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Harmonious Disagreement

Matteo Ricci and His Closest Chinese Friends

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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 5. The Ambiguity of Intimacy and Distance: The Exemplary Friendship of Qu Taisu

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THE AMBIGUITY OF INTIMACY AND DISTANCE

The Exemplary Friendship of Qu Taisu

“My friend,” so stated Ricci at the beginning of Jiaoyou Lun, “is not another person, but half of myself and a second me; I must therefore regard my friend as myself” (wuyou feita, ji wozhiban, nai di’er woye: gudang shiyou ruji yan).1 For the Jesuit father who wrote out these words, this was more than a well-memorized allusion to the mythology of Aristophanes about the futilely nostalgic pining for the other half of the original human body in Plato’s Symposium, because there were indeed people to whom he felt close in every way, but rather than the Chinese friends to whom this axiom and the entire aphorismic collection were addressed, these were his confreres in the Jesuit organization, especially those who grew up and studied with him at Jesuit educational institutions in Macerata and Rome and who were the recipients of most of his extant letters from China. In spite of the intimate relationships he began in the early 1590s to form with the educated elite of the Middle Kingdom, in other words, there were always at the same time subtle distances between them. These could have resulted from what one recent biographer calls “the inevitable barriers of language and culture” and “the need to observe caution when interacting with a foreign people of vastly alien customs,”2 but more often than not, the palpable sense of...

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