of these works.

Another significant body of literature consisted of the general letters and personal correspondence that Jesuits on the missions had with their fellow Jesuits in their sending provinces as well as with family members and benefactors of the work abroad. In fact, Jesuits were encouraged to write a type of letter that could be circulated widely to those who might be interested in supporting the works in foreign lands, and consequently these communications included information about the number of baptisms in a given year as well as described the way in which silk was turned into cloth, for instance. The inscriptions and dedications on these pieces of correspondence reveal the extent of the Society’s relationships in Europe in the early modern world and the impact their writings had on cross-cultural exchange. The dedications of some of the works on display—to people as diverse as Louis XIV, Stefan Batory and François de la Chaise (after whom the famous cemetery in Paris is named)—indicate the breadth of the conversation that was taking place. These epistles and histories, treatises and maps were examples of the friendships that bound the Jesuits and their intellectual and religious companions across the seas. They were also representative of the cultural learnings that were being exchanged. The present exhibition displays many of these works, not only in the sections on travel and history, but also in the display cases dealing with the Chinese Rites controversy and scientific and philosophical exchange.

Only a small selection of the riches of the Jesuitana Collection has been chosen for this exhibition. As shown by the accompanying essay on provenance by Caitlin M. Cain (College of Arts and Sciences, 2011), the Jesuitana Collection came to Chestnut Hill as a result of years of careful preservation of these works by scholars and librarians at Jesuit institutions throughout the world. Since its arrival, the collection has continued to grow and, using the theme of China and cross-cultural exchange, the exhibition enables such treasures to be brought to a new readership. It is our hope that now that these jewels have been displayed and brought once again into the light of the public domain, scholars and other interested individuals may choose to delve even more deeply into these timeless moments of mutual exchange and friendship—the ties that perennially bind.


1 Ricci to Cheng Dayue, Li Madou ti baoxiang tu, section 2, pp.1b-2, as cited in Jonathan D. Spence, The memory palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984), 22, fn 71.

2 John W. O’Malley, S.J., The first Jesuits (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 91-133.

3 See Josef Franz Schütte, S.J., Valignano’s mission principles for Japan, volume 1. From his appointment as visitor until his departure from Japan (1573-1582), Part I: The problem (1573-1580), translated by John J. Coyne, S.J. (St Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1980), Part II: The solution (1580-1582), trans. by John

J. Coyne, S.J., (Anand, India: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1985).

4 See the work in the exhibition by Alvaro Semedo, Imperio de la China (published in 1642), where this is discussed. Several of the works on display show the Jesuits in their scholarly clothing.

5 The Chinese Rites were first banned by Pope Clement XI in 1715; a copy of this decree is displayed in the work Memoires historiques presentés au souverain pontife Benoit XIV (1745).

6 The role of the Jesuits as the transmitters of culture has prompted numerous scholarly conferences and workshops; see, for instance, Jerome Heyndrickx (ed.), Philippe Couplet: The man who brought China to Europe (Nettetal Steyler-Verlag, 1990), and Franco Demarchi and Riccardo Scartezzini (eds.), Martino Martini: A humanist and scientist in seventeenth century China (Trent, Italy: Università degli studi di Trento, 1996).

7 Regarding Xu Guangqi, see “In praise of Xu Guangqi” by Aloysius Jin Luxian, China Heritage Quarterly, no. 23, September 2010, and for Yang Tingyun, see Nicolas Standaert, Yang Tingyun, Confucian and Christian in Late Ming China: His Life and Thought (Leiden/New York: E.J. Brill, 1988).

8 For a modern edition, see On friendship: one hundred maxims for a Chinese prince, by Matteo Ricci; translated by Timothy Billings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).