Matteo Ricci Travels to Beijing Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Matteo Ricci established a successful missionary enterprise in Ming China as a result of Christian adaptation and assimilation of Chinese culture.

Summary of Event

Matteo Ricci’s China mission was part of the Jesuit Jesuits;China evangelical enterprise in the Far East begun by Saint Francis Xavier, one of the first members of the Society of Jesus and its greatest missionary. Although Xavier’s mission in the Far East was confined to Japan, he had seen the importance of a mission to the Middle Kingdom (China). His Chinese project failed to materialize because of his untimely death in 1552, but he shrewdly recognized the need for adaptation and assimilation of local cultures. He was also the first European to appreciate the importance of science and technology in making an impact on Asiatic societies. Missions;Jesuits in China Catholicism;China Ricci, Matteo Xu Guangqi Li Zhizao Ruggieri, Michele Valignano, Alessandro Wanli Xavier, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint Francis Valignano, Alessandro Ruggieri, Michele Wanli Xu Guangqi Li Zhizao Cheng Zhu Ricci, Matteo

The man who heeded Xavier’s admonition and planned an effective method of penetrating China was the Italian Jesuit lawyer Alessandro Valignano, vicar-general of the Jesuit order in the Indies including the Far East, who visited Macao in 1577. He discarded traditional missionary exertions for conquest of soul and conversion of heathens and instead devised a strategy similar to that of Xavier for transforming China from within. He thus enjoined missionaries to learn the language, culture, and customs of the Chinese. He summoned two Italian priests, Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci, to implement this policy and thus realize Xavier’s dream.

Born in the papal state of Macerata in 1552, Matteo traveled to Rome in 1568 to study law and mathematics at the University of Rome but decided to enter the Sant’ Andrea Jesuit novitiate in 1571. Nine months later, he took his vows and worked for a brief period in a Jesuit college in Florence. He returned to Rome in 1573 to study rhetoric, philosophy, and mathematics at the Collegio Romano. He opted for a missionary career, however, and was sent to Portugal in 1577, and from there to Goa, India, in 1578. At Goa, he studied theology at the College of St. Paul, where he also taught. He was ordained a priest at Cochin in July, 1580. In 1582, he was summoned to Macao Macao;Jesuits , where Ruggieri had gone in 1579. The two missionaries settled at Kwantung (Chao-ch’ing) in 1583.

Their initial aim was not to win converts but to make Christianity accepted and respected in Chinese society. With a view to making themselves at home with the Chinese, they donned the garb of Buddhist bonze (monks), used the Buddhist title ho-shang, studied Chinese, learned Chinese culture, and became familiar with Confucianism. On realizing the people’s respect for the educated, they deliberately presented themselves as scholars and scientists to their Chinese friends, with whom they also often discussed religion. Ricci established himself as a learned scholar of Chinese culture, maker of a world map, teacher of mathematics and astronomy, and only lastly as a Catholic missionary. Ruggieri wrote a book of catechism in Latin, which was translated into Chinese by Ricci and a Chinese scholar under the title Tianzhu shiyi (wr. 1579-1584, pb. 1603; The True Meaning of the Lord in Heaven True Meaning of the Lord in Heaven, The (Ricci) , 1985).

After spending fifteen years at Kwantung and five years in Kiangsi (Nanchang) and Nanjing, and having befriended many influential Chinese scholars and mandarins, Ricci went to Beijing in 1601, seeking an imperial imprimatur to strengthen the cause of the missionaries. To this end, Ruggieri, whose expertise in Chinese was far from adequate and who had gotten himself into trouble with the Chinese, had been dispatched by Valignano to Europe in 1588 to solicit an embassy from the pope. Ruggieri’s papal mission came to naught and he never returned to China, having retired to Salerno in Naples.

Ricci’s stay in Beijing was eased by the tributes he had brought for the Wanli emperor: paintings of the Madonna, the Blessed Mother with the infant Jesus and John the Baptist, a Roman breviary, a reliquary in the form of a cross, a spinet, two clocks, and a mappamundi. He soon obtained from the emperor a job of looking after the clocks in exchange for lodging and a small stipend. For the rest of his short life, Ricci never ventured outside Beijing. In collaboration with his closest friend, Xu Guangqi, he translated several mathematical books, brought out new editions of his mappamundi, and, during the last two years of his life (1608-1610), wrote a history of his China mission, Della entrata della Compagnia di GiesÙ e ChristianitÀ nella Cina Della entrata della Compagnia di Giesù e ChristianitÀ nella Cina (Ricci) (1609; history of the expedition of the Company of Jesus to China). His proselytizing work was slow in Beijing—there being no mass conversions—but his scholarly output was enormous. Utterly fatigued and exhausted by overwork, Ricci died on May 11, 1610. He was buried in Beijing, but on April 22 the next year, his body was taken outside the city walls to Chala and buried there on November 1. The funerary inscriptions composed for him by the governor of Beijing described the missionary as one who “loved righteousness and wrote books.”


Ricci’s missionary strategy was predicated on Valignano’s prescription of “patience, prudence, and a measured approach.” His method of pacific penetration, cultural adaptation, and accommodation won for him friends and admirers, among whom were many dignitaries such as Xu Guangqi, who would become a grand secretary after Ricci’s death, and Li Zhizao, director of the Board of Public Works. The latter collaborated closely with Ricci in writing numerous scientific essays.

Realizing that Confucian Confucianism;Christianity and culture was too entrenched to be displaced by Christianity and convinced of the efficacy of Confucian ethical principles, Ricci became a convert to the ideas of the classical master before trying to convert the Chinese to Christianity. He sincerely believed that Confucian principles of filial piety, reciprocity, and personal virtue could and must be accommodated in the universal church of Christ. Ricci interpreted references to shangdi (lord-on-high) and tian (loosely meaning heaven) in the Confucian classics as proof that the Chinese did worship God in ancient times. It was only during the regime of the Ming that the original Confucian teachings were subverted by the Neo-Confucians such as Cheng Zhu (Ch’eng Chu), who debunked the idea of a personal God but emphasized Li as the Supreme Ultimate that created the universe with whom human beings could become one.

Moreover, he was aware that the Chinese, who prized moral principles above everything else, could never be persuaded to accept Christianity merely as a faith-system promising a rewarding afterlife. Therefore, it was imperative that Christian teachings be presented as ethical principles like Confucianism. In his De amicitia jiaoyoulun De amicitia jiaoyoulun (Ricci) (1595; treatise on friendship), Ricci articulated the conjunction between the Confucian Three Bonds and Five Cardinal Relations and Christianity. He saw that the Confucian jen (humanity) had been largely forgotten or debased in the Ming period. As a corrective and also to improve upon the universal appeal of Confucian morality, he equated the Christian principle of love of God with the Confucian canon of love for humanity. Although he was an avid admirer of Confucius (as could be seen in essays such as “The Twenty-five Words,” 1605, and “The Ten Paradoxes,” 1608), Ricci never deviated from the quintessential Christian doctrines. He indeed was a creative syncretist who envisioned an amalgam of the best in the West and the best of the East—Christian love and Confucian jen.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boxer, Charles R. “Jesuits at the Court of Peking.” History Today, September, 1957: 582-590. A straightforward account written in popular style by an eminent scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Criveller, Gianni. Preaching Christ in Late Ming China: The Jesuits’ Presentation of Christ from Matteo Ricci to Giulio Aleni. Taipei, Taiwan: Taipei Ricci Institute, 1997. Study of Ricci’s missionary work in China, his understanding of Christianity, and his transmission of that understanding to the Chinese. Includes bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cronin, Vincent. The Wise Man from the West. Reprint. London: Harvill Press, 1999. Covers Ricci’s early years in Rome, his ordination in India, his disheartening bid for acceptance among the Ming Dynasty elite, his subsequent successes as a scholar in astronomy and mathematics, his many converts to Christianity, and his role in bringing the reclusive China into the modern world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunne, George. Generation of Giants. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1962. Well-written account. Pages 23 through 108 will be of particular interest to readers interested in Ricci.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallagher, Louis J. China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matteo Ricci, 1583-1610. New York: Random House, 1953. An English translation of the Latin version of Ricci’s diary by the Belgian Jesuit Nicolas Trigault published in Augsburg in 1615.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Translated by J. R. Foster and Charles Hartman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Examines the historical evolution of the Chinese world from early nomadic antiquity through the unification of China during the medieval area, the great upsurge of Buddhism, and the Mandarin and Mongol influence leading to Ricci’s arrival. Also discusses Ricci’s and other Catholic missionaries’ influence and places Ricci and his work in historical perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, George L. “The Mission of Matteo Ricci, S.J.: A Case Study of an Effort at Guided Culture Change in China in the Sixteenth Century.” Monumenta Serica 25 (1966): 1-168. A long article attempting a comprehensive study of Ricci’s China mission.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsden, George. “Matteo Ricci and the Prodigal Culture.” In A Catholic Modernity? Charles Taylor’s Mirianist Award Lecture, edited by James L. Heft. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A discussion of Ricci in response to a lecture on the relationship between Catholicism and modernity. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Written in an informative, but not overly scholarly style. Covers Chinese history beginning with the sixteenth century Ming Dynasty, when Ricci made his influential mark on China. Contains more than two hundred illustrations, including maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, John D. East-West Synthesis: Matteo Ricci and Confucianism. Hong Kong: The University Press, 1980. Succinct and brilliant analysis of Ricci’s intellectual alignment of Confucian and Christian morality.

1514-1598: Portuguese Reach China

Aug. 15, 1534: Founding of the Jesuit Order

1583-1610: Matteo Ricci Travels to Beijing

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