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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 7. The Attractions of Science and Spirituality: The Independent Journey of Li Zhizao into Catholicism


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The Independent Journey of Li Zhizao into Catholicism

In the early history of Chinese Christianity, no one is more illustrious than Xu Guangqi, but while Ricci was alive, Xu was only a junior official in the imperial academy. Rather than Xu, the foremost Chinese convert Ricci valued then was Li Zhizao. In fact, as Chinese historian Zhu Weizheng points out, “Ricci appreciated the talent of Li Zhizao even more than that of Xu Guangqi.”1 Li first met Ricci in Beijing in 1601 soon after the latter’s venture into the capital city. A friendship quickly developed; Li eventually became “Father Matthew’s last convert.”2 All this has long been known, but much still needs to be scrutinized. In spite of his early and over time growing admiration for what Wolfgang Franke calls “the unique personality of Ricci”3 or what Pasquale M. D’Elia terms “the science and virtue of Ricci,”4 for instance, Li swore to the Christian faith only two months before Ricci’s death, but was his long holdout really due to “an impediment of polygamy” (l’impedimento della poligamia)?5 Li was converted right after Ricci nursed him back to health from a seemingly mortal illness; since he understandably felt obliged to the Jesuit father, was his conversion “the emotional kind” (“ganqingxing guiyi” or “qingganxing guiyi”)?6 Long before his conversion, Li already resembled Xu Guangqi in considering the teaching of Ricci as...

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