Learning from Matteo Ricci

A Response to Matteo Ricci, A Jesuit in the Ming Court, by Michela Fontana, reviewed at www.globalchinacenter.org.

Evangelical Christians seeking to serve God effectively among the Chinese can derive a great deal of profit from the example of the pioneer Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci.

Here are a few brief lessons:

1. Prepare well. Before Ricci left for China, he had received the finest education in southern Europe at the time. He was well trained in literature, logic, and science. By the time he reached China, he had also received three years of thorough training in Roman Catholic theology. He knew his own culture and his faith well.

2. Learn the language, culture, and customs of the Chinese. Ricci’s later effectiveness depended largely upon his facility in the Chinese language and his familiarity with – even mastery of – Chinese literature, history, and philosophy. He could thus converse as an equal with educated Chinese, who respected his efforts to acquire their language and learn about their culture.

3. Learn as much as possible about the land and the people. Ricci also took careful notes of everything he saw, including the geography, the political and economic structure, education, and religious life of the Chinese. In other words, he knew not just their language and literary culture, but also their total environment.

4. Adapt to the customs and culture as much as possible. Ricci and his fellow Jesuits dressed, ate, lived, and acted like Chinese. They rid themselves of their foreignness as much as possible.

5. Plan to stay a long time. Ricci spent decades in China. In this way, he was able to build lasting relationships that would lead some to conversion and many to lifelong friendship. These relationships saved him from a great deal of trouble and facilitated his life and ministry.

6. Work with a team. Ricci was never alone. Almost always, he lived and worked with other Jesuit missionaries and Chinese converts.

7. Use the written word. Ricci composed treatises in Chinese in order to deepen the impact and spread the influence of his teaching. We can use materials already available to us in Chinese, or write some of our own that can be translated into Chinese.

8. Obey the laws of the land. Ricci never hid his religious identity or intentions, but he always abided by the laws of China, however irksome they were to him.

9. Earn respect by having a recognized role in society. Ricci was able to establish his reputation as a scholar, scientist, and man of culture. Today, foreigners can serve as bona fide language students (not just using enrollment in classes as a “cover” for “ministry”), teachers of English or other subjects, or professionals with a recognized and valued place in Chinese society.

10. Find points of contact between Christianity and Chinese culture and society, as a way to build bridges that will lead to further and deeper conversations. Some of these are dealt with in my book, Reaching Chinese Worldwide.

11. Avoid the temptation to seek quick conversions. Ricci deliberately worked for long-term results; he wanted a few really solid converts, not many superficial ones. He took time to make sure that prospective believers were grounded in the faith and were willing to forsake their idols and sinful lifestyles (such as keeping a concubine) before administering baptism.

12. Share the gospel with both rich and poor, educated and uneducated. Though Ricci bent most of his efforts to persuade the scholar class to accept his faith, he also preached to the poor, who were much more receptive (and still are).

13. Beware of compromising Christianity with Chinese culture. Ricci tried to avoid this, but his practice of allowing Christians to continue engaging in rites of ancestor worship and the ceremonies to Confucius caused great confusion. Some applaud this move even today. Most Chinese Christians, however, intuitively want to get rid of their idols and stop participating in ancestor worship as soon as the commit to Christ. They know that this will cause misunderstanding and even hostility, but they also know that not to do so will confuse their non-Christian friends and family and will in the end hinder the deep impact of the gospel upon Chinese society.