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There have been lots of good articles out about Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary to China, in this year which marks the 400th anniversary of his death. This one by Nicolas Standaert shows how much Ricci and his missionary strategy was shaped by the Chinese culture in which he was immersed.

The first part of the article gives a very helpful summary of the distinctive approach to mission that he developed, under the influence of his former novice master Alessandro Valignano. It would be interesting to apply these principles to the way Christians approach the secular culture in the West today.

Four characteristics of Jesuit missionary strategy in China

As a starting point one can make a first – rather traditional – reading of Ricci’s life by focusing on the missionary himself. The ‘Jesuit missionary strategy’ in China was conceived by Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), who was the former novice master of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and who was Jesuit visitor for East Asia during the period 1574-1606. His strategy was creatively put into practice by Matteo Ricci. Later generations, well into the eighteenth century, associated this strategy with Ricci and called it the ‘Ricci-method’. It can be described by four major characteristics[7]:

1. A policy of accommodation or adaptation to Chinese culture.[8] Valignano, who had been disappointed by the limited degree of the Jesuits’ adaptation to Japanese culture, insisted in the first place on knowledge of the Chinese language. Therefore he called a few Jesuits to Macao in 1579 ordering them to focus their attention entirely on the study of language (fellow Jesuits criticised them for spending all their time studying Chinese). Two years later Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) entered China through the south, and Matteo Ricci followed one year later. Probably inspired by the Japanese situation, they dressed like Buddhist monks. In 1595, after nearly fifteen years of experience, they changed this policy and adapted themselves to the life-style and etiquette of the Confucian elite of literati and officials. Ricci was responsible for this change. This new policy remained unchanged throughout the whole seventeenth century and for most Jesuit missionaries Matteo Ricci became the reference point with regard to the accommodation policy.

2. Propagation and evangelisation ‘from the top down’. Jesuits addressed themselves to the literate elite. The underlying idea was that if this elite, preferably the Emperor and his court, were converted, the whole country would be won for Christianity. The elite consisted mainly of literati, who had spent many years of their life preparing for the examinations they needed to pass to become officials. For these examinations they had to learn the Confucian classics and the commentaries. After having passed the Metropolitan examinations, which took place in Beijing every three years and at which about three hundred candidates were selected, they entered the official bureaucracy and received appointments as district magistrates or positions in the ministries. As in modern diplomatic service, the offices usually changed every three years. In order to enter into contact with this elite, Ricci studied the Confucian classics and, with his remarkable gift of memory, became a welcome guest at the philosophical discussion groups that were organised by this elite.

3. Indirect propagation of the faith by using European science and technology in order to attract the attention of the educated Chinese and convince them of the high level of European civilisation. Ricci offered a European clock to the Emperor, he introduced paintings which impressed the Chinese with their use of perspective, translated mathematical writings of Euclid with the commentaries of the famous Jesuit mathematician Christophorus Clavius (1538-1612), and printed an enormous global map which integrated the results of the latest world explorations. By these activities Ricci established friendly relationships which sometimes resulted in the conversion of members of the elite: Xu Guangqi (1562-1633; baptised as Paul in 1603) and Li Zhizao (1565-1630; baptised as Leo in 1610) are the most famous of Ricci’s time.

4. Openness to and tolerance of Chinese values. In China, Matteo Ricci encountered a society with high moral values, for which he expressed his admiration. Educated in the best Jesuit humanistic tradition, he favourably compared Confucius (552-479 BC) with ‘an other Seneca’ and the Confucians with ‘a sect of Epicurians, not in name, but in their laws and opinions’.[9] Ricci was of the opinion that the excellent ethical and social doctrine of Confucianism should be complemented with the metaphysical ideas of Christianity. However, he rejected Buddhism, Taoism, and Neo-Confucianism, which in his eyes was corrupted by Buddhism. Ricci pleaded for a return to original Confucianism, which he considered to be a philosophy based on natural law. In his opinion it contained the idea of God. Finally, he adopted a tolerant attitude towards certain Confucian rites, such as the ancestral worship and the veneration of Confucius, which soon were labelled ‘civil rites’.

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Matteo Ricci SJ by Romanus_too.May 11th this year will be the 400th anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci, the great Jesuit missionary to China. “Li Madou” (his Chinese name) died in Beijing and was buried on Chinese soil, an honour not normally given to foreigners, but granted by the emperor as a tribute to his wisdom and love for the Chinese.

Ricci was a pioneer in the theology of ‘inculturation’: immersing himself in Chinese life, with a profound love and respect for the culture, in the hope of creating a genuine dialogue – so allowing the unchanging Gospel message to flower in a new soil and in a new way. He is also an example of how scientific genius and Christian faith can go hand in hand.

Here is a summary of his life that came out on Zenit yesterday, in connection with an international congress on “Science, Reason, Faith: The Genius of Father Matteo Ricci,” held in Macerata.

Born in Macerata on October 6, 1552, the future “Apostle of China” entered the Society of Jesus in Rome at age 18, where he soon heard the call to a missionary vocation.
 
In 1557, before he was ordained a priest, he requested to be posted to the missions in the Far East. Thus he left for Portugal, to begin preparations for the Oriental apostolate. Embarking from Lisbon with 14 Jesuit brothers, Ricci arrived on September 13, 1578 to Goa, India, where St. Francis Xavier was buried.
 
Ricci spent some years in India, teaching in the Jesuit schools, before his priestly ordination. He celebrated his first Mass on July 26, 1580.
 
Soon after, the Jesuit Visitor of Missions in the Indies (including China and Japan), Alessandro Valignano, asked Father Ricci to go to Macau, then a Portuguese colony in China, to study the Chinese language and to prepare to enter mainland China, at that time impenetrable to foreigners.
 
The much awaited entry took place on September 10, 1583. Father Ricci and his companion Michele Ruggiere arrived in Zhaoqing, where they began to build the first house and church, finished in 1585. The small Jesuit community later moved to Shaoguan.
 
Well received by the Wanli Emperor of the Ming dynasty, Father Ricci was raised to the rank of Mandarin, received in the Celestial Empire, and welcomed by top civil and military officials.
 
“To be Chinese with the Chinese” was Father Ricci’s innovative method of evangelization, which encompassed the ability to adapt himself to local customs and traditions in order to be closer to those to whom he proclaimed the Gospel.
 
The way of “inculturation” chosen by the Jesuit, joined to the tireless practice of charity, bore fruits as he was able to dialogue with both important dignitaries as well as poor people, all of whom were impressed by the missionary’s great respect for Confucianism and for the Chinese cultural patrimony.
 
Father Ricci’s scientific knowledge also aroused great admiration. He took to China Western mathematics and geometry, as well as the great contributions of the Renaissance in the fields of geography, cartography and astronomy.
 
In addition to teaching numerous scientific and humanistic subjects in Chinese, he left a great number of works, such as the “Treatise on Friendship,” the “Chinese World Map,” the treatise on the “Genuine Notion of the Lord of Heaven,” “Synthesis of Christian Doctrine,” “Christianity in China,” “Commentaries” and “Letters from China.” These works contributed in a decisive way to the foundation of modern Sinology and the spread of Western knowledge in China and the whole of the East.

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