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IN THE FIRST DAYS of May, 1610, the renowned Confucian scholar Li Madou lay dying in his home in Beijing. Hundreds of the leading citizens of the Chinese capital came to pay their respects to the man whose books on ethics, mathematics, friendship, and the mysteries of life and death had been read and circulated throughout the Middle Kingdom. The visitors recalled with great affection the many enlightening conversations and debates they had enjoyed in his residence, over which their host had presided. Even as he was slipping away they remembered his dignity and generosity in welcoming them to his home—a man somehow placid and yet vibrantly alive, white-bearded, clad in his ankle-length purple silk robe and square black hat, fan in hand.

At his death, the distinguished civil servant to the Ming Dynasty Li Zhizao petitioned the emperor for the right to give Li Madou a tomb worthy of his virtuous life and intellectual achievements. The Board of Rites added a testimonial in support of the petition. An imperial edict was quickly forthcoming, granting a plot of land for a tomb to be erected near Beijing’s western wall.

A few years later, the governor of the city ordered a plaque to be affixed to the tomb. Part of the inscription read: “To one who loved righteousness and wrote illustrious books, to Li Madou, Far-Westerner.”

The far west from which Li Madou came was not the western extremity of the Chinese empire. It was a lot farther off. His given name was in fact Matteo Ricci, and he was born in the town of Macerata in the Italian region known as the Marche. He had come to China as a Jesuit priest, seeking to preach the gospel. He had entered from the Portuguese trading outpost at Macao, where he learned Chinese without the aid of grammars or vocabularies, which had yet to be written. His intent was to travel north to the Forbidden City in the capital of Beijing to seek permission from the emperor for missionaries to speak openly of their faith.

As it happened, the journey took nearly two decades. Welcomed in some cities and driven out of others, Ricci and his companions were at times imprisoned and beaten. Jumping out of a window to avoid a raid by a drunken youth gang bent on killing foreigners, Ricci hurt his ankle, an injury that would afflict him for the rest of his life. Often caught up in local political struggles between powerful imperial eunuchs and local bureaucrats, Ricci learned to become the soul of tact.

Encountering an ancient, civilized culture that had only experienced a couple of brief—and long-forgotten—missionary efforts, Ricci and his immediate superior chose to listen before they spoke. They looked for analogies to what they knew and who they were. And so they began by dressing as Buddhist monks, a practice the Jesuits had first followed in Japan.

But Ricci soon became disillusioned with the decadent form of Buddhism that existed in China at that time and embraced Confucianism instead, which he believed to be closer to the heart of the indigenous culture. And so he donned his long purple silk robes and studied the Analects of Confucius in depth.

Knowing the central place of Confucian scholarship in Chinese public culture, Ricci wrote tracts on mathematics and friendship, seeking common ground, in the belief that all human beings had an intuitive sense of the natural law.

He shared scientific instruments, clocks, harpsichords, and Euclid with his Chinese friends. While each of these things fascinated his hosts (who had their own ancient traditions of science and music), they reacted most strongly to Ricci’s world map, which struck many in the insular world of China with the force of revelation.

Tactfully, he placed the Middle Kingdom at the map’s center.

Ricci’s approach to his mission was shaped by his Jesuit education, which was in turn shaped by a Renaissance humanist tradition grounded in rhetoric and literature. The art of rhetoric was itself a form of tact: the shaping of language that accommodated itself to the understanding of the hearer, appealed to his heart, and built bridges through analogy and metaphor.

A skeptical reading of Ricci’s mission to China—and there have been a few—holds that his method of cultural accommodation was ultimately nothing more than a sophisticated mask to hide the underlying goal of proselytization.

Such skepticism is not without merit. Many in the West, including theologians, have sought to revise the way we think about our place in the world, about our need to open ourselves more consistently and generously to the existence of those who are no longer as far away as they once were, thanks to technology, war, migration, and economic need. This process has required not only a willingness to judge the imperialistic tendencies of past cultural encounters, but the drive to overcome insularity and inertia and bring about many more encounters.

This special issue of Image is one small contribution to such a movement.

Here Matteo Ricci can help us. There is no doubt that Ricci hoped for the conversion of China to Christianity, but to reduce his approach to a subtle form of imperialism is to beg important questions—and to miss just how radical his tragically short-lived vision was.

Every cross-cultural encounter involves a complex series of exchanges, a dialectic of speaking and listening. When we meet, we represent ourselves—our culture and our convictions—to the other.

The deeper question is how an authentic exchange can overcome fear and indifference, how we can become more than we are without losing a sense of what we’ve been.

It goes without saying that religion has had a mixed record at best in cross-cultural encounters, but that’s precisely what makes Ricci’s vision so valuable. It’s instructive to know that Ricci had his enemies among the faithful, too, including fellow Jesuits. Not only were there accusations that he had gone native—objections to the way he dressed and wrote (not enough explicit doctrine and apologetics)—but after his death, Ricci’s choice to allow converts to practice the so-called “Chinese rites” came under heavy fire. These rites were essentially civic and familial ceremonies to honor Confucius and ancestors and to ensure piety toward the traditions that had shaped the Chinese people. A century after Ricci died, the Vatican ruled that such rites were essentially religious and forbade Chinese Christians to observe them.

At that moment Ricci’s Christian humanism—his confidence that the incarnation implied that all human cultures bore the imprint of God’s nature and had something precious to offer the world—was defeated by the sort of triumphalism that is rightly decried today.

This conflict brings to mind Silence, the tragic novel by the twentieth-century Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. Silence bears witness to Ricci’s vision by dramatizing the plight of a fictionalized Jesuit missionary named Sebastian Rodrigues who is well-meaning but whose triumphalism is dangerous precisely because it is unconscious.

By the time of Rodrigues’s arrival in Japan, the brief period of toleration for Christianity has ended. Terrible tortures have been inflicted on both Japanese converts and the priests who have served them. In addition to excruciating physical torture, the local shoguns have begun forcing Christians to trample upon crudely carved images known as fumie that depict Christ and the Virgin Mary. Rodrigues, like many zealous believers, feels an odd attraction to the martyr’s fate, but he is haunted by the news that another missionary, Cristóvão Ferreira (an actual historical figure), has apostatized and has taken a wife.

For all his earnestness, Rodrigues is blind to the fact that the Christian faith cannot be communicated to a Japanese culture that has no reference for the strong father figure of the western God. He observes the special devotion of the Japanese to the Virgin, but he is vaguely disturbed by it. Because of his patriarchal bias, he misses the opportunity to link the mercy of the gentle mother to God’s own nature.

Rodrigues begins his mission believing that “Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them.” This assumption seems to be borne out by the shambling, sorry figure of Kichijiro, who has previously apostatized but who begins to shadow Rodrigues on his journeys. The priest quickly associates Kichijiro with Judas. “What thou doest, do quickly,” he says to himself, assuming that Kichijiro will betray him to the authorities.

Eventually Rodrigues is captured and interrogated. Just when he thinks that he will be able to receive the martyr’s crown, things become complex and ambiguous. Rodrigues discovers that Japanese converts are being tortured and executed because of him. Then he is taken to meet the infamous Ferreira, whom he is prepared to loathe.

But Ferreira, for all his guilt and suffering, turns out to be a strangely compelling figure. Speaking of the Japanese who are being killed, Ferreira says to Rodrigues: “You make yourself more important than them…. You dread to be the dregs of the Church like me…. Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.”

As he faces his own agonizing decision, Rodrigues finds that Kichijiro cannot leave him alone. Like a pitiful, mangy dog, Kichijiro will not abandon the priest. Only then does Rodrigues begin to see that he and Kichijiro are alike. Only in failure and humiliation can he recognize another facet of God’s nature—the hollow, sunken face of one who has known suffering and shame.

Finally, in the moment when he believes he has utterly betrayed everything he is and believes, he hears the voice of God speak to him: “There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?”

The plot of Endo’s novel Silence is an inversion of Ricci’s path in that it depicts a missionary who at first lacks the capacity to embrace the humanity of the people he has come to serve. Yet the trajectory of the novel is the same as that pioneered by Ricci: the need to sacrifice what we think makes us different. Only by engaging in a sustained act of imagination can we become the other.

When Matteo Ricci became Li Madou he lost nothing essential to his inmost self. He could truly echo the words of the theologian Henri de Lubac: “When I teach my brother it is not really I who teach him, but we are both taught by God. Truth is not a good that I possess, that I manipulate and distribute as I please. It is such that in giving it I must still receive it; in discovering it I still have to search for it; in adapting it, I must continue to adapt myself to it.”

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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