The West Shall Shake the East Awake: Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), A Jesuit in China

The West Shall Shake the East Awake: Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), A Jesuit in China

By Francesco Guardiani

Limina : Thresholds and borders ; proceedings of a St. Michael’s College symposium, eds. Guardiani F., Silano G. and Goering J. W. (Ottawa: Legas, 2005)

Abstract: The first Westerner to set foot in mainland China with the declared intention to change its millenary culture was a man of faith, not only a Christian faith, but a faith in the egalitarian, democratic principles of modernity, inspired by the Gutenberg revolution. The rather cryptic, prophetic quote from Joyce appears well apt to describe the epic adventure of Matteo Ricci in China as the very beginning of a process of cultural globalization in which we are still immersed today.

Introduction: Behind every paper there is a story, and this paper is no exception. However, it is exceptional and no doubt surprising for the colleagues who know me, and know of my interest in Petrarch, the Baroque, and love poetry in general, that I should become interested in the works of a Jesuit priest, a missionary who arrived in China in 1583 and died there twenty-eight years later. This paper should clarify the whys and hows of this interest of mine, but its main purpose here is a personal challenge. Will I be able to communicate the admiration that I have for Matteo Ricci and his works? Will I be able to show how profoundly inspiring his life and writings can still be today for the great humanistic and humanitarian generosity of his mind and soul? This is the challenge that I have in front of me today.

Let me say, at the outset, that after reading just a few passages of Ricci’s Commentaries and a few of his wonderful Letters, I was struck by the strong impression that he deserves to be acclaimed among the greatest writers and philosophers of his time. The end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries were turbulent times – times of accelerated cultural transformation all over Europe – times that were shared by Shakespeare and Francis Bacon in England, Campanella, Bruno, and Galileo in Italy, Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Góngora in Spain – in short, by the founding fathers of what we have come to call Modernity.

Matteo Ricci was born in 1552 in Macerata, in central Italy, and died in 1610 in Beijing, China. He is not usually found in annals of Italian literature, not even among the numerous “minor authors” of his time. The simple but problematic reason for his absence is in his being a Jesuit. He belonged to the religious world that, in the cultural historiogra-phy of an openly anti-clerical modern Italy (i.e. after the unification of 1861), was considered anti-Italian, anti-patriotic. This historiographic perspective has been variously criticized and modified, and certainly with the figure of Matteo Ricci, something more could be done to this effect. My intention, however, is not to focus on the poor critical fortune of this writer or his absence from the canon of Italian literature, but rather on the exceptional dimension of his cultural adventure which allows us to place him among the most innovative thinkers of his time.

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