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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 4. Making Use of Stoicism: Matteo Ricci’s Surprising Breakthrough in Ershiwu Yan


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Matteo Ricci’s Surprising Breakthrough in Ershiwu Yan

Published in 1604 or 1605, Ershiwu Yan (Twenty-Five Paragraphs) marked a very special breakthrough in the intellectual evangelism of Matteo Ricci. In 1595, he had garnered warm and widespread applause for his collection of European sayings about friendship (Jiaoyou Lun), but the subject matter of that work had not left him much scope for any of the doctrinal concerns which were close to his heart. In 1603, he had finally published his main proselytizing work Tianzhu Shiyi which was radically revised from Ruggieri’s Tianzhu Shilu, but his open and unprovoked attack on Buddhism had aroused antagonism and his diagnosis of Confucian and Neo-Confucian metaphysics as needing the logical supplement of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas had not impressed the Confucian scholar-officials as much as he had hoped. Only with the publication of Ershiwu Yan did he gain both popular approval and doctrinal satisfaction. For a long time the treatise was thought of as “a short exposition of essential Christian moral doctrines”1 or “a book about the ethical beliefs, guidelines, and cultivation of Catholicism,”2 because he had depicted it as “twenty-five tracts on diverse moral questions and on control of the evil propensities of the soul.”3 In 1975, however, it was recognized as a selected translation of Epictetus (55–135)’s Encheiridion,4 Still in need of being better known, that relatively recent discovery can now help us...

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