As the diplomatic crisis unfolded between the United States and China over the fate of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng , hard questions about Chinese politics, society and culture surfaced, and the West embarked on its familiar cycle of attempted comprehension on the one hand, and obstinate mystification on the other.
One figure in the history of Sino-Western relations that offers a tantalising alternative to this cycle is Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, the 400th anniversary of whose death was celebrated from Beijing to Rome two years ago. As the revered leader of the first Jesuit mission in China, established in 1583, Ricci still commands widespread respect and admiration.
Viewed as a rare exception to the bellicose and bigoted European culture of the day, Ricci represents for many a beacon of early toleration. He openly admired the Chinese: ‘though they have a well-equipped army and navy that could easily conquer the neighbouring nations, neither the King nor his people ever think of waging a war of aggression … while the nations of the West seem to be entirely consumed with the idea of supreme domination’.
For modern observers, yearning to make sense of our rapidly globalising world, Ricci stands as an irresistibly compelling bridge between the East and West.
The reality was more complicated. Ricci was desperately homesick, missing his friends and teachers, and feeling on the fringes of the vast Jesuit enterprise, with its heart in the exciting Baroque Rome that he left behind. Far from demonstrating a comprehensive respect for Chinese culture, he vilified Confucianism in some of his letters.
Even the much-admired ‘sweet method’ of conversion pioneered by Ricci, involving the cultural accommodation of missionaries to local customs and mores, in many ways was a pragmatic response to the problem that Jesuits encountered in lands such as China and Japan. Missionaries were unsupported by the trappings of Empire and so were forced to accommodate themselves to the dominant culture in which they found themselves. Continue reading