It takes someone familiar with China and Chinese languages whose college and university degrees are from distinguished American institutions to write such a book as this biography of Matteo Ricci. It is meticulously researched. Po-Chia Hsia begins in Ricci’s hometown, Macerata, Italy and follows the seventeen year-old Matteo to the Jesuit novitiate in Rome and on to Portuguese Goa in India. Ricci would never return to Europe. The first nine chapter headings are a geographical itinerary of Ricci’s progress in China: 1) Macerata and Rome, 2) Portuguese Seas, 3) Macao, 4) Zhaoquing, 5) an excursus on Michele Ruggieri, S.J., the founder of the Chinese mission and Ricci’s superior. 6) Shaozhou, 7) Nanchang, 8) Nanjing, 9) Beijing, home of the Emperor, the “forbidden city.” The last three chapters are 10) a discussion of Ricci’s most important book, written in Mandarin Chinese: The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, 11) “Laying the Foundations” 12) “The Man of Paradox”, an account of Yu Chunxi, a learned and devout Buddhist, who took exception to Ricci’s attacks against Buddhism, especially as contained in Ricci’s book (in Chinese) Ten Discourses of the Man of Paradox, and Ricci’s response to Xu Chunxi. Both letters were published shortly after they were written and both are translated in this chapter. They provide an excellent example of an exchange between two “Literati” in Ming China and also an example of Ricci’s fine argument, however much 21st century readers might resent his hard line against Buddhism. An Epilogue, really chapter 13, reviews the success of the Jesuit mission in China until the suppression of the Society, introduces the beginning of the Chinese rites controversy, and the forced opening of Qing China to European trade and missionaries that lasted until the Communist coup in 1949.
Michele Ruggieri, S.J., was the first Jesuit to learn Chinese and wrote the first Christian book in Chinese. To facilitate exchanges with his hosts, Ruggieri shaved his head and in other ways allowed the Chinese to classify him as a monk, similar to the familiar Buddhist monks whose monasteries dotted the Chinese Empire. As Ricci rapidly developed a sense of the Chinese social system, he realized that the literati, the learned Mandarins, ruled not only the intellectual world but the political world as well. Ricci devoted himself to reading the Chinese classics, especially Confucian books, and mastered the Mandarin language and style of argument. He understood also the importance of the social requirements of a literatus. Well supplied with European clocks and religious paintings, Ricci received callers and gifts and returned visits bearing his own gifts. The Chinese loved the clocks, admired Ricci’s mathematical and philosophical knowledge, and, in short, lionized him.
With the support of highly placed Mandarins, Ricci slowly made his way to China’s heart, Beijing, where the Emperor loved his gifts of clocks and all the literati of the city called upon him and even became his pupils. Those who converted to Christianity remained tenaciously faithful through all the reversals of the following centuries so that Po-Chia Hsia could affirm that the same Beijing families remain Christian to this day. Worn out with study, writing, receiving callers and making the mandatory return calls, Ricci spent the last years of his life in Beijing where he died and was buried with honor.
A Jesuit in the Forbidden City, Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610 will be the definitive biography for decades to come. Its ten-page English-Chinese Glossary (31-40) and nine-page bibliography (341-49), with primary sources in both manuscript and print that requires not only Chinese, but also Latin, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, make the book a gold mine of research resources. After so much praise for this book, has it faults? Most annoying were the too frequent grammatical errors (lack of agreement between subject and predicate, misplaced modifiers, pronouns without a clear reference, and the like) and one surprising vocabulary error (p. 264): “ . . . rumors multiplied against the Jesuits: they had abrogated power to themselves, secular and spiritual; . . . “ Surely it should be “arrogated.” Perhaps it is a typo, but given the frequency of other errors, one has to ask what the Oxford editor was thinking when he/she entered queries to the author or perhaps failed to do so? The reader may be annoyed by editorial failure, and occasionally wish for brevity rather than indulgence in detail, but the book is so well researched and the story so fascinating that these shortcomings will not diminish its importance for those who want to understand something about the profound differences between European and Chinese civilizations when Matteo Ricci, in the service of God, the “true Lord of Heaven,” devoted his life to bridging those differences.