Matteo Ricci was an Italian Jesuit who was given permission in 1601 to live in Beijing, the Ming dynasty capital, as a scholar with an imperial stipend. He and his fellow Jesuits impressed the dynasty and its officials with their erudition, especially in astronomy and mathematics. Their expertise proved to be very practical to a civilization that believed the stars told of the rise and fall of dynasties and possessed an economy that relied heavily on waterworks, which required more than rudimentary knowledge of geometry to create and maintain.
A Ming dynasty official named Xu Guangqi decided to learn what he could from Ricci. Xu’s education led to the creation of the Chongzhen Calendar, a more accurate version of the Chinese calendar with corrections inspired by Western astronomy. It also led to a translation of Euclid’s Geometry published in 1607.
Today, as China modernizes and embraces the world of capitalism, it celebrates Xu Guangqi as a modern scientist and great synthesizer of East-West culture and civilization.
Scholars, mostly Chinese, often attribute Xu’s conversion to Catholicism in 1603 to his interest in Western science and its practical use in the Chinese setting. Others, mainly Catholics and Jesuits, explain his conversion as the result of his sincere faith in God through the revelation of Ricci.
While I do not reject any of these explanations, Chu Hung-lam (Zhu Honglin), a Ming historian based at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explains more satisfactorily why Xu made this decision.
Chu revisited Xu’s classical learning and Neo-Confucian background to understand his openness to Catholicism. Through his reading of several essays by Xu, Chu shows the importance of the Neo-Confucian discourse on vacuity and tranquility (虛靜 Xujing) in Xu’s thought.
One essay argues that the sage shares the same qualities as a newborn baby (pure, clear, and vacuous)—
thus “absence of preconception frees one from bias and enables him [Xu Guangqi] to reach out and feel the resonance.”
Chu points out that this idea comes from Mencius’ premise that “Men are born with some universal qualities” and “Men’s minds respond to one another in equal measure” and so “only an open mind is truly receptive.”
In regard to morality, Chu demonstrates Xu’s openness through this quote: “Vacuity has no material, so square and circle appear as they are and then disappear. In the absence of the self (i.e., subjective view), a plate appears as a plate and a bowl as a bowl. I believe that to seek an official who is upright or kind, you need to consider his intention as fundamental. If he has the right intention, the uprightness and the kindness in him cannot but appear as one.”
Chu concludes that, as a Confucian, Xu placed “heavy emphasis on intention in judging human actions.”
Meeting of Minds
I have no doubt that Ricci must have impressed Xu Guangqi, not only with his impeccable knowledge of Western science and mathematics but also his person.
Ricci’s life was inspired by St. Ignatius’ manual called Spiritual Exercises. Xu was well-versed with the
book. Xu also translated and published Ricci’s Twenty Five Sentences in 1605.
Xu was no doubt impressed by Ricci’s study and translation of the Confucian classics. Thus we have two men who “respond to one another in equal measure” with minds that can only be described as “truly receptive.”
Finding in Ricci “the right intention” and that “the uprightness and the kindness in him cannot but appear as one,” it is unsurprising that Xu’s conversion was, according to Professor Chu, “made by his own choice,” and “he could be at once a devout Christian and a faithful Confucian.”
print ed: 02/08