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Matteo Ricci’s China Journals

It is not often that a classic, previously unknown to the world at large, appears on the book market. The only other example I can think of nowadays is the publication of the Boswell manuscripts. Matteo Ricci was of course a much greater man and occupied a much more important place in history, and was at least as interesting a writer. I am inclined to agree with the publishers that this is one of the most important books they have ever issued.

It would seem that relations between the West and China have deteriorated from the beginning. The best sinologists were the early Jesuits, and their Latin translations of the Chinese classics are still at least the equal of anything produced in the succeeding 300 years. They completely merged themselves with the Chinese; in fact they became Chinese literati, with considerable personal influence on the Emperor. They introduced Western science and philosophy to the Orient and Chinese culture to the Occident with such success that the eighteenth century was the century of chinoiserie. Even the Chinese Communists still respect Ricci as the greatest and least predatory of the culture-bearers from the West.

When the Pope ordered the Jesuits to abandon their efforts to adapt Christianity to Chinese culture and to present Roman Catholicism in strictly Western European terms, the Chinese Emperor was aghast at the folly of his Western cousin. As Toynbee says, at this point Christianity had a chance to become a true world religion and rejected it. Never again in history has that opportunity presented itself on such favorable terms. Had Ricci and his colleagues been permitted to continue on their way, there is certainly no question but that the history of the world would have been far different.

Most educated people have heard of this extraordinary adventure in cultural contact at second or third hand. But here it all is for the first time in English, and in the words of Ricci himself — the story of the translation of Euclid into Chinese, the introduction of scientific, astronomical instruments, the first maps with some relation to reality, the first globe, numerous devices and methods of Western mechanics and medicine, and, conversely, the beginning of the translation of the Chinese classics into Latin.

The wonderful thing about this is that there is no question that Ricci and his colleagues were genuinely disinterested; in no sense were they agents of imperialism. If they were never called upon to endure the spectacular martyrdom suffered by Father Jogues and the other members of their Society at the hands of the Iroquois, they were no less brave, no less devoted to the selfless propagation of what they believed to be in most, but not all, ways a superior civilization, as well as the only sure salvation. Inserted into the narrative as a sort of dividend is the story of the journey of Brother Bento and two companions overland from India to China, establishing the identity of China and the Cathay of Marco Polo.

The ending is one of the saddest things I have ever read — the death from sheer weariness and overwork of Matteo Ricci, a true universal man, as multifarious in his abilities and interests as Leonardo, but, unlike Leonardo, one whose projects were highly practical and usually completed, and who labored on the cultural frontier of two civilizations.


This review of China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci (Random House, 1953; translated by Louis J. Gallagher) originally appeared in The New Republic (21 December 1953). Copyright 1953. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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