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.”

“The King of Heaven”—what a simple, and yet what an artful phrase! For this was the name that the Confucians of China gave to their remote, abstract deity, and by using it the Jesuits suggested that the religion which they wished to practice so privately in China hardly differed from the official religion of the literati; that it too was a kind of gentlemanly deism, free from vulgar mysteries and “the odious name of sacrifices.” And indeed they constantly emphasized the similarities and attenuated the differences. With such a Christianity, they argued, Confucianism, being “in perfect accord with the light of conscience and with the Natural Law,” was entirely compatible. It only needed the top-dressing of the immortality of the soul (on which the Confucians were open-minded) in order to be identical. How different from the other religions of China: the “disorderly ravings” of the Taoists, “a low and dishonest class” of enthusiasts who believed in saints, miracles, “a trinity of gods,” and other such follies, or of Buddhist “idol-worshippers,” whose doctrines were fit only for “women, eunuchs and the common herd”! The grand master of a Buddhist temple did indeed explain that “idols as such were not worthy of any honor” but were necessary to preserve religion among ordinary people. However, this sound Catholic reasoning did not satisfy the Jesuits.

Ricci and his companions spent much time refuting Taoist and Buddhist “idolators” and identifying with the courtly Confucian mandarins, even if this obliged them to disown some inconvenient aspects of their Christianity. Thus they thought it prudent to remove a picture of the Virgin Mary from above the altar of their church in Chao-ch’ing lest the Chinese should think “that we adored a woman as our God”; and when Ricci felt secure enough to print a Christian catechism in Chinese, he adjusted the emphasis to suit his readers. He dwelt upon “such points of doctrine as appeared to be drawn only from the Natural Law,” but contrived not to mention the story of the crucifixion, which Chinese gentlemen would have found unedifying. Even so, he afterward felt that he had gone too far, and in a revised edition, written as if by “men of letters” for other men of letters, he saw to it that all references to sacrifice or religious cult were cut out; after which the printing forms of the first edition were destroyed. In this way Christianity was made to conform completely with “the natural law, as developed by their prince of philosophers, Confucius, and adopted by the sect of the literati.” How successfully this was done appears from the comment of an eminent Confucian scholar. “In your teachings concerning the Lord of Heaven,” he wrote to Ricci, “there seems no difference from what our sages have taught.”

Ricci justified his tactical modifications of Christian doctrine by citing the claim of St. Paul, who had made himself “all things to all men for the winning of souls to Christ.” He could do so safely, because he and his little band of fellow Jesuits had a complete monopoly of Christianity in China. The Franciscans and Dominicans who were now spoiling the Jesuit game in Japan were bottled up in Macao. Had they been allowed to enter China, no doubt they would have reminded their rivals of that other Pauline claim: “I am determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” In the next century, when they got into China, they did.

A religion of natural law, a religion without mystery or sacrifice, Christianity without the crucifixion, Christianity as an extension of Confucianism, obeisance only to an undefined King of Heaven—in other words, deism—this was the religion which the Jesuits, by their own account, quietly avowed at Chao-ch’ing, at Shaochou, and later at Nan-ch’ang, Nanking, and Peking. Of course, in their eyes, it was a stage only, a tactical necessity while they were feeling their way. Ultimately Ricci looked forward to a very different situation. Just as he had foreseen the conversion of Akbar leading to “nothing less than the conversion of all India,” so he imagined himself received by the emperor of China, converting the emperor of China, appointed confessor to the emperor of China, and then, of course, all the literati of China, and through them that whole vast empire, solemnly repudiating Confucianism and embracing Counter-Reformation Catholicism, which, by then, would have recovered its hitherto suppressed features: trinity of gods, the mystery of the incarnation, the sacrifice of the mass, saints, miracles, images….

So the Jesuits sought protectors among the mandarins of China. They needed them, because there were many who suspected them, saying that they portended “some great calamity” for the country. The Portuguese in Macao, the Spaniards in Manila (and Portugal and Spain were now under the same crown) were predators in the China Sea. Their power, and their will to use it, were evident. What, it was asked, were these foreigners doing in the closed empire? Were they not spies, seeking out the land? Since Spanish and Portuguese agents were often recommending the conquest of China, which they insisted would be easy, these suspicions were not unreasonable, and of course they were spread by “the idolatrous emissaries of Satan,” the hated Buddhist priests.

The loneliness, the vast ambition, and the secretiveness of these remarkable missionaries are illustrated by a little episode in 1595. Expelled from Nanking, weary, frustrated, and perplexed, Ricci dreamed that he met “a strange wayfaring man,” who said to him, “Is this the way you wander about this vast kingdom, imagining that you can uproot an age-old religion and replace it with a new one?” “Now it so happened,” Ricci comments, “that from the time of his entrance into China”—that is, throughout the last twelve years—“he had always kept his ultimate design as an utter secret.” So he answered, “you must be either God or the Devil, to know what I have never revealed to anyone.” The stranger declared that he was God, and Ricci thereupon protested to Him that He did not give him much help in his missionary efforts; whereupon God encouraged him to persevere, promising ultimate success. Ricci persevered; and by perseverance, combined with courtesy, tact, modesty, and his remarkable gifts, he would at last find his way to Peking.

Particularly by his gifts: gifts both material and intellectual. The most acceptable material gifts were the clocks, watches, and prisms which had seduced the viceroy of Kwangtung, but there were also astronomical spheres and globes, astrolabes, maps, sundials, musical instruments; and occasionally a religious picture was slipped in. The Chinese were delighted with these marvels of technology, especially the clocks—mechanical striking clocks driven by wheels and springs, such as they had never known—and the Jesuits used them to the full. They fetched a clockmaker from Macao to make a clock for the governor of Canton. They put up a large clock outside their house in Chao-ch’ing whose chimes were audible to all. Another, presented to a royal prince in Nan-ch’ang, showed the hours of sunrise and sunset, the varying length of day and night, and the signs of the zodiac cut in black China marble. But the grandest of all was one specially sent by the Jesuit general, Acquaviva, for the emperor. It “struck all the Chinese dumb with astonishment,” we are told, for it not only kept perfect time and struck the hours without being touched, “but also sounded the half-hours and the quarters in triple chimes.” Such a clock, says Ricci, “had never been seen, nor heard, nor even imagined, in Chinese history.”

The Chinese officials might be seduced and delighted by the clocks and other instruments, but even more impressive to them was the science that lay behind them. Their own science had been in decline since the end of the Mongol dynasty, followed by the nationalist reaction and the reinforced Confucian orthodoxy of the Ming; and now having forgotten their own achievements they were dazzled by the European science of which Ricci himself, a true Renaissance man, seemed to be master: by his knowledge of mathematics (he had studied the subject in Rome under Christopher Clavius, “prince of mathematicians of his day” and deviser of the Gregorian calendar); of music (he brought a clavichord for the imperial palace); of cosmography (his maps of the world, based on those of Ortelius, but tactfully placing China in the center, were a great success in Canton and afterward in Peking); of chronometry (he would be employed to reform the Chinese calendar); of mnemonics (of which more hereafter); even—so the Chinese thought—of alchemy; for how else, they asked, could these wandering priests pay their way and sustain their mandarin lifestyle? The innocent Chinese did not understand the mysterious economy of the Great Ship. The Jesuits’ clocks and prisms might, in Ricci’s phrase, “oil the wheels of social progress,” but their scientific brilliance had a far more profound effect. It convinced the Chinese that Europeans were not merely the predatory buccaneers whom they had known at Canton and Ningpo, and that even the Celestial Empire had something to learn from the West.

Ricci and his little party—one other Jesuit and two lay brothers—finally arrived in Peking, by canal, in the viceroy of Nanking’s fast boat, in September 1598. But this first visit was a failure; after waiting two months, they were obliged to return to Nanking. The empire was then at war; the Japanese tyrant Hideyoshi had attacked China’s vassal state, Korea; and Peking was no place for foreigners. However, in May 1600 Ricci tried again, and this time he succeeded. After six months’ detention in Tientsin at the hands of the terrible eunuch Ma T’ang, he finally received an imperial summons to the capital. So he entered the city with his presents—it took eight pack horses and over sixty porters to carry them—and expected great things: reception by the emperor, the conversion of the emperor, the conversion of China.

In fact, Ricci was never received by the emperor. For the emperor—the Wan-li emperor, the longest-reigning emperor in 1700 years—had by now become a total recluse. He gave no audiences, neglected business, left offices unfilled, and spent his time building vast palaces and devising his own splendid tomb. No one could communicate with him except through the eunuchs who swarmed around him, shut him off from the world, and oppressed the country in his name. However, Ricci did receive a verbal message from the court, and it was enough. He was told that he could stay in Peking. No longer was he at the mercy of bureaucratic shifts, the changing whims of governors and eunuchs. So he set up in Peking his fourth permanent mission-house, and the last stage of his campaign for the spiritual conquest of China began.

It was indeed an extraordinary achievement, and he could be pardoned for uttering a cry of triumph. The “enterprise of China,” he wrote, was “the most important expedition undertaken for the promulgation of Christianity since the Apostles went out to evangelise the whole world.” It was certainly, now, the most promising Jesuit enterprise in the Far East. The attempt to convert Akbar had failed, and now the reaction had set in in Japan: the terrible Hideyoshi had turned against the Christians and was crucifying them in public. But in China Ricci was in high favor. The invisible emperor needed him: to answer questions about Europe—the palaces of its kings, the tomb of Philip II—to teach the palace eunuchs to play the clavichord and to regulate the clocks. That ensured his continued residence. It also ensured his social status: in his first year in Peking, he records, he had more dinner invitations than in all his previous seventeen years in China.

Thus established, Ricci no longer had to conceal the real aim of his visit to China. Hitherto the Jesuits had been cautious, afraid of arousing suspicion, which would impede their immediate purpose of establishing a residence. But now that that purpose was achieved, “there was no further cause for delay.” It was full speed ahead. Confident of imperial support, and in alliance with the Confucian literati, Ricci made open war on “the weird hallucinations of the idol-worshippers”—that is, the Buddhists—and their supporters at court. He made converts; and with their aid he published useful works in Chinese: works on philosophy, ethics, science, songs for the palace eunuchs to sing to the clavichord, a translation of Euclid, the new versions of his catechism and his world map. And he introduced into China, along with Renaissance mathematics, astronomy, clockwork, etc.—which, in those days of the Ming, were a step forward—the obsolescent Aristotelian cosmology, which, in those days of Copernicus and Galileo, was a step back.

To Ricci, the introduction of the new European science into China was only a means to an end. The end was the conversion of China. In fact, the means proved more important, and more lasting, than the end. A century later the Jesuits were still favored guests in China. They had survived the Manchu conquest and the change of dynasty. They had made distinguished Chinese converts. But they were still at the beginning of their religious task. They had not overthrown the “age-old religion” of Confucius: they were still flattering Confucianism, declaring it a halfway house to Catholicism, and attenuating Catholic doctrine to meet it. Their great achievement was not the conversion of China but, in Joseph Needham’s phrase, the fusion of Chinese science with the new science of Europe: that is, with universal world science.

That fusion was the work of an entire century after Ricci’s death. He died in Peking in 1610, and was buried in what was to remain the Catholic cemetery, on land granted by the emperor from the confiscated estate of a disgraced eunuch. His papers were brought back to Rome by his fellow Jesuit, the Belgian Nicola Trigault. Among them was his History of the Introduction of Christianity into China, written in Italian. Trigault translated it into Latin and published it (with omissions and additions) in 1615. It was the first of that series of Jesuit “Relations” which provided the material for the utopian picture of the government of China from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy to the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Three centuries after its publication, the original Italian text was rediscovered and published, together with Ricci’s letters from China and other documents, by the Jesuit historian Tacchi Venturi, at Ricci’s birthplace, Macerata. A generation later, in the middle of the Second World War, as a token of the reconciliation of Church and State in Italy by Mussolini’s concordat, the first of the three volumes of the “national edition” appeared, edited, with a full and valuable commentary by a Jesuit who was also a sinologist, Pasquale d’Elia. From these majestic works, which establish the greatness of Matteo Ricci, and from a wide knowledge of the European background, Jonathan Spence, a distinguished historian and sinologist, has written the book that has occasioned this article.

One of Ricci’s many intellectual gifts was his remarkable memory of which he gave frequent demonstrations in China. Indeed it became a parlor trick which he was often called upon to perform: he could even repeat a whole sequence of ideograms backward. The Chinese were dazzled by these displays. “Nothing,” he wrote, “seemed to please them more than an exhibition of his extraordinary memory, which he had developed by a certain technique and practice.” They were particularly interested because a prosperous career in the empire depended on success in the regular examinations for the bureaucracy, and that success depended largely on knowing the Chinese classics by heart. The mandarins naturally wanted their sons to pass their examinations, and so they pressed Ricci to teach them his method.

The method was of course the memoria technica, which the men of the Renaissance had adopted from the ancient orators, and which has been described for us by Frances Yates and Paolo Rossi. This consisted of building an imaginary palace, memorizing all its features and contents, and relating all the details of one’s own relevant knowledge to “images” corresponding with these features. One of those who were excited by Ricci’s parlor tricks was the viceroy of the province of Kiangsi, whose three sons were preparing for their examinations. For them, at their father’s request, Ricci wrote in Chinese a description of his method. The sons did well in their examinations but not, it seems, thanks to Ricci’s rules; as one of them sensibly observed, those rules were no doubt correct, but “one has to have a remarkably fine memory to make any use of them.”

Mr. Spence makes use of them for a different purpose. He takes four ideograms used as images in Ricci’s book (of which only one copy survives) and four religious pictures which Ricci supplied to a Chinese publisher for inclusion in another book, and turns them into artificial memory devices. That is, he seeks, through them, to bring up the content of Ricci’s own memory, as it can now be imaginatively documented from historical sources. In other words, Mr. Spence seeks, by a highly artificial method, to recreate selected aspects of the life and times of Ricci: his Jesuit training, his experiences in Europe and Asia, the physical and mental world of Counter-Reformation Rome and Ming China. It is an ingenious project which only a remarkably gifted scholar could have attempted. How far has he succeeded?

Certainly he has succeeded in presenting a series of vivid glimpses into Ricci’s world. A picture of two Chinese warriors brings up recollections of war in Europe, the land and sea battles of Alcazarquivir and Lepanto, social feuds in Macerata, inter-Christian feuds in Macao, Japan’s attack on Korea, European schemes of conquest; and each “memory” draws in its train other details of sixteenth-century life: the low repute of military men in China, the brutal punishment of the bastinado, the purely festive use of Chinese gunpowder, etc., etc. A picture of St. Peter floundering in the Sea of Galilee similarly conjures up images of water: the long journey from Lisbon to Goa, the slowness of postal communications between Europe and the Far East, the frequency of shipwreck, Shakespeare and Cervantes on navigation, religious observance at sea, Portuguese bases in Africa, the trade in Negro slaves, Chinese canals, the Yellow River, floods, the travels of the Plantin Bible. So we go on, through central Asia and Japan, Muslims and Jews, the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, sodomy in Rome, eunuchs in Peking, the Holy House of Loreto, etc., etc. By the time all the recollections evoked by the four images and the four pictures have been drawn up and set out, the reader may feel that he too is floundering in a sea of interesting but disorderly information. Great riches are there, but it is only when he has struggled to the shore, and rested to recover his breath, that he can open his net and sort out the remarkable diversity of the catch.

The trouble about this book is that it is a series of digressions from a central theme which itself is never stated. That theme is the career of Ricci in China. Unless the reader is aware of at least as much of that history as I have set out in this essay, he is likely to give up: for the coherence of the subject is lost.

I feel ungrateful in saying this, for I have profited from reading this book; but I must admit that I prefer to have my information presented differently, and I find myself in agreement, on the subject of the Renaissance memory system, with Francis Bacon, who made no more account of it than of “the tricks of tumblers, funambulos, baladines,” and with Rabelais, whose Gargantua (like Ricci) could, by it, repeat whole books backward, but when one wanted intelligent commentary from him, “it was no more possible to draw a word from him than a fart from a dead donkey.” I wish that Mr. Spence, who quotes these two opinions, had shown a little more respect for them and arranged his incomparable scholarship in a less artificial form.

This Issue

June 13, 1985