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Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encountrer with the East – M. Laven

June 23, 2016

MTCI first became interested in China as a teenager, when I was befriended by the late Bishop Frank Houghton of the China Inland Mission.

Why did these missionaries fail? After all, they built according to the principles of Feng Shui.

The book has eight chapters, including the introduction entitled ‘Mapping the world’ and a concluding chapter (‘The smell of Christianity’ – incense!). Systematically Laven traces the progress of the Jesuit missionaries through the, initially, virtually impenetrable maze of cultural and linguistic conundrums they faced when first arriving in China. Their attempts at rationalising a world which had hitherto been open to merely a token number of their European contemporaries are compared to a Soviet description of Cambridge. Produced for Soviet military intelligence at the close of the Cold War, few members of the Soviet elite would have had first-hand knowledge of Mary Laven’s adopted home town. The author thus seeks to demonstrate the discrepancy between technical knowledge, however sophisticated, and the cumulative experience which only active participation in public life can purvey.

The first two chapters relate the missionaries’ passage to China, via a maritime route testifying to the muscle and extent of Portugal’s commercial might. So we read of the marvels of Goa and Macau, an imposing building with occidental architectural features right next to Guangdong’s tallest pagoda (the Tower of High Fortune), as well as the missionary aspirations for a permanent residence in Zhaoqing and Guangzhou. Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri were tested to the limits in an environment to which they were the clear outsiders (‘”the people are enemies of foreigners”‘, (p. 64)) and where religious identity was defined along very different lines (‘”In China there exists no true religion” … “[the Chinese] are not attached to their sects”‘, (p. 66)). Laven then extracts evidence from Ricci’s letters revealing the extent of the new arrivals’ exotic value, with curious literati attempting to gain further insight into the strange nature of the European visitors. What exactly they made of Ricci and his Jesuit confrères is hard to gauge; the description accompanying the Soviet map of Cambridge once again springs to mind. As second-hand accounts, the Jesuit sources reveal surprise, at times consternation, at the degree of ignorance about the world beyond the Chinese literati’s universe, as well as a high degree of scientific and linguistic awareness. A typical example is Ricci’s baffled statement of 1595 that the literati “‘know nothing. … They think that the earth is flat and square; that the sky is made of a single liquid, that is air, and many other absurd things'” (p. 94). They also reveal an unshakable sense of certainty about the nature of their mission and its appeal amongst the very elite the Jesuits intended to attract to their faith. ”’If we teach them our sciences”’, concluded Ricci in 1609, ‘”it will be easy to persuade them to our holy law”’ (p. 95).

By 1595, Ricci had become conversant with the Ming Empire’s literati elite, both in terms of language and with their educational background. Now it was time for the Catholic polymath to prove to his influential acquaintances that European civilisation was in no way inferior to that of his hosts and that it furthermore chimed perfectly well with the Confucian principles they were steeped in. His case in point was friendship, focus of chapter three, which figured highly in Greek philosophy and in the social ethics of Confucianism. This relatively short chapter shows the author’s talents for interweaving the familiar with the new, in this case the Renaissance perception of man and nature with the social etiquette of the late Ming period. Being expert in the former, Mary Laven employs the insight provided by first-rate cultural historians, such as Craig Clunas, in order to demonstrate how late imperial literati society was held together by a glue of communal eating and conversation. The chapter mentions tea, although a major innovation of the time, tobacco smoking, is omitted. 200 years later, opium would complement tea and tobacco in the genteel world of Chinese guest ritual.

The life of convert Qu Rukui is analysed, both in terms of fathoming his understanding of the Christian faith and as a typical example of late imperial China’s scholar officials. Its function is to introduce the extent of knowledge which the Jesuits, as the Counter Reformation’s intellectual spearhead, were equipped with. Theology, astronomy and medicine are the elements of this study, which Laven reconstructs from 16th-century sources, i.e. Ricci’s collected letters (superbly edited by Francesco d’Arelli) and the Fonti ricciane. Citing Ricci, Laven summarises that “‘If it is not possible to say of this realm that the philosophers are kings, at least one can say with truth that the kings are governed by philosophers'” (p. 134).  After presenting the multitude of examination hurdles (3 day long exams where you took your bed into the exam room and tried not to drink because there wasn’t a toilet – the rote-learning and exam system in China today isn’t much different) which China’s intellectuals had to clear level by level, the European university system is explained in great detail, with the focus on the particular experience of Jesuit education. ‘As Ricci surveyed would-be literati’, Laven concludes, ‘desperately studying for their exams, experiencing rejection or jubilant success, he doubtless identified with the cut and thrust of male careerism’ (p. 136).

Chapter five dwells on the stand-off between the Jesuits and the palace eunuchs. It is characteristic of Laven’s book that the phenomenon itself receives such prominent status. The author is certainly puzzled by China’s eunuchs, drawing parallels with the craze of emasculating prepubescent choir boys in Catholic Europe, but never ceasing to identify with Ricci’s repulsion against China’s very own castrati. Castration is graphically described and is the sort of stuff to give you nightmares.

The theme of chapter four is taken up again in the sixth chapter, which features an analysis of Riccci’s Tianzhu shiyi, ‘The true meaning of the Lord of Heaven’, as well as in the conclusion (‘The smell of Christianity’). Laven provides ample evidence of the missionaries’ accommodation to Chinese culture during the introduction of their message and, thus, in the creation of a new variant of the Christian faith. Although ‘miracles were sidelined in [Ricci’s] accounts of mission strategy, although ‘they were copiously recorded elsewhere in the Letters and his History of the mission’ (p. 234). Although they aimed to appeal to reason and the intellect, the Jesuits’ reputation for producing miraculous solutions to earthly problems had become a major reason for converting to Christianity, for commoners and intellectuals alike. As important as the missionaries’ alleged power to expel demons out of sickness-stricken minds and bodies was their admiration of the scripture-worshipping civilisation that was late imperial China. And while scholar-officials spent their precious time collecting and incinerating stray pieces of written paper, the ‘logocentric’ (p. 236) Jesuits furnished their very own holy books with everything it took to impress the literati they so longingly sought to convert. Finally, the author’s account of Matteo Ricci’s death in 1610, as well as of the subsequent death rites, funeral and eventual burial, produces ample evidence of the cultural confluences characterising this Jesuit mission. It is almost a shame that the book ends at this point, since it reads very much like the beginning of a new discourse, sufficiently substantial to form the basis of a much longer study.

The author familiarised herself with the subject matter to such an extent that she could place a historically well observed biography on the Jesuit Matteo Ricci as if she had been writing on her ‘home topic’ of Renaissance Italy.

But was Adam Schall von Bell ‘less intelligent’ (p. 225)?

She thinks Ricci can never be declared a saint but the cause of his beatification, originally begun in 1984, was reopened on January 24, 2010, at the cathedral of the Italian diocese of Macerata-Tolentino-Recanati-Cingoli-Treia. Bishop Claudio Giuliodori, the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Macerata, formally closed the diocesan phase of the sainthood process on May 10, 2013. The cause moved to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican in 2014 so watch this space.

 Quotations:

Macao was viewed with acute suspicion, and on more than one occasion Jesuits were accused of kidnapping Chinese boys in order to sell them as slaves to the Portu­guese community. They were also charged with grilling the bodies of children, on account of the unfamiliar smell of roast pork that rose from the priests’ spit.67 Child abduction was a slur even more powerful and indicative of Chinese fears than the allegations of sexual misconduct that would surface in time.”

‘the Chinese will not be able to understand what is written’. Item 21 proposed some large oil paintings of religious subjects: an image of Christ in glory, surrounded with many angels, and of the Assump­tion of Our Lady, ‘perfect and glorious’ with baby in her Iarms, or alternatively of the Virgin and Child, ‘surrounded by angels and very glorious’. The insistence that Mary bear ; the attribute of the baby Jesus even when depicted in the Assumption is unusual in Western iconography, and sug­gests the need to emphasise Mary’s role as Mother of God lest she be mistaken for a god herself, as had happened in Zhaoqing.

the Jesuits were invited to a feast at an ‘idol temple’. Seeing an oppor­tunity, the Fathers handed out copies of Ruggieri’s Chinese Catechism, in the hope that the chapter dedicated to the condemnation of false idols would convince the people of their errors. Almeida was apparently struck by the similar­ity of a painted image of a woman stamping on a dragon and a moon to that of the Queen of Heaven, but Ruggieri disabused him by explaining that the woman was really the daughter of an emperor.

On the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1605, the Jesuits celebrated one of their greatest triumphs to date: the bap­tism, at the Nanjing residence, of Qu Rukui, now known by his Christian name, ‘Ignatius’: Before receiving baptism, reported Ricci, Qu went down on his knees, and began ‘with much spirit and devotion to beat the ground in front of him, which in this land is a sign of asking pardon’. He then recit­ed a protestation of faith, in which he renounced his past life of sin, and his erroneous pursuit of false religion, and recalled his good fortune in meeting the Western priests. Displaying an impressive mastery of the tenets of Chris­tian belief and practice, he presented himself to receive the waters of baptism ‘that wash away all the filth of the past’, pledged obedience to God, asked the Holy Spirit to guide him, and sought the intervention of the Virgin Mary. He ended his proclamation:

For this I beseech of the Queen, the Mother of God, that she deign to give me strength and to animate me from within, ensur­ing that my intentions are strong, firm, and without vacillation, and opening up to me the power of my soul, and making my spirit modest and pure; in order that my heart, thus illuminated, might hold truth and reason, and my mouth fill with holy words for me to spread and sow throughout China, so that everyone may know the holy law of God and be subjected to it.’

Qu’s appeal to the Virgin resonated powerfully on this occa­sion, for his baptism took place on one of the major Marian festivals of the Catholic calendar: the celebration of Mary’s conception of Jesus, nine months before Christmas.

Fifty-six years old and a native of Jiangsu province, Qu was a plum convert: a man of great intellect, charm and social standing, of whom the Jesuits were understandably proud. Ricci considered him ‘among his oldest and greatest friends’, and someone who had done much to enhance the missionaries’ situation in China.3 His position of influence was in large part bequeathed to him by his father, whose success in the civil service exams had been legendary. Qu’s father had gone on to serve as President of the Ministry of Rites, in charge of state ceremonies, and was considered by some to have been the greatest literatus of his times .4 So Qu was a catch, a promising example to counter Ricci’s lament that the Jesuits had failed to convert-anyone of any consequences

What had attracted this trophy neophyte with his emi­nent relatives and ready understanding of Christian theolo­gy to the font? Qu had first heard about the Jesuits in Zhao-ging in 1589, when he was undergoing some sort of mid-life crisis. According to Ricci, his father had died while Qu was still ‘in the flower of his youth’, and without the restraint of paternal authority, his life had begun to spin out of con­trol. Despite his remarkable intelligence, he had never risen beyond the first level of the civil service exams. By the time Ricci met him, he had fallen into ‘bad habits’ and had blown most of his inheritance on failed alchemical experiments. Poverty had led him to travel around China, scrounging off friends and cashing in on his late father’s credit. When Qu first sought out the Jesuits in Shaozhou, it was in the hope of being taught the secrets of alchemy. Ricci steered him instead towards a year’s intensive study of mathematics.

When a recent edi­tor of Ricci’s letters dubs Qu a ‘zealous and exemplary disci­ple’, his impulse towards hagiography ignores the awkward facts that Qu’s conversion was delayed by his reluctance to marry his concubine, and that he continued to practise alchemy long after his baptism.’ The profile of the ideal convert and ‘exemplary disciple’ was dogged by attitudes that were unchristian and — according to European defini­tions — unscientific.

The overriding objective of Daoist practitioners of the art was to create an elixir of life. This was the desire of Qu Rukui, the prestigious Christian convert whom we encountered at the start of this chapter, and of this the Jesuits could scarcely approve.

Christianity was, after all, a religion in which death played an important part. To the European priests, it seemed that Qu’s fear of death was pathological, to be cured only by dedicated practice of the Spiritual Exercises of Qu’s name­sake, Ignatius Loyola.”

And while the main impetus for censorship in Europe derived from the desire to impose confessional uni­formity, the Chinese authorities did not endorse a single religion. Confucians, Buddhists, Daoists . . . and Christians were free to print and distribute their teachings.

almost certainly been familiar with Canisius’s work. In 1565, Juan de Polanco, Secretary to the Society of Jesus, reported in a circular letter that the Jesuits had had 3,000 copies of Canisius’s Catechism printed on the presses of the Collegio Romano.” It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Ricci’s own Catechism — although produced thousands of miles away from the conflicts of the Reformation — should have been inflected with certain polemical views.

Thus the chapter on ‘Motivation, Reward, and Punish­ment’ is driven not only by the need to convince the Chinese of the existence of Heaven and Hell; it is also a reaffir­mation of the Catholic doctrines of salvation and free will: There is not a man who does not provide against the future and who does not consider things before they arise. The farmer ploughs and sows in spring, hoping for a harvest in the autumn. The pine tree grows for a hundred years before it produces any seeds, and yet men plant them . . . In his youth a scholar will labour diligently over his books so that his learning will be broad and penetrating and he will eventually be able to support his king and be of benefit to his nation.’

All these examples, carefully chosen for their accessibility to Chinese ears, were simultaneously designed to demon­strate the fallibility of Protestant teachings on predestina­tion. Attempting to dispel the notion (horrific to a Catholic) of man’s inability to earn God’s favour, Ricci insists on the fundamental impulse to invest in one’s future. Just as an examinee will labour over his books in the hope of one day gaining an important post in the administration of his country, so must mortals struggle to achieve good works in this world in order to attain salvation in the next.

The Lord of Heaven was equally attuned to contemporary debates in China, and the incipient protests of those literati who would soon be united within the so-called Donglin Academy provide a crucial context for understanding Ricci’s own vociferous condemnation of syncretism.”‘ For on top of the positive messages of creation and salvation, brought to the Chinese by Ricci’s Catechism, the whole text is over­laid with criticism of Buddhism, Daoism and — still worse ­those ill-considered tendencies towards religious hybridity that threatened to muddy the clear waters of Confucianism. In the second chapter of the Lord of Heaven, Ricci set about dispelling ‘heterodoxy’ — as he straightforwardly called anything but the ancient doctrines of Confucianism — by means of reason. In this, he was confident that he carried the opinion of ‘the superior men’ of China with him. But while, in Ricci’s view, Confucian books expressed a consist­ent animosity towards Buddhism and Daoism as barbarian and heretical, never before had anyone systematically tried to demonstrate the falsehood of their teachings (or so he claimed).” Ricci attempted therefore to lay bare the essential incompatibility of Buddhist and Daoist beliefs with those of Confucius, and argued that the ‘nothing’ of the Daoists and the ‘voidness’ of the Buddhists could in no way be fudged with the ‘existence’ and ‘sincerity’ of the Confucians.”‘ As Ricci went on to claim, ‘In the world of opposites there are no greater distinctions than those between emptiness and fullness and between existence and non-existence.’ Not all Chinese scholars would have agreed with his bold procla­mations. Since the early sixteenth century, Wang Yangming (1472-1529) and his followers had introduced concepts and criteria from Daoist and Buddhist sources into their lec­tures and writings on Confucian works. But from the end of the century, there was a backlash against Buddhist idola­try and the syncretic trend, and intellectual practitioners of fusion were increasingly parodied as ‘mad Zen’.

This rejection of reincarnation then leads him into an attack on vegetarians, who scruple to take the life of animals `lest the oxen and horses they slaughter are later incarnations of their parents’, and yet — quite inconsistently — are willing to subject the same beasts to hard labour in the fields. What way was that to treat one’s ancestors? Buddhist dietary prin­ciples were in any case found by Ricci to be illogical in their execution, since ‘we find that they only refrain from killing living creatures when they fast and abstain on the first and fifteenth of the month’ (though, in reality, the Jesuit knew of several Chinese vegetarians who were far stricter in their habits). According to Ricci, this was ‘like a person who kills people daily and devours their flesh, but who then, wishing to join the camp of the compassionate; says: “I shall refrain from killing and eating people on the first and fifteenth of the month.”‘ Furthermore, it was clear to the Jesuit that God had made animals for the comfort and use of humans: Birds and animals have feathers, fur, and hides which can be used to make winter clothing and shoes; they have ivory tusks from which can be made wonderful utensils or which can be used as marvellous medicines to cure sickness. Then, there are some ani­mals with excellent flavours which can serve to nurture both old and young. Why should we not select what we want from among them and make use of them? If the Lord of Heaven does not per­mit men to kill animals for food, has he not endowed them with excellent flavours to no avail?

Added to the failure to distinguish between men and beasts, the Buddhists were also guilty of making a false distinction between animals and plants. In Ricci’s view, if they objected to eating animal flesh, then they should also abstain from consuming fruit and vegetables:

You say that grass and trees have no blood because you are only aware of red blood. You do not know whether what is white or green might not after all be blood . . . Why must it always be red? If you try to observe prawns, crabs, and the like in water, you will find that many of them do not have red blood, yet Buddhists refrain from eating them. Some vegetables, on the other hand, do have red liquid within them, yet Buddhists do not prohibit the eating of them. Why should [the Buddhists] assign such impor­tance to the blood of animals and pay so little heed to the blood of grass and trees?

Ricci’s arguments against Buddhist doctrines and in par­ticular their dietary laws are among the weakest in the Catechism. His repeated reliance on ‘common sense’ — despite his advanced awareness that what is deemed ‘obvious’ in one culture may seem improbable in another — suggests a determination to talk away the opposition rather than to engage it in rational debate. After all, elsewhere in The Lord of Heaven, when defending Christian doctrines, Ricci often resorted to notions of wonder, invisibility and inexplicabil­ity: ‘If it were easy for man to understand Him He would not be the Lord of Heaven: Whatever the quality of Ricci’s arguments, there is no doubting the passion with which he hated a Buddhist veg­etarian. This was unfortunate to say the least, as one realises when one considers the identities of those who converted to Christianity. Take `Gioseppe’, a prosperous merchant in Shaozhou, who presided over a household of thirty to forty people, and-who was baptised in 1591; renowned among his own community for his saintliness, he ate ‘neither meat nor fish nor eggs nor anything similar, but subsisted on leaves and vegetables and other things of the kind’. Gioseppe pos­sessed some regrettable misapprehensions about Christian ity, and his conversion led him to behave in ways that the Jesuits could scarcely condone: He was persuaded that becoming a Christian meant leaving the world and adopting the hermit’s life, relinquishing the things of this world, as he has done, leaving his wife and all the traf­fic of his house, and only attending to matters of his [spiritual] health.

Gioseppe was not alone among the neophytes in his extreme and — in the eyes of the Jesuits — misguided approach to reli­gion. Writing from Zhaoqing in 1585, in one of his earliest pronouncements on the nature of the Chinese converts, Ricci noted that there had thus far been twelve baptisms, the major­ity of whom were ‘men of penitence, who fast in the manner of the Chinese, that is who eat neither meat nor fish’  Later accounts of conversion were accompanied by descriptions of the ritual destruction of images, and confirmed that the neo­phytes came from the ranks not of the literati but of those idolatrous Buddhists whom Ricci had for so long claimed to despise. In truth, there were many points of parallel between Buddhism and Christianity, aside from their shared commit­ment to celibacy. Both religions had a foreign origin, and a formal priesthood who took monastic vows, wore robes and engaged in ceremonial chants. Both observed a liturgical calendar, and made use of a variety of spiritual accessories including incense, images and relics. While differing in the particulars, Buddhists and Christians were united in believing in an afterlife. Both were committed to the virtues of char­ity, compassion and the suppression of the passions. When the Jesuits arrived in China, it seems that Buddhist ‘men of penitence’ were attracted to Christianity because it appeared to chime with their ascetic lifestyle. But the Jesuits wanted their converts to be placed at the centre of secular affairs; they did not wish them to retreat from the world.

he had very little to say about the place of women. He did, however, pause to voice his approval of the custom of footbinding (thereby distinguishing himself from the Protestant mis­sionaries of the nineteenth century), and remarked that ‘this was surely the invention of some wise man, in order to pre–vent women going out and about and to keep them at home, as was fitting’

Miracles belonged to the Europe that Ricci and his col­leagues had left behind, but they also belonged to China. The similarities between European and Chinese concepts of the miraculous struck Michele Ruggieri and his Portu­guese colleague Antonio de Almeida forcefully during their travels in southern China in 1586. Visiting a temple near Nanjing, Ruggieri observed, ‘Inside this church there hung many tablets on which miracles were recorded; there were also eyes and feet modelled in wax, silver and gold, as one sees in the famous houses of the Madonna in our Europe.’ He might well have been thinking specifically of Loreto.

Of course, one might wonder if Ruggieri was misread­ing the evidence before him and, in the spirit of European travellers throughout the world, desperately familiarising the exotic. (After all, according to Jesuit commentators, Nanxiong and Nanchang were readily comparable to Flo­rence, Suzhou and Shaoxing scarcely distinguishable from Venice.) But, on this occasion, the Jesuit’s comments are backed by Chinese evidence for the presence in late Ming temples of ‘votive tablets’ — inscribed plaques given by grateful believers — as well as a variety of figures or objects usually made of plaster or paper, left as testimony of pra­yers made and prayers answered.

In Ricci’s Catechism, Chinese religion was misrepresented in myriad ways, the most significant distoi the superimposition of a personal god on the `supreme Heaven’, venerated by Confucians, ant the insistence on a pure and original body of doctrine in of a belief system that was — for all the Jesuits fundamentally fluid and syncretic. The Christianity depict­ed in Ricci’s Catechism was equally warped, and while the censors in Macao were prepared to give it their blessing, it is unlikely that it would ever have passed the scrutiny of the Inquisition in Rome. For while we have focused on the religious truths propounded by Ricci in The Lord of Heaven, we have thus far ignored the extraordinary omissions. These relate principally to the account — dashed off in a meagre paragraph of the final chapter — of Christ’s life and death: One thousand six hundred and three years ago, in the year geng­shen, in the second year after Emperor Ai of the Han dynasty adopted the reign title Yuanshou, on the third day following the winter solstice, He selected a chaste woman who had never expe­rienced sexual intercourse to be His mother, became incarnate within her and was born. His name was Jesus, the meaning of which is ‘the one who saves the world’. He established His own teachings and taught for thirty-three years in the West. He then reascended to Heaven. These were concrete actions of the Lord of Heaven.

Amazingly, Ricci glosses over the nature of the death of Christ. Perhaps put off by the reaction of the eunuch Ma Tang to finding a crucifix in his luggage, or fearful of reviving memories of the crucifixion of twenty-six Christians, including three Jesuits, in Nagasaki in 1597, Ricci decided quite simply to write Christ’s execution on the cross out of the story. And with the Crucifixion gone, he also elimi­nates the Last Supper. But what on earth were neophytes to make of the Eucharist, if they were not allowed to know how Christ had died?

We are reminded of Valignano’s request to Rome to send pictures ‘of happy things, not of martyrs, wars, nor of the mysteries of the Passion, since these do not serve the Chi­nese’. But the Jesuits’ less than ingenuous approach to the portrayal of Christian doctrine and its relationship to Chinese beliefs would come back to haunt the mission after Ricci’s death. Reactions to The Lord of Heaven in the dec­ades after it was published have been skilfully reconstructed by the sinologist Jacques Gernet. Using sources such as the Poxie ji or Collection for the Destruction of Vicious Doctrines, published in its complete eight-volume version in 1639, he reveals the extent of the disgust experienced by Chinese intellectuals on discovering the ‘deceptions’ that Ricci had wrought on them. The copious examples garnered by Ger­net focus on exactly the three ‘misrepresentations’ identified above. Firstly, the sleight of hand whereby Ricci attempts to conflate the Christian ‘Lord of Heaven’ with the Confucian reverence for ‘Heaven’ itself. Here Zhang Chao, who was a friend and collaborator of various prominent Jesuits in the latter seventeenth century, nonetheless voiced significant reservations regarding their doctrines:

These people are extremely intelligent. Their studies concern astronomy, the calendar, medicine and mathematics; their cus­toms are compounded of loyalty, good faith, constancy and integ­rity; their skill is wonderful. They truly have the means to win minds … The only trouble is that it is a pity that they speak of a Master of Heaven, an incorrect and distasteful term which leads them into nonsense which our men of letters have the greatest difficulty in accepting. If only they could leave [that idea] alone and not talk about it, they would be very close to our own Con­fucianism … Our Confucianism has never held that Heaven had a mother or a bodily form, and it has never spoken of events that are supposed to have occurred before and after his birth. Is it not true that herein lies the difference between our Confucianism and their doctrine?

Secondly, we encounter a cynicism regarding Ricci’s strat­egy of exalting Confucianism at the expense of Buddhism and Daoism. For example, Wang Qyuan, writing in 1623, observed:

The Barbarians began by attacking Buddhism. Next, they attacked Daoism, next the later Confucianism [houru, i.e. neo­Confucianism]. If they have not yet attacked Confucius, that is because they wish to remain on good terms with the literate elite and the mandarins, in order to spread their doctrine. But they are simply chafing at the bit in secret, and have not yet declared themselves!’

Thirdly, there comes the realisation of the truth of Christ’s ignominious death. This was the result, in part, of the dif­ferent evangelical approach adopted by Ricci’s successors. But Ricci’s insistence on keeping silent about the Crucifix­ion was always bound to be a short-term strategy. In 1616, a lawsuit was brought against the Christians of Nanjing as a result of an anti-Christian movement led by the litera­tus Shen Que, who petitioned the Emperor with a raft of charges against the missionaries, including the fact that they were encouraging people to worship a criminal.n The priests were arrested and a proclamation was issued condemning Christian belief Particular opprobrium was reserved for a work, entitled Short Version of the Doctrine of the Master of Heaven, that claimed that `Yesu . . . died nailed by evil administrators to a structure in the form of a character that denotes ten.’ With what ‘audacity’ did the Jesuits ‘abuse the ears of the Emperor with such lying statements so contrary to propriety!’ How could an executed barbarian convict be called the Master of Heaven?’ A later commentator, Yang Guangxian, noticed the shift in Jesuit tactics: In his books, Ricci took very good care not to speak of the lawful execution of Yesu. Thus all the literate elite have been deceived and duped. That is what makes Ricci a great criminal.

By contrast, Ricci’s successor Adam Schall, based in Bei­jng from 1630 until his death in 1666, and — according to Yang — ‘less intelligent’, had gone and spilled the beans. The case against Ricci and his colleagues is clear: by pro­ceeding with characteristic ‘caution and delicacy’ in the first instance, the Jesuits won influential friends. But, in the end, their determination to obscure the fundamental teachings of the Christian Church generated only confusion and war­ranted accusations of deceit.

Matteo Ricci and his colleagues were so doggedly cer­ebral in their approach to evangelisation that it is easy to forget that they belonged to an order whose trademark was emotive devotion. In the public domain, Jesuit preachers prided themselves on their ability to reduce audiences to tears. Privately, meanwhile, members of the order and their lay followers were encouraged to subject themselves to a process of introspection that required them to call on the senses in order to excite their emotions. This they might achieve through ‘imagination’ — not just visual imagination but the mental invocation of all the senses with the aim of activating the emotions. As an aid to this process, St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the order, developed a system of structured meditation, the Spiritual Exercises. His invitation to contemplate the horrors of Hell suggests just how that system was supposed to work. First, ‘the exercit­ant’ or practitioner of the Exercises is called on ‘to look with the eyes of the imagination at the great fires and at the souls appearing to be in burning bodies’. Second, he or she is urged to ‘hear with one’s ears the wailings, howls, cries, blasphemies against Christ Our Lord and against all the saints’. The third challenge is ‘to smell with the sense of smell the smoke, the burning sulphur, the cesspit and the rotting matter’. The fourth is ‘to taste with the sense of taste bitter things, such as tears, sadness and the pangs of con science’. Finally, he or she must ‘feel with the sense of touch. . . how those in hell are licked around and burned with the fires’. So, in invoking the smell of a Christian church whenever he prayed, the old man of Shanghai was engaging in a devotional exercise that was far from being unfamiliar to the Jesuits.

In the final years of Ricci’s life, as the Jesuits attempt­ed to turn their makeshift oratories into the first Chris­tian churches in China, neophytes were transported into a strange new world of smells, sights and sounds.’ There was the extraordinary buzz of Latin liturgy being mouthed by converts who — once again — did not understand the words, but realised their significance. And the sound of neophytes weeping as they recounted their sins.” There were the curi­ous religious images that seemed to the Chinese ‘to be sculpted, for they could not believe that they were drawn’. The church had its own distinctive smell: a mixture per­haps of Chinese incense, European-style candles and the unfamiliar scent of Portuguese Communion wine. These were, in turn, the props to a completely new set of rituals. Not just the sacraments of communion, confession and bap­tism, but a whole calendar of feasts and ceremonies, as well as the veneration of certain books and images that defined one’s identity as a Christian. And perhaps most significant in the life of a neophyte (and enthusiastically recorded in Ricci’s narrative) there were the cleansing rituals of icono­clasm — the breakings and the burnings of the wrong books and images — that marked the departure from one faith and the admittance to another.

As the anthropologist James Watson has com­mented, ‘If anything is central to the creation and mainte­nance of a unified Chinese culture, it is the standardisation of ritual.’ This shared heritage of ritual practices — and in particular the practices surrounding key moments in the life cycle — was the cultural foundation on which the Chinese state was built. In this vast and ethnically diverse empire, argues Watson, there was little attempt to regulate what people believed. There was, in contrast with Christendom, `no centralised hierarchy of specialists charged with respon­sibility of dispensing religious truth’. The emphasis was on the enforcement of orthopraxy (correct practice) rather than orthodoxy (correct belief), enabling state officials to incor­porate people from different backgrounds and with varying beliefs into an overarching social system. … But by the middle of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits were under attack, especially from their rivals in the mendicant orders who had embarked on their own programme of mission in China. The Jesuits’ approach to indigenous rituals, especially those surrounding the dead, came under increasing scrutiny from Rome, and resulted in a series of decrees (in 1704,1707, and 1715) banning Chinese rites, followed by a furious backlash from the Kangxi Emperor. Missionaries were placed in an impossible position: either they could sign a patent agreeing to the authority of the Emperor in all matters relat­ing to religion (and risk excommunication by the Pope) or they could remain loyal to Rome, and abandon the mission.

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