We are lucky to have an abundant literature covering each stop of Ricci's
journey to Peking. Of the 54 letters Ricci wrote from the Orient to his
superiors in Rome and to friends and relatives, only six were written
from India, where Ricci spent the first four years of his mission in the
Orient. All other letters were written from the Chinese cities, where
Ricci stationed on his way to Peking: 2 letters from Macao(where he remained
from 1582 to 1583), 7 letters from Zhaoqing (1583-1589),
9 letters from Shaozhou (1589-1595), 11 letters from Nanchang (1595-1598),
2 letters from Nanjing (1599-1600), 18 from Peking (1601-1610).
The second source of information is Ricci's history of Christianity in
China, "Della entrata della Compagnia di Gesu' e Christianita' nella
As Ricci himself writes: "I am discovering little by little".
His journey is a continuos
discovery of new situations, new insights, new approaches.
After many failed attempts by his local superior, Fr Ruggieri, to enter
China, finally and unexpectedly, the viceroy of Guangdong and Guanshi,
Guo Yingping, gives them permission to settle in Zhaoqing. Ruggieri and
Ricci immediately leave Macao and on foot, after a journey of ten days,
reach Zhaoqing (10 September 1583). There they are allowed to build the
first residence and Chapel in China.
The first big problem the two missionaries have to face is the great suspicion
Chinese people in general and authorities in particular have of all foreigners.
Ricci understands that this suspicion is mainly due to the fact that Chinese
people are more inclined to "culture than weapons", and are
very afraid that foreigners will use weapons to take over their kingdom
(they had had sad experiences with the Portuguese and the Japanese!).
Ricci understands also that the Chinese are very proud of their culture,
which they believe, "is superior to all barbarians' cultures",
and are "cautious about any new foreign doctrine preached in China".
The two missionaries have to face this new situation, and their first
Evangelization plan is: "to show to the people that they have no
connections with the Portuguese in Macao; to let the Chinese people know
that they are there first of all to understand and study Chinese culture
and language; to go very slowly about baptisms and new converts, and to
present themselves as religious monks". They decide to dress as Buddhist
monks, and have their hair and beard cut (this was also the wish of the
viceroy!). For the following 10 years, Ricci will be called "the
bonze of the west", until, after having been kicked out of Zhaoqing
by the new viceroy and having spent 5 more years in Shaozhou, Ricci understands
the need of a new change. During his journey, he had the opportunity of
meeting many Confucian scholars, who loved to learn mathematics and astronomy
from him. Ricci saw that in China, "the scholar" was more respected
and played a much more important role than "the Bonze", and
he saw himself much closer to the scholar. He decided to present himself
as a scholar from the West. He started wearing the dress of the scholar,
he grew hair and beard as the scholars did, "to wear a scholar's
hat that resembled a bishop's mitre", and on his visit to other scholars
he decided to be carried by four men on a chair, as all scholars did.
In 1595 he reaches Nanchang, where he remains for three years. There he
starts wearing the scholar's dress. In his letters you can feel Ricci's
joy in describing his new dress. In this "new fine silk robe",
the real Ricci comes out. All he had learned in Rome from his professors
(especially prof. Cristoforo Clavio), about geometry, mathematics, astronomy,
the art of drawing maps, making globes, constructing all sorts of clocksˇK),
becomes very precious material for dialogue with Chinese scholars.
Once Ricci's knowledge of Chinese language and culture is mature, he starts
a very fruitful dialogue with Chinese scholars, and becomes a bridge between
two cultures until then unknown to and suspicious of each other. Ricci
translates in Latin the Chinese classics for the Europeans to read and
One of Ricci's most important intuitions was to understand that early
Confucianism was a sort of "natural religion", that taught people
natural virtues, and made people "naturally good". Ricci saw
early Confucianism very close to the notion of the Christian God and Christian
Following this intuition, he translated the name of God with Confucian
terms: Tianzhu (Lord of Heaven), or Shandi(King above), or Tian(Heaven).
It is surprising how Ricci writes about the first time he thought of the
new Name of God.
One day, he visited one of his first Catechumens in China (whose full
name is not given). Ricci, before leaving that place, had entrusted him
with the Mass altar.. Ricci noticed that during his absence, the Catechumen
had placed the altar in one room in his house, and above the altar, for
lack of any other image, he had attached to the wall a wooden tablet,
on which he had written two Chinese words: Tianzhu (Lord of Heaven).
Ricci accepted this term, and used it in his Catechism. Later, this Name
of God will become the focus of much controversy.
Together with the scholar's role, Ricci discovers his vocation as "writer".
Ricci writes: : "in this kingdom, writing is more important, more
accurate, more trustworthy than speakingˇKwe are not allowed to go freely
anywhere to preach, but we can through books reach the best minds of this
peopleˇKwe can lay the rational foundation for our religionˇKeven writing
scientific books becomes an important prerequisite for any further dialogueˇKand
these books in Chinese can be read by people of other nationalities, who
use Chinese writing, like JapanˇK"
Ricci is serious about this work, and follows famous Chinese masters to
learn how to write books in Chinese.
He writes some books on his own, some in collaboration with his disciples.
Ricci wrote about 22 books in Chinese. Some of the better known are:
Zuchuan Tianzhu shijie ( the ten commandments of the Lord of heaven, as
transmitted by our ancestors. Zhaoqing,1584)
Jiaoyou lun (discourse on friendship. Nanchang,1595)
Shanhai yudi quantu (complete map of mountains and seas. Nanjing,1600)
Liangyi xuanlan tu (world map. Beijing, 1603.
Tianzhu shi yi (true meaning of the doctrine of the Lord of Heaven. Beijing,
Ershiwu yan (25 words. Beijing, 1605)
Xiqin quyi bazhang (10 songs for European harpsichord. Beijing, 1608)
Tongwen swanzhi (treatise on arithmetic. Published in Beijing in 1613)
Xiquo Jifa (treatise on memory, published in Beijing in 1625)
The result is that Christianity becomes acceptable to and respected by
the best minds of the Chinese intelligentsia.
In this respect, it is amusing to read how Ricci recalls the conversion
of a great scholar Qu Ru-kui. Ricci writes that "after baptism, the
new convert frankly confessed to me that the real motivation he came to
see "the bonze from the West", was not religious but very worldly.
He had heard that the bonze from the West knew the secret formula of making
silver out of mercury, and he wanted to see whether he could get rich!"
Ricci saw how the intelligentsia was drawn to him by different motivations,
but once they believed, their faith was real!
One, maybe the greatest, of Ricci's collaborators in his work of writing,
was Xu Guang-qi, whom Ricci met in Nanjing. He later was baptized and
remained a very staunch believer until death. He was very close to Ricci
in Peking, and did all he could to spread Christianity in China through
All along the journey, Ricci carries some very important gifts: two religious
oil paintings, two clocks (one big and one small), which ring the hours,
a small harpsichord. Ricci wants to present these gifts to the emperor
Shen-zong, normally called Wanli (the name of the period of his reign).
He had become emperor at the age of 9 (1573-1620).
Ricci writes:ˇK"we won't be able to do any stable thing in this country,
until we receive the blessing of the kingˇK" His Chinese friends supported
After many obstacles (he was arrested for six months by a powerful eunuch,
who was jealous of Ricci' getting too close to the emperor!), at last,
the emperor, who had heard the fame of this scholar from the West, issued
a decree to allow Ricci into the royal palace. Although Ricci had no chance
of seeing personally the emperor (in those days, only very few intimate
people could talk to him), nevertheless Ricci could offer the gifts and
knew that the Emperor had immensely appreciated them. The emperor ordered
to allow Ricci and his companions to reside at the court and to receive
a royal salary as "honorary mandarins".
Ricci's journey had reached its climax. After more than 4 years at the
court, finally Ricci decides to buy a house near the royal palace, but
where they could be freer to meet people and evangelize. This residence
with a big chapel, had always been in Ricci's mind. In this house Ricci
died on the 11th of May 1610.
Before this date, all Jesuit priests who had died in China, had to be
carried to Macao for burial. The emperor had never allowed a foreigner
to be buried on Chinese soil.
Ricci's friends started using all possible means to ask the emperor for
a special permission. After a year of intense diplomatic activities( during
that period, Ricci's body was kept in a huge wooden coffin close to the
Chapel in the residence), finally the decision came: the Emperor granted
a piece of land in Peking for the burial of Matteo Ricci's body and his
Matteo Ricci's tomb in Peking remains an outstanding symbol of how deep
roots Christianity had taken in China.
Ricci's journey into China, from Macao to Peking, becomes a spiritual
journey into Chinese culture.
Before the beginning of the journey, Ricci wrote from Macao: "we
on the door of China, until the merciful God will open it to us".
When Fr Alessandro Valignano, who had been his superior in Rome, and then
his superior, supporter and friend in Asia, died in Macao(1606), while
waiting to enter China and meet Ricci in Peking, Ricci writes: "Fr
Valignano died at the door of China, just like Francis Xavier died on
the island of Shangchuan. Both were anxious to enter into China. Both
missionaries died at the door of their dream. Their intercession from
heaven will be more effective than their sweat on the field".
Ricci had been always aware of the great difficulty of entering and remaining
in "this magnificent, different from all others, unique kingdom.."
His long and difficult journey from Macao to Peking, more than opening
a door into China, had opened the minds and hearts of many people, both
European and Chinese, into the mysterious presence of God in all cultures