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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 8. The Many Kinds of Acceptance and Rejection: The Ideological Commitment of Yang Tingyun


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The Ideological Commitment of Yang Tingyun

Yang Tinyun was never as close to Ricci as Qu Taisu, Xu Guangqi, or Li Zhizao, but he and the Jesuit father knew each other and they were much more than mere acquaintances. They could have met for the first time in 1601 when Yang was in Beijing between two official assignments and Ricci had just arrived in the northern capital and was a major attraction of a sort. The unusual religious teaching of the Jesuit father could have won immediate empathy from Yang, but the secular learning of Ricci did not sweep him off his feet into a closer relationship as it did with Qu, Xu, and Li. In the seventeenth century Yang was already enshrined as one of the “firme and stable pillars, very proper to sustaine that infant Church,”1 but the fact of European science and mathematics drawing him apart from rather than close to Ricci has made him celebrated recently as “a religious man, a seeker after truth,”2 “a[n] anima naturaliter christiana,”3 “an ideal Catholic,”4 and “the most devout Christian convert.”5 From Qu, Xu, and Li, Yang was indeed different. However, the implicit use of this difference in recent scholarship to categorize him as “an experimental convert” (shiyanxing guiyi)6 who moved successively through Confucianism (Ru) and Buddhism (Chan) and finally found satisfaction in Christianity (Ye) is...

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