With Shanghai in
the middle of Expo-mania, one of the most
impressive events is the Shanghai Museum’s commemoration of the Jesuit scholar
Matteo Ricci. He introduced the Ming dynasty of the 16th century to the West.

I am currently
spending some weeks in Shanghai as part of my research into foreign investment
in research and development in China. This exhibition tells the fascinating
story of a much earlier introduction of innovation into China. Today the
Chinese are very conscious of their local economy being dominated by technology
from foreign companies, and they are determined to develop their own. The Ricci
exhibition also tells the story of this much earlier transmission of
innovation, technology and culture from the West.

In his fascinating
book The Victory of Reason, Rodney
Stark quotes a study
group of Chinese scholars
who have been trying for at least two decades to
figure out the success of the West, as compared with China itself and Islamic
culture:

One of the things we
were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the
pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could
from the historical, political, economic and cultural perspective. At first, we
thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought
it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your
economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart
of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so
powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what
made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to
democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

While there is
nothing new about China’s fascination with the effectiveness of the institutional
aspect of the Catholic Church, there is little evidence in my view of any clear
link between Christianity in China today and China’s very impressive economic
progress.  The Matteo Ricci exhibition,
however, explains how Western civilization in general, much of which was deeply
inspired by Christian thinking, provided a whole range of new ideas,
technologies and cultural achievements to China.

This famous
Italian Jesuit priest of outstanding scholarly accomplishment was born in Italy
in 1552 and died in Beijing in 1610. The Japanese writer Hirakawa Sukehiro
referred to him as “the first giant in the history of humankind to embody all
the knowledge of the European Renaissance and all the wisdom of the Chinese
classics”.

Ricci was sent to
the Far East in 1578 and arrived in Macau in 1582. A year later he moved to
Zhaoqing and later to Shaozhou, Nanchang, and Nanjing. Eventually he arrived in
Beijing in 1601, where he presented an impressive array of gifts, including
mechanical clocks and musical instruments to the Emperor, and was granted
permission to stay. Ricci wrote that “true unity without differences” does not
exist, and spent his life using both scientific and literary culture to create
good relations between West and East. The Chinese literati were amazed to discover
the range of learning from the West introduced by Ricci and in particular they
were surprised that so many impressive books existed outside their own range of
knowledge. 

In addition to
introducing key texts, including the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Summa
Theologica, Ricci also made a huge contribution in key works in science and
technology to China. He collaborated with the Chinese scholar Xu Guangqi in
translating Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and the Practical Arithmetic, and translated
the Treatise on the Astrolabe with Li Zhizao. His major contribution was the
introduction of the mathematical method in the observation of nature, and in
particular through the techniques of measuring terrestrial and celestial space,
as well as time with clocks. An important outcome of his published work in
China was the reform of the Chinese calendar.

Among Ricci’s key
objectives in introducing the works of his own German master Christophe Clavius
in arithmetic and geometry to China was to provide support for natural and
applied sciences, to gain credit with Chinese intellectuals and to introduce
Aristotelian logic, on which much of Christian theology was based.

He and his
companions with great patience and exemplary lives spent many years seeking to
break down the considerable suspicion and fear they encountered. His first
major work in Chinese was “On Friendship” a trait which he realised was central
to Confucian culture. He was widely regarded as a “man of friendship” who had
come to China “in search of friends”. In addition to opening the Chinese
intellectual world to key achievements in the West, his main contribution was to
help China and Europe realize that they were two halves of a single civilization.

He spent his final
years in Beijing where with his Chinese friends he produced his most important
works, including a great six-panel map of the world in 1602 with Li Zhizao. He
also wrote Europe’s first first-hand account of the history of China. Just
before he died in 1610, such was his reputation that he was still receiving many
visitors from various parts of China. Having made such a phenomenal
contribution to opening China to the best of Europe’s culture and spirituality,
he died a very cheerful and exhausted priest.


Seamus
Grimes is a professor of geography at the National University of Ireland in
Galway and a visiting professor of geography at East China Normal University,
Shanghai.