Missionary Engages Culture

 

 

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Missionary Engages Culture

In an age of extraordinary people, Matteo Ricci was one of the most remarkable. Even today, if you ask a Chinese person to name a famous European from the past, they will as likely as not name Ricci. He was a 16th-century Italian Jesuit scholar who arrived in Macao—a Portuguese possession on the border of China—in 1582. He hoped to work as a missionary in China.

The mission was run by another Jesuit, Ricci's former teacher Alessandro Valignano, who believed that Christian mission shouldn't be about striding up to the "natives," telling them their religion was wrong, and instructing them in a new one.

 

He believed that missionaries should be sensitive to local culture and treat the local people with respect, on the basis that they, too, had valuable things to say.
So, when Ricci finally gained permission to enter China in 1583 (the Chinese authorities generally didn't allow Europeans to enter at this time), he went dressed as a Buddhist monk, speaking Chinese and presenting himself as a humble seeker after wisdom. He wasn't very successful at first (the people of the area he arrived in, near Canton, didn't speak the Chinese dialect he had learned in Macao, and they didn't much like Buddhist monks, either), but he persevered and won the trust of the people.

 

In particular, Ricci made many contacts at the imperial court, where people were greatly impressed by his humble approach and his interest in Chinese learning. In the court, Ricci dressed and presented himself as a Confucian scholar. The emperor himself liked the gifts that Ricci brought him (especially a clock and a harpsichord), and Ricci sought to find new ways to express the Christian faith that made sense to the Chinese. He not only translated various Christian texts into Chinese, but in 1603 also wrote a famous book (in Chinese) called The True Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven, which presented Christianity in the form of a philosophical discussion in the Neo-Confucian tradition. The book was very well received.

 

Ricci was the first great Jesuit missionary to China. Many more followed him and became closely involved in all kinds of scientific and cultural pursuits.It was sad that Rici was recalled by Rome becuase of his attempts at contextualization.

 

Unfortunately later missionaries who followed were not so sensitive to culture.

 

|posted 21 April 2007|

               

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