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News : International Last Updated: May 5, 2010 - 8:11:22 AM


Matteo Ricci: an encounter of civilizations; the first Western visitor to the Forbidden City - - Seamus Grimes, Shanghai
By Seamus Grimes, Visiting Professor of Geography, East China Normal University, Shanghai
May 3, 2010 - 4:03:47 PM

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Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), an Italian Jesuit priest, was an accomplished mathematician and was fluent in Mandarin. He translated Euclid's "Elements of Geometry" into the language and met Ming Emperor Wan-li in the Forbidden City, in Beijing, in 1601 - - There was at that time a problem with the European's understanding of whether the country which Marco Polo had visited by an overland route, and called Cathay, was the same country as China which had been visited by sea. Marco Polo, also an Italian, had travelled from Europe through Asia beginning his journey in 1271 and living in Cathay for 17 years before returning to Italy. Ricci was convinced that these countries were the same but, until another overland journey was made, this could not be confirmed.

With Shanghai in the middle of Expo-mania, one most impressive event not to be missed is the exhibition commemorating Matteo Ricci’s introduction of western civilization to China during the Ming dynasty in the 16th century. This famous Italian Jesuit priest of outstanding scholarly accomplishment was born in Italy in 1552 and died in Beijing in 1610. He was the first Western visitor to the Forbidden City. The Japanese writer Hirakawa Sukehiro referred to him as ‘the first giant in the history of humankind to embody all the knowledge of the European Renaissance and all the wisdom of the Chinese classics’.

Ricci was sent to the Far East in 1578 and arrived in Macau in 1582. A year later he moved to Zhaoqing and later to Shaozhou, Nanchang, and Nanjing and eventually to Beijing in 1601, where he presented an impressive array of gifts, including mechanical clocks and musical instruments to the Emperor, and was granted permission to stay. Ricci wrote that ‘true unity without differences’ does not exist, and spent his life using both scientific and literary culture to create good relations between West and East. The Chinese literati were amazed to discover the range of learning from the West introduced by Ricci and in particular they were surprised that so many impressive books existed outside their own range of knowledge.

In addition to introducing key texts, including the bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Summa Theologica, Ricci also made a huge contribution in key works in science and technology to China. He collaborated with Chinese scholar Xu Guangqi in translating Euclid’s Elements of Geometry and also the Practical Arithmetic, and translated the Treatise on the Astrolabe with Li Zhizao. His major contribution was the introduction of the mathematical method in the observation of nature, and in particular through the techniques of measuring terrestrial and celestial space, as well as time with clocks. An important outcome of his published work in China was the reform of the Chinese calendar.

Among Ricci’s key objectives in introducing the works of his own German master Christophe Clavius in arithmetic and geometry to China was to provide support for natural and applied sciences, to gain credit with Chinese intellectuals and to introduce Aristotelian logic, on which much of Christian theology was based.

He and his companions with great patience and an exemplary life spent many years seeking to break down the considerable suspicion and fear they encountered. His first major work in Chinese was ‘On Friendship’ a trait which he realised was central to Confucian culture. He was widely regarded as a ‘man of friendship’, who came to China ‘in search of friends’. In addition to opening the Chinese intellectual world to key achievements in the West, his main contribution was in helping China and Europe realize that they were two halves of a single civilization.

Spectacular fireworks explode over the Huangpu River during the opening ceremony for the 2010 World Expo held in Shanghai, China, April 30, 2010. Photo: Xinhua

He spent his final years in Beijing where with his Chinese friends he produced is most important works, including the great 6-panel Map of the World in 1602 with Li Zhizao. He also wrote Europe’s first ever first-hand account history of China. Just before he died in 1610, such was his reputation that he had been receiving up to 80 visitors from various parts of China. Having made such a phenomenal contribution to opening China to the best of Europe’s culture and spirituality, he died a very cheerful and exhausted priest.

The world's biggest and most expensive ever expo is underway in Shanghai, China. CNBC's Bernard Lo & Cheng Lei tell us what visitors can expect at Expo 2010, as well as its economic impact:

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