On October 6th, 1552 (exactly 428 years before my sister Jenny’s birth!), a boy named Matteo Ricci was born in Italy. He grew up wanting to study theology and law, and so as soon as his circumstances permitted, he matriculated to a Jesuit institution, and studied them both. By 25 he had developed a heart to become a missionary to the Indians (dots not feathers). He spent four years in India, and was then re-assigned to China.
He immediately began learning Chinese, and fell deeply in love with the Chinese people. And so his studying went far beyond their spoken language; Ricci became one of the rare Western scholars who achieved mastery over the classical Chinese script (he is also responsible for writing the first ever European—Chinese dictionary). After a year of studying Chinese language, calligraphy, and culture he moved to Zhaoqing. There he began working on the first European-style map of the world in Chinese, which he completed within 12 months. But in that classical Ricci manner, he wasn’t satisfied with the field right in front of him (the globe) – he was also a very talented astronomer, and predicted an eclipse that even the Chinese astronomers couldn’t. And so the whole Chinese calendar was reworked according to the astronomical mathematics that the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci shared with them in the 16th century. A prominent Chinese version of Euclid’s Elements still has Matteo Ricci on its cover.
Matteo Ricci made a number of calls that we might take issue with today. But what he most certainly did right was this: he never lost his first Love or his vision to share Him with the people with whom he had also fallen in love.
His love for Chinese people drew him to study, respect, and contribute to their culture, and he did so from within – first learning their language, their script, their geography, their manners, and their ways. He wasn’t concerned with flooding China with European people, clothes, and language, with the Catholic church, or with Caucasian culture. His heart was ultimately for a deeply-running and authentically Chinese love for Jesus to take root. And during his investment into the Chinese people, he discovered a very interesting kernel of truth, embedded deeply within their worldview, that could help him realize his vision. The Chinese people have a very ancient concept called the “Tao”. Wikipedia helps explain,
Tao is a concept found in Taoism, Confucianism, and more generally in ancient Chinese philosophy. While the character itself translates as ‘way’, ‘path’, or ‘route’, or sometimes more loosely as ‘doctrine’ or ‘principle’, it is used philosophically to signify the fundamental or true nature of the world… In Taoism, Tao both precedes and encompasses the universe… all the observable objects in the world… are considered to be manifestations of Tao, and can only operate within the boundaries of Tao. Tao is, by contrast, often referred to as ‘the nameless’, because neither it nor its principles can ever be adequately expressed in words. It is conceived, for example, with neither shape nor form, as simultaneously perfectly still and constantly moving, as both larger than the largest thing and smaller than the smallest, because the words that describe shape, movement, size, or other qualities always create dichotomies, and Tao is always a unity. While the Tao cannot be expressed, Taoism holds that it can be known, and its principles can be followed. Much of Taoist writing focusses on the value of following the Tao… and of the ultimate uselessness of trying to understand or control Tao outright.
So guess what Matteo Ricci did? In keeping with the philosophy of St. John himself, he translated the first line of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God.”. (Before you react to this, consider that John’s original version used a similar Greek word, “logos”, which was also pretty philosophically loaded and in need of some leavening.) This translation has been used in major Bible translations ever since, and the current standard, the “Chinese Union Version”, still uses it four hundred years later.
Unlike so many other Christians, and missionaries from other religions, Matteo Ricci was immensely respected in China. In 1601 he was invited to present himself to the Emperor at his imperial court, becoming the first Westerner to be invited into the Forbidden City. He never wound up meeting the Emperor face to face, but the Emperor gave Ricci a large sum of money, which he was able to use to help support other missionaries in China.
He also earned the respect of non-Chinese residents. The elderly Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Beijing wanted him to take over his position as Rabbi (provided he give up eating pork). After considering the offer, Ricci politely declined.
When Matteo Ricci finally died, instead of being buried in a place called “Macao”, where all foreigners were buried, the Emperor granted the Jesuits special permission to bury Ricci in Beijing in a special temple, because of his contributions to the Chinese people. There is a memorial plague in Zhaoqing to commemorate his stay in the city, and in the 1960’s a “Ricci Memorial Center” was built.