Italian Jesuit missionary who introduced Christian teaching to the Chinese empire in the 16th century. Born Oct. 6, 1552, Macerata, Papal States, died May 11, 1610, Beijing, China. He lived there for nearly 30 years and was a pioneer in the attempt at mutual comprehension between China and the West. By adopting the language and culture of the country, he gained entrance to the interior of China, which was normally closed to foreigners.
Born in Macerata he left for Rome at age 16 to study law. Joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) on Aug. 15, 1571. Studied science under the mathematician Christopher Clavius and volunteered for work overseas in East Asia. In May 1577 he set off for Portugal, where he studied for a short time at the University of Coimbra while waiting for a ship. In March 24, 1578 he embarked at Lisbon and arrived on September 13 at Goa, the Portuguese outpost on the central west coast of India. Ricci carried on his studies for the priesthood there but was ordained in 1580 at Cochin, on the Malabar Coast, where he had been sent for reasons of health. Returning to Goa, he was ordered, in April 1582, to proceed to China.
With its huge population, China was an area that Christian missionaries, especially the Jesuits, greatly wished to enter. St. Francis Xavier, one of the first companions of St. Ignatius of Loyola, died in 1552 on the tiny island of Shangchuan in sight of the tightly closed mainland. When Ricci arrived, China was still closed to outsiders; but the missionary strategy of the Jesuits had undergone modification. Great stress was put on the importance of learning the Chinese language and of acquiring knowledge of the culture. Previously, missionaries had attempted to impose Western customs and the use of the Latin language in religious rites. The new approach of adaptation to national customs was established by Alessandro Valignano, who had received Ricci into the Jesuits and was at this time visitor of the Jesuit missions in East Asia. (A visitor is the official responsible for making sure the religious and temporal affairs of all the houses of an institute in an area are properly followed.) First Michele Ruggieri and then Ricci were called to the Portuguese province of Macau to prepare to evangelize China; Ruggieri, however, returned to Italy in November 1588, leaving to his younger compatriot the burden and the honour of founding the church in China.
Ricci arrived at Macau in August 1582, and began at once his study of Chinese. The following year he and Ruggieri were given permission to settle in Zhaoqing, then a major city of Guangdong province while triing to learn the language, literature, and etiquette of the Chinese, and to win their hearts and, by the example of their good lives.
In 1589 Ricci moved from Zhaoqing to Shaozhou (now Shaoguan), where he became a close friend of the Confucian scholar Qu Taisu. Ricci taught him the rudiments of mathematics, receiving in return an introduction into the circles of the mandarins (high civil or military officials of the Chinese empire) and of the Confucian scholars. Noting that Ricci wore the habit of a Buddhist monk (which he had adopted upon entering China), Qu suggested that it would be better to dress as a Chinese scholar, a suggestion that Ricci followed immediately after leaving Guangdong.
In 1595 Ricci attempted to enter the Imperial city of Beijing but was not successful. He left Beijing, stoping first at Nanchang and then Nanjing where he settled in February 1599, he was engaged chiefly in astronomy and geography. The information on his work quickly spread among all the scholars of China. In 1601 Ricci made a second attempt to reach Beijing and was given permission to remain in the capital. From then on, he never left Beijing, and he dedicated the rest of his life to its people, teaching them science and preaching the gospel.
Vincent Cronin, The Wise Man from the West (1955, reissued 1999), a popular but authoritative account of the life of Ricci; Louis J. Gallagher (trans.), China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci, 1583–1610 (1953; trans. from Nicolas Trigault's Latin version of the Ricci commentaries De Christiana expeditione apud Simas suscepta ab Societate Jesu, 1615), the standard English source, contains both Ricci's description of Ming China and his account of the history of the early Jesuit missionary activities in China; George H. Dunne, Generation of Giants: The Story of the Jesuits in China in the Last Decades of the Ming Dynasty (1962), an authoritative and sympathetic account of the Jesuits' activities in late Ming China, with an excellent bibliography on Ricci (pp. 371–379); Pasquale M. d'Elia (ed.), Fonti Ricciane, 3 vol. (1942–49), the principal source book, contains the original text of Ricci's journals and extensive commentaries; volume 2 of Pietro Tacchi Venturi (ed.), Opere storiche del P. Matteo Ricci, 2 vol. (1911–13), contains the letters of Ricci and his companions and is an indispensable source. Also useful is Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1984).
Source: Encyclopædia Britannica