Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East

Jonathan Wright revels in a new history of the intriguing Jesuit mission to China

Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East
Author: Mary Laven
Publisher: Faber
Reviewed by: Jonathan Wright
Price (RRP): £17.99

The Jesuit mission to China was an extraordinary adventure. From the 16th century to the order’s late 18th-century suppression (and, in some cases, beyond), Jesuits had a phenomenal impact on Chinese culture.

They mapped the country, served as astronomers and diplomats, designed and blessed cannon, painted pictures, and even installed fountains in the imperial gardens.

They did not always perform such labours out of the goodness of their hearts, of course. The Jesuits quickly calculated that the best way to win over converts among China’s political and social elite was to make themselves indispensable or, at least, figures of intellectual curiosity.

It was not always an evangelical success story (the number of people won over to Christianity was relatively meagre) but it produced one of the early modern era’s most intriguing examples of cross-cultural encounter.

The great trailblazer was the brilliant Italian Matteo Ricci who shipped up in China in the early 1580s. He followed a tried and tested Jesuit missionary strategy: adapt to circumstances.

After a shaky start, he dressed like a Confucian scholar, tailored his religious message to suit local circumstances, and worked inordinately hard to impress his audience with knowledge and trinkets – in this instance, clocks, prisms, seductive theories, and maps. Such efforts were controversial, especially when they were deemed to pollute important theological waters, but they never lacked dynamism or ingenuity.

Cambridge historian Mary Laven concedes that this tale has been told many times before so she has aimed at something new: fresh insights into “mental worlds more broadly conceived” and the “psychic pressures and irrational energies” that helped to define both the missionary enterprise in China and its reception.

She scores notable victories. Her reflections on Ricci’s understanding of the concept of friendship are thought-provoking, the sections on the importance of the prism as a valuable gift of cultural exchange might just create a scholarly cottage industry, and there is a detailed analysis of the clash between western and eastern attitudes towards masculinity.

Laven reminds us that the Jesuit presence in China did more than spark an “encounter between learned ideas”. It was also about “emotions and human relationships” in a world full of extraordinary “rituals, images and objects.”

This book provides a first-rate narrative account of Ricci’s odyssey, which always makes for a good read. It was, by turns, a story of curiosity, condescension, compromise, and muted admiration.

The very best thing about this book, however, is that it also takes us on a fascinating journey through Ricci’s mental landscape and that is not easily accomplished.

Laven’s understanding of Jesuit approaches to mission is sometimes a little one-dimensional. Not everyone in the order (nor every Jesuit in China) was a proponent of accommodation and adaptation.

This minor grumble aside, it is a pleasure to report that Laven deserves laurels. Alongside Ronnie Hsia’s recent biography, this is one of the two best books about Ricci since Jonathan Spence’s 1980s classic. 

Jonathan Wright is the author of The Jesuits: Missions, Myths and Histories (Harper Perennial, 2010)

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