In 1583 two Italian Jesuits established themselves in Chao-ch’ing near Canton. They had come thither from Macao on the unexpected invitation of the governor of Canton and the viceroy of the province, who offered them land on which to build a church, a promise of protection, and freedom to travel. One of them was Michele Ruggieri, a Neapolitan from Salerno, who had already, but briefly, set foot in China. His companion was Matteo Ricci, a native of Macerata in the papal state, and the subject of Jonathan Spence’s new book. Ruggieri would remain in China for seven years; then he would return to Europe in an abortive attempt to stimulate a papal embassy to the court of Peking. Ricci would stay for twenty-seven years, establishing Jesuit houses first at Chao-ch’ing (afterward moved to Shao-chou near Canton); then at Nan-ch’ang, the capital of Kiangsi province, at Nanking, the southern capital of China, and finally in Peking. It was the beginning of an astonishing adventure: the Jesuit penetration of the Chinese court, begun by them under the Ming dynasty and brought, through fierce controversy, to its climax under their successors, the Manchus.
Merely to have entered China was an achievement, for China under the Ming was a closed country. Two centuries before, under the conquering Mongol Yüan dynasty, it had been relatively open. It was then that Marco Polo had visited the court of Kublai Khan at Peking and that the Franciscan friar, John of Montecorvino, had become arch-bishop of Peking. China was then part of an even vaster empire, open to the West. But the Ming emperors, having restored the independence of China, were jealous protectors of it. Foreigners were not allowed into the country except as tributary delegations, licensed traders, or admiring visitors admitted by personal favor and then forbidden ever to leave. The Celestial Empire (it was agreed) had no need of foreigners. Was it not the center of the world, self-sufficient in all things, the only source of civilization, science, and rhubarb? It did not even need the tribute that was brought by its vassals and neighbors, and was indifferent whether it was paid or not—rationally so, since “the dignity of so great a prince” as the emperor required that it be acknowledged with far costlier gifts, so that these ritual exchanges ended in an adverse balance of barter.
How then did the Jesuits not only enter this closed empire but establish themselves firmly in its capital? The story of that achievement is told by Ricci himself in the History of the Introduction of Christianity into China, which he wrote, on the orders of the Jesuit general Claudio Acquaviva, during his last years in Peking. It is a classic of cultural history and a fascinating story in itself. But what Ricci so attractively describes needs also to be explained. The explanation lies not only in the extraordinary dynamism of the Italian Counter-Reformation but also in the mechanics of the no less extraordinary Portuguese commercial empire in the Far East.
By 1550 that empire was well established and, as yet, unchallenged by any European power. The Portuguese had a “viceroyalty of India” at Goa, which they had held since 1502; having secured control of the straits of Malacca, they had then entered the South China Sea; and there they had discovered vast opportunities of wealth if only they could force their trade on both China and Japan. After attempting to break into China at Canton and Ningpo, and thereby still further increasing Chinese xenophobia, they finally secured trading facilities at Macao in 1557, which soon became, effectively, a Portuguese colony, as it is still. Meanwhile they had forged links with the warring feudatories of Japan. So a system was built up which brought in fabulous profits. From Macao, European manufactures reached the licensed biannual fairs of Canton, where they were exchanged for Chinese silk; Chinese silk and European firearms were then carried, in the annual “Great Ship,” from Macao to Japan; and the same ship returned to Macao with a cargo of Japanese silver to refuel the system. By the 1570s that system was firmly established. Macao, Canton, and Nagasaki were the focal points of a hugely profitable triangular system of international trade.
With trade went religion. Already in the 1540s, Francis Xavier, the Jesuit apostle of the East, had been to Japan; but having discovered that Japan was a cultural colony of China, he had decided that, in religion as in trade, the key lay in China. However, his three attempts to reach China—first with embassies from Goa and Siam, then by finding his own way into Canton—proved abortive, and in 1552 he had died in the offshore island of Shang-ch’uan, the first base of the Portuguese, before they obtained Macao. As Ricci afterward put it, “the holy man was not as yet acquainted with the conditions prevailing in China.” He had not done his political homework. Later Jesuits would not make that mistake.
In the thirty years after Xavier’s death, various attempts were made, by Augustinian, Dominican, and Franciscan friars, to penetrate the closed empire; but it was not until 1582 that a breach was made. By now the objective situation had changed; the triangular trade system of Macao, Canton, and Nagasaki was in full swing; and since the Jesuits were established at Macao and Nagasaki, it was logical to plant them, if possible, in Canton too. In that year Ruggieri contrived to make two visits to Canton. On the second, thanks to the favor of the governor, he thought that he had secured a firm base, but then there was a sudden change: he was ordered out by the viceroy of the province and reprisals were threatened against the Chinese interpreters in Macao who had taught him their language. However, he had left behind him certain objects which gradually weakened the viceroy’s resistance: in particular a watch—“a beautiful little machine made of brass which struck the hours without anyone touching it”—and several triangular glass prisms “in which objects were reflected in beautiful multi-coloured tints.” Such watches were “unheard of by the Chinese, something new and to them quite mystifying,” and the glass prisms were assumed to be “a kind of precious stone of wonderful value.” They were to prove powerful engines of spiritual conquest. At this stage they caused the viceroy to relent, and so, in 1583, the Jesuits were invited back. This time they came to China for good—or at least for two hundred years.
Thus the two missions to China and Japan were complementary. Both were sent out from Macao, and financed by the profits of the Great Ship. Both were directed by the Jesuit college at Macao, “the seminary,” as Ricci called it, “of the two great missions of Japan and China.” And behind both stood the same great organizer, the man whom Ricci would describe as “the first author of this mission,” “the founding father of the undertaking of China,” Alessandro Valignano. He too was an Italian—like Ruggieri, he came from the kingdom of Naples—and he had been rector of the college of Macerata where Ricci had studied. Now he was Visitor—that is, Superior—of all the Jesuit missions in the Far East. It was he who had devised the contract with the Portuguese capitalists that made the mission in Japan so successful, and it was he who had fetched Ruggieri and Ricci from Goa to Macao and told them to learn Chinese. In 1582 he had been in Macao himself, with four converted Japanese princes whom he was dispatching to Rome, and had personally organized the mission to China. He had also laid down the policy and the strategy; for this enterprise was to be very different from the heroic individual apostolate of Francis Xavier.
What characterized these Italian Jesuits was their keen political nose. While the unsophisticated Portuguese friars labored inconspicuously among the poor, the Jesuits, wherever they went, studied the society around them, and set out scientifically to woo the ruling elite. This entailed tactics which varied from country to country. In India they went straight to the top: they sent a mission to the Mogul conqueror Akbar, and hoped, through him, to convert his whole empire. In anarchical Japan they courted the feudal warlords, presenting themselves as soldiers of Christ, a disciplined military order with high notions of aristocratic honor. In settled, peaceful China, where feudalism had been extinct for 1800 years, and military men were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, their policy must be different: they must appear as urbane scholars, fit to sip tea with the ruling literati and converse with them in perfect Mandarin Chinese.
At first, naturally enough, they made mistakes. For instance, they called each other, and were called by their servants, by their own names. “To the Chinese,” they soon found, “this was, to put it mildly, quite unrefined.” So they swallowed their Christian humility and assumed “honor names.” Another mistake was more serious. At first they imitated the Buddhist monks and went about on foot, cleanshaven with cropped hair. Rather belatedly, they discovered that Buddhist monks were considered very low-class, so they changed their style: they grew their beards and hair, wore high hats and long robes of purple silk, and were carried in sedan chairs on the shoulders of porters, with servants in attendance. “If these customs were neglected,” says Ricci, “one would not be known as learned.” Thus they separated themselves from the vulgar herd and ensured that they could move freely, and find protectors, in high official circles. As they put it, when they turned down the offer of a delightful place of residence among pleasant hills and neat orchards, it was because it was “too far from the town and from the educated classes, among whom, as among their equals, they were accustomed to live.”
What did these Jesuits discuss when drinking tea with the local mandarins? Science, literature, ethics certainly; for this was what interested their hosts. But on one subject, at first, they were deliberately reticent. They were careful not to make “any mention of Christianity,” or of their secret purpose in entering China, the spiritual conquest of the country. “The one thing necessary,” they reckoned, was “to remain within the kingdom,” and until that was guaranteed—that is, until they had got to Peking and acquired an irreversible permit of residence from the emperor—they would take no risks. They admitted, of course, that they were Christian priests; but they insisted that they were not evangelists. They had been drawn to China, they said, merely by the fame of the empire, and they wanted no more than to practice their religion in private. All that they asked was “a small plot of land to build a house, and also a church in honor of the King of Heaven.”