Sunday, May 16, 2010

Quote of the Day (Jeremy Clarke, on Matteo Ricci, Renaissance Man and Cross-Cultural Exemplar)

“For all [Matteo] Ricci’s academic and personal talent, his pre-eminent, enduring gift was a capacity to delight in the company of others. He was able to accomplish so much—translate geometrical principles into Chinese, engage pastorally in theological debates with some of the brightest Buddhists of his day, and joyfully welcome thousands of inquisitive scholars to his home—because of the mutual support and companionship of his friends. A few of these were his Jesuit brothers…But the vast majority of his friends were Chinese: the scholars, officials and local people he talked with on his travels and in the marketplace. To recall Ricci’s exploits, it is necessary to remember his company of friends.”--Jeremy Clarke on Italian-born Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), in “East Meets West: Matteo Ricci’s Cross-Cultural Mission to China,” America (May 10, 2010) (available only to subscribers)

Last Tuesday marked the 400th anniversary of the death of the Italian-born Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci—who, in addition to his clerical duties, was a mathematician, cartographer, translator, educator, musician, and philosopher—a bona-fide Renaissance man and Christian humanist. Clarke, an Australian Jesuit, pays full tribute to his many-sided genius, as well as how he pioneered “sophisticated and sympathetic East-West engagement”, in a piece in the Catholic weekly magazine America.

The novel and miniseries Shogun has done much to implant in the Western mind an impression of Jesuits in the Far East as astonishingly cunning in protecting their prerogatives. It can just as easily argued, though, that James Clavell’s views merely reflect longstanding English Protestant jealousy that they could not achieve the same foothold in the Orient as the Society of Jesus.

The Jesuit achievement in China, for instance, was secured not through cunning so much as a keen appreciation for native culture—something that today’s critics of imperialism should appreciate. The philosophy employed by the Jesuits at that time—“Indian in India, Japanese in Japan and Chinese in China”—is especially important to recall now, when forces in the Vatican rally attempt a rear-guard action to preserve the centralized authority of Rome.

Ricci—believed to be the first Westerner to visit China since fellow Italian Marco Polo three centuries earlier--and his Jesuit colleagues were able to win converts because they decided to blend into native culture. They not only spoke and wrote Chinese but ate Chinese food and even wore Chinese clothing.

Among Ricci’s accomplishments:

* constructing a large-scale world map;

* composing prayer books, apologetic works and catechisms;

* writing on topics as varied as the astrolabe, sphere, arithmetic, measure, isoperimetrics –and friendship;

* translating Euclidean geometry into Chinese—all the harder to do because there were no Chinese words for concepts like parallel lines and acute angles;

* writing a treatise on one of his great specialties—mnemonics, the study of memory. He taught the Chinese how to construct a mental “memory palace” that could help them conjure up, with the help of an image of a building, a series of facts. In urging them to assign storage spaces where these facts can “stay in the assigned positions,” he anticipated a central concept of 20th-century computing science.

Besides friendship and scholarship, Ricci exhibited another important trait in his mission: persistence in the face of discouragement and travail. Fr. Clarke takes note of all “The Wise Man From the West” endured during his ministry: “shipwreck, home invasion, violence, persecution and the daily travails of being a stranger in a strange land (especially in the early years).”

But a central part of his challenge was his initial strategy for converting China to Christianity: convert the Ming Emperor Wanli. Unfortunately, after landing in Macau, it took Ricci another 19 years to make it to the Forbidden City. Even in the nine years he had left to him, he never managed to meet the emperor. (Even gifts he sent-- including jewels and a clavichord—didn’t do the trick.)

Without abandoning this hope, Ricci eventually resorted, by necessity, to a less top-down strategy. He worked—and succeeded—in gaining the trust of many of the “influentials” of the empire—the scholar-officials who filled much of the bureaucracy. By the time of his death, an estimated 2,500 professed the Christian faith in China—the beginning of a church that, in the years since, has withstood all kinds of perils.

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