Matteo Ricci 1552-1610

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Matteo Ricci a poet!?! Yes! Mathematics is poetry and our friend, and China's friend, Matteo Ricci, is far too important a man to leave out of MountainSongs.

Extraordinary Italian Jesuit missionary who came to Macao in 1582 at the age of 30, began to study Chinese, worked his way into Guangdong and eventually all the way to Peking in 1601 where he met Emperor Wanli on several occasions and became friends, and debated with, the leading scholars, Buddhists and Daoists of China. He was highly regarded in China and was known as the 'Wise Man of the West'.

"Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy and died in Peking, China. Against his father's wishes, who forbade any talk of religious topics around the home, Matteo Ricci entered the Jesuits. At the end of his training he was assigned to the China Mission, and arrived there in 1583, where he worked for 27 years. Eventually he was welcomed to the academies and gained many influential friendships. He opened a residence in Nanking for himself, his fellow Jesuits and his scientific instruments.

Later he became the court mathematician in Peking. His books Geometrica Practica and Trigonometrica were translations of Christopher Clavius' works into Chinese. He made Western developments in mathematics available to the Chinese and in 1584 and 1600 he published the first maps of China ever available to the West. He introduced trigonometric and astronomical instruments, and translated the first six books of Euclid into Chinese. But especially important was his Chinese version of the first six books of Euclid's Elements, which was written in collaboration with one of his pupils Xu Guangqi.

Ricci's success was due to his personal qualities, his complete adaptation to Chinese customs (choosing the attire of a Chinese scholar) and to his authoritative knowledge of the sciences.

Also he identified China and Peking with the Cathay Marco Polo, and he shares this latter recognition with another Jesuit, a Coadjutor Brother, Benedetto de Goes, S.J., who made a journey from India to China during the years 1602-1605, in order to verify that China and Cathay were the same.

The Jesuits were inveterate mapmakers and were continually traveling around the empire, even though travel conditions were quite primitive. The TRS recounts 52 journeys by Ricci and Verbiest alone.

The China mission has been spoken of with awe and admiration by historians such as Joseph Needham, who relates the vicissitudes and hardships under which the Jesuits labored in his monumental work, Civilization in China. (vol. 3 p. 173)

'Ricci, Schall, Verbiest and, in a later generation, Gaubil, were in China at a period of spontaneous decline of indigenous science, the Ming dynasty and early Ching, a decline which had nothing obviously to do with the forces which sent them there and permitted them to stay. . . There was of course the almost insuperable difficulty of language at a time when sinology hardly existed and no good dictionaries had been made.'

Gilbert Highet in his book The Art of Teaching. New York ( pg. 222-223) spoke of the Jesuit Methods.

'The Jesuits went to unparalleled lengths and showed unbelievable patience in adapting themselves to the people they had determined to teach. For instance, they sent out a small expedition of ten or twelve priests to Christianize four hundred million Chinese. This almost impossible task they started by studying China. The Jesuits therefore spent several years learning Chinese philosophy, art, and literature, making ready to meet the Chinese on their own level. After the imperial officials had slowly, reluctantly admitted them, the Jesuits at once flattered them by talking to them in their own tongue, and attracted them by displaying specially prepared maps and astronomical instruments. Instead of being rejected as foreign barbarians, they were accepted as intelligent and cultivated men. One of them, who became a painter in the Chinese style, is now regarded as one of the classical artists of China.'

From about 1600 until their suppression in China in 1773, Jesuits were practically the sole source of Chinese knowledge about Western astronomy, geometry and trigonometry." (Their suppression was brought about by the Vatican's directive that Chinese elements in the Church services be eliminated, and by the suppression of the Jesuits by the Vatican.)

"It is curious that the Jesuits taught the Chinese the heliocentric theory, unaware that Galileo's trial had taken place. So at the very moment Galileo was being accused of heresy in Rome, the Jesuits in China were teaching the same heliocentric message that they had learned from their Jesuit colleagues before they had left Rome. There was a good five-year lag in communications.

Mateo Ricci, S.J. understood and appreciated Chinese culture fully from the beginning and his example should serve as an inspiration to many. From earliest times, the Church has learned to express the Gospel through the help of ideas and in the culture of various peoples, because the message that she preaches is intended for all peoples and nations."

The above text is largely copied, with appreciation!, from the excellent summary of Matteo Ricci's life in China by, Mathematics Department, Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT 06430, USA.

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