Matteo Meets the Ming
China History

Research Report
Web Resources


MATTEO RICCI.: A Jesuit brings science and Christianity to China.
                            Born in the West: 1552 Died in the East: 1610

Matteo Ricci's influence in China is unprecedented, for what he successfully accomplished is amazing to the much repeated epic of history; the meeting of east and west.

Historical Background

Ricci was born into a noble family in Macerata, Italy in 1552.  His father, Giovanni Battista Ricci, was a practicing pharmacist that engaged in public affairs and even served as mayor. Giovanna Angiolelli, his mother was a housewife known for her simple piety, gave birth to 13 children, Matteo being the eldest. His classics based education began at home, where he was taught by family and tutors. Early on proved to be an exceptionally bright student. His education continued when he entered the Jesuit School that opened in Macerata, in 1661.  Seven years later at the age of 16, he left to study law in Rome. There he discovered his love, not of law, but in mathematics and science. He received mathematics training from the well noted mathematician Christopher Clavius.  He excelled in these studies and became an expert.  He then further pursued his Jesuit training and went to Portugal for a short time and studied at the University of Coimbra.

The Jesuits were gaining dominance as a world force in spreading Christianity, and Ricci took part in this movement. The religious order practiced a balance of rigorous intellectual training and active mission life. The pursuit to live out these Jesuit ideals paved the path for Ricci's life.  He was assigned to a mission in the Far East, and arrived in the country of China in 1583.

Research Report

Filled with the fervor of Jesuit world exploration, Matteo Ricci landed in China to spread ideas of technology and the West to gain conversion of the people in the East.  Ricci’s grandiose intelligence won him a direct communication line with the Chinese.  It gave him a reason to talk to them, and more importantly for them to listen.  He settled in Chao-chi’ing, Kwangtung Province and began his study of Chinese.  Ricci began a rigorous study of the Chinese culture and language.

While in Kwangtung Province, Ricci was also helping Europe.  There he also completed his first edition of his map of the world Great Map of Ten Thousand Countries.  This amazing achievement showed an accurate view of China’s geographical position in the world.  Previously, Europeans had underestimated the country’s size.

Next he went to Shao-chou to teach Chinese scholars his mathematical ideas.  Ricci taught them from his education, which he received from Clavius.  He then went to the city Nanking, where he was surprisingly accepted.  There he continued his teachings and continued to influence the Chinese.

Gaining the acceptance of the Chinese was no easy feat.  In a world where foreigners are seen as barbarians, Ricci’s task of gaining respect was a massive challenge.  He succeeded in great lengths though.  Ricci adapted to the Chinese customs, including choosing the attire of a Chinese scholar.  This came after attempting to dress as a Buddhist priest.  He quickly retired that garb as a Buddhist priest when he found they had little social status, and were actually considered to be lecherous drunks.  He learned the language, including the writing.  At this time, the only knowledge that provided clout was written, so he completed Chinese works on religious and moral topics, as well as scientific topics on the astrolabe, sphere, arithmetic, measure, and isoperimetrics.   They were very impressed by his knowledge, and his ability to express them in Chinese thought.  He gained way because he began to understand the Chinese thought, not just know about it.

This practice of learning Chinese custom went directly with the Jesuit philosophy.  The Jesuits display unbelievable patience in adapting to cultures.  There were 10-12 priests to Christianize four hundred million Chinese.  This almost impossible task required them to know foreign customs.  Eventually, through these rigorous studies, Ricci and the Jesuits actually were seen as cultivated cultured gentlemen.

The Chinese were eager to learn Ricci’s information on math and technology.  He brought them higher learning ideas in trigonometry and Euclidean geometry.  This knowledge brought a revolution in sciences of astronomy.  He showed them the design of astronomical instruments and how to more accurately the ways of the skies.  He mastered mapmaking, and the intricate art of making accurate calendars.   Ricci also amazed them with his novelties as Venetian prisms, European books, paintings, engravings, sundials, and clocks.  His memory was impressive and his knowledge of Confucius thought respectable. This man was a marvel with his wisdom of the workings of practical mechanics.  Ricci proved an expert on information about a wide range of topics, making his mind valuable to the Chinese.

The Jesuits continually tried to get into the Chinese capitol of Peking.  After many failed attempts, they finally made it 1601.  Peking was heavily closed off to foreigners, and Ricci attempted entrance for nearly 18 years. Peking was the most civilized, populous, and bustling city of its time, both in Europe and Asia.  The Jesuits eagerly wanted to get into Peking to convert the officials. This philosophy of converting the elite was unique to the Jesuits.  Other orders like the Dominicans and Fransiscans tried convert the peasant and lower class population.  In the capitol, Ricci and the other Jesuits finally established relationships with the higher officials.  They converted significant members of the court, including eunuchs.

The Chinese were wowed by his explanations of the world. Once he baited them in with vast knowledge he hooked them into hearing the gospel message.  Although it worked at times, the Chinese also grew suspicious as they realized they were being conned into the Christian information.  Although Ricci and the other missionaries continued this system, they knew they were not trusted and used science as an avenue to preach.

Ricci did his best to get into the inner circles of influence in the Ming dynasty.  He tried to convert and converse with the highest officials in Peking.  He could do so with some success in his scientific teachings.  Although he had a much harder time gaining a relationship with the emperor himself.  Emporer Wanli, due to the decline of the Ming dynasty, stopped holding court audiences and allowed power to the court eunuchs.  Despite the conversion of the Emporer, he converted several officials and scholars.

There was a controversy over Ricci’s acceptance of Rites.  He allowed his converts to continue Confucian ancestor worship.  He claimed it as an act of filial piety, not of worship, and thus an acceptable behavior for Christians.  Ricci felt that in order to convert Chinese, they needed to keep some philosophies.  He just changed the meaning to make it work.  He believed that accommodation was an important part of the mission.  Ricci believed they needed to accept some Chinese practices to really get conversions.  Therefore, he allowed Confucian ideals into his Bible teachings.  Christian thought was taught to complement traditional Confucian ideals.  This created controversy to strict Christians, particularly the Dominicans.  Despite the uproar over the issues, the Jesuits still continue to believe in integration of the ideas and concepts as the more successful approach.

Scholarly books were another addition to Ricci’s accomplishments.  He wrote True Doctrine of God (1603) which was a little catechism cast as a dialogue between a pagan and a European priest.  It denounced the worship of idols and the transmigration of souls.  The Twenty-five Words (1605) and The Ten Paradoxes (1608) were collects of practical ideas for a moral life.  He pushed the mortification of passions and nobility of virtues, both ideas that mesh with Chinese thought.  He used both Bible and Christian philosophers to back his thought.

Through books, science, math, astronomy, mechanics…Ricci’s knowledge was of renaissance proportions.

Historical Significance

Matteo Ricci is a remarkable man in scientific brilliance and the ability to gain the acceptance of the Chinese.  His intelligence and adaptability to the ways of the East won him the respect of the Ming dynasty.  Matteo Ricci brought ideas of Christ and mathematics to China in the 16th century.  Ricci did something almost impossible to many of the foreigners of the West, he gained respect from Asians more than any other man of his time.

Ricci triumphed in a battle that has raced across time for centuries, the difficult meshing of the East and the West.  He represents a mix of cultures and information, and a successful mix at that.  He brought the great advances of science and math to the Chinese, information they desperately needed to move their society forward.  The Jesuits brought their Christian mission, and did convert many of the Chinese.  Their best success at it involved implementing Chinese values into the Christian system.  Above all, the Ming were not keen on letting in foreigners.  They saw them as barbaric and uncivilized.  However, Matteo Ricci was able to bridge that misconception and gain acceptance by them.  He was born in the West, died in the East and is buried there today.  The Chinese even have a commemorative stamp in honor of him.  Ricci is revered today as a foreigner who understood the complex Chinese system of life and a Westerner of intense intelligence.


Cronin, Vincent.  The Wise Man From the West.  New York: Dutton and Co., 1955
Hay, Malcom.  Failure in the Far East.  Philadelphia, Dufour Editions, 1957.
Ronin, Chrales E. East Meet West, The Jesuits in China, 1582-1773.  Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1988.
Spalatin, Christopher, A., S.J.  Matteo Ricci’s Use of Epictetus.  Waegwan, Korea:
       University of Gregoriana Press,1975.
Schallvon Bell, Johann Adam, S.J.  Missioner in China.  Koln publishing, 1932.

Web Resources :  Ricci's Scientific Contributions  Summary with Links to Ming Dynasty  Christianity in China  Summary of Ricci's Life : Links to Other Influential Jesuits