The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
by Jonathan D. Spence
Viking (Elisabeth Sifton Books), 350 pp., $19.95
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 …