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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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Conclusion: The Enduring Lesson of History


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The Enduring Lesson of History

More than four hundred years after his death, Ricci is today celebrated both in China and in the West as a great hero of peaceful cross-cultural encounter. Ricci richly deserves all the praise we can give him, but it is important for us to realize and remember that he turned out to be such a person largely because the colonial powers of Portugal and Spain which backed the evangelical endeavors of his religious order did not then have the necessary coercive power to impose the religious faith of Europe on China as they did in Africa, America, and other parts of Asia. The most important part of the cultural accommodation Ricci adopted out of necessity was his deliberately chosen and carefully cultivated friendship with the well-educated elite of the nation who were mostly Confucian scholar-officials. Without his close association with them who served in different ways as his chaperons and teachers of Chinese culture, he could not have understood as well as he did the gradual evolution of Confucian metaphysics or the complex relationship of both competition and complement among the three main native traditions of spirituality. However, when he claimed a monotheistic affinity of Catholicism with ancient Confucianism and presented himself as a defender of Confucian orthodoxy against the moral and spiritual corruption of Buddhism and Daoism, he was not doing what his closest Chinese friends taught or could have taught him. ← 193 | 194 →

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