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Harmonious Disagreement

Matteo Ricci and His Closest Chinese Friends


Yu Liu

The fascinating story of Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) changing himself while trying to change the religious faith of the Chinese has been told many times. As a Jesuit, Ricci pushed Christian evangelism by claiming a theistic affinity with Confucianism and by presenting himself as a defender of Confucian orthodoxy from Buddhism. Already in his day, Ricci’s unusual cultural adaptation was controversial; not surprisingly, scholarly studies have hitherto focused almost exclusively on variations of this controversy. Reacting mostly to Ricci’s account of events, this line of research has provided insight, but much more can be learned about the early-modern cross-cultural encounter of Europe and China if the perspective is broadened to include his intricate and intriguing relationships with his Chinese friends. With his distinctively different religiosity, personal charisma, and knowledge of European science and mathematics, Ricci impressed the social and cultural elite of late Ming China, many of whom befriended him and some of whom became Christian converts. However, between him and his Chinese friends there were always disagreements, resulting sometimes from a lack of understanding or misunderstanding, and sometimes even when they apparently understood each other perfectly. Followed closely as the investigative thread of this book, the many kinds of disagreement cast an unusual light on an otherwise long familiar subject and are instructive for the at times tense and even hostile, but in reality always mutually energizing relationship of both competition and complement between China and the West in the early twenty-first century.
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Chapter 2. Reading Theism into Confucianism: Matteo Ricci’s Ambiguous Alliance in Tianzhu Shiyi


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Matteo Ricci’s Ambiguous Alliance in Tianzhu Shiyi

Along with Jiaoyou Lun (On Friendship), Tianzhu Shiyi (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven) was one of Matteo Ricci’s earliest works written in Chinese. In the former work, he had utilized a seemingly random collection of European sayings about friendship to describe and emphasize the ideal relationship of two friends as that of a teacher and a pupil. Not surprisingly, he assumed the persona of a teacher in the latter work and put his Chinese friends collectively into the role of a student. Aside from attacking Neo-Confucianism for being corrupted by Buddhism and Daoism, he read Chinese textual antiquity in a way so that ancient Confucianism could sound like a prototype of European theism. Even though it was entirely his idea to try to somehow Christianize the dominant Chinese philosophical tradition, his attempt to “[convert] the Classics”1 was not “a misunderstanding”2 or “a brilliant insight which not only accorded with contemporary reality, but also melded with what little was known of high Chinese antiquity and appealed to the Chinese reverence of antiquity.”3 Even though his Chinese friends provided him with indispensable assistance, they merely indulged rather than accepted his manipulation of “representational legitimacy”4 or his presentation of himself and his confreres as “the legitimate bearers of the Confucian legacy.”5 The composition and reception of Tianzhu Shiyi were complex and often ambiguous, but...

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