The Exotic West

Peter Burke

  • The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence
    Faber, 350 pp, £15.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 571 13239 1
  • Chine et Christianisme: Action et Réaction by Jacques Gernet
    Gallimard, 342 pp, frs 154.00, May 1982, ISBN 2 07 026366 5

To anyone with a sense of irony, the history of encounters between cultures is peculiarly fascinating, so often have the consequences been the opposite of what their initiators either intended or expected. The experience has befallen many political leaders who have tried to adopt the minimum of Western technology necessary to resist Western dominance. The process has also worked in reverse, however. Western missionaries who went east to spread Christianity tried to adopt the minimum of indigenous culture necessary to gain acceptance for themselves and an audience for their message. As they tried to adapt themselves and their doctrines to a new environment and a new language, they found themselves not infrequently accused by fellow Christians nearer home of having been converted by the very people to whom they were supposed to have been preaching the true faith.

Two famous examples of the problem of adaptation, or ‘accommodation’, as it was technically called, in the mission field centre on the work of two Italian Jesuits, Roberto De’Nobili and Matteo Ricci. De’Nobili went to India in 1605 and worked in the south. Following the famous advice of the founder of his order, Ignatius Loyola, to be ‘all things to all men’, he dressed like a local sannyasi or holy man, learned Sanskrit and studied the Vedas in order to present Christianity as complementary to the laws of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. He allowed his Brahmin converts to continue to wear the sacred thread, which he interpreted as a symbol of social rather than religious status. As a result, he found himself accused of paganism by the Archbishop of Goa.

A generation earlier, Matteo Ricci had undergone similar experiences in China, where he settled in 1583 and worked till his death in Peking in 1610. He began by dressing as a Buddhist bonze, but after discovering that bonzes were not much respected by the ruling class, he put on a scholar’s robes instead. He learned Chinese well enough to write books in it, studied the classics and presented Christianity as complementary to the message of Confucius. Matteo Ricci became Li Ma-Tou. Earlier missionaries had referred to God as Deus, a word which sounded barbarous to Chinese ears and discouraged potential converts. Ricci, on the other hand, preferred to use traditional Chinese terms such as T’ien (‘Heaven’) to express his new message. The Jesuits in China allowed their converts to continue to practise the cult of the ancestors, interpreting it as a secular ritual rather than a religious one. In consequence they found themselves accused of paganism by other Catholic missionaries.

The story of Ricci’s expedition to China is well-known. It has been the subject of thorough research by two learned Jesuits, Henri Bernard and Pasquale D’Elia, and it has also been retold by many other writers, among them Vincent Cronin in his Wise Man from the West (with a companion piece, A Pearl to India, on the career of De’Nobili). Ricci’s introduction into China of Western clocks, Western astronomy and Western mathematics has also attracted much attention from historians of science. If the story is to be told yet again, it really needs to be presented from a fresh angle. This is what Professor Jonathan Spence is almost uniquely qualified to do.

I am no Sinologist, but all the same I have followed Spence’s career as a historian with the greatest interest since the publication, in 1974, of his Emperor of China, a portrait of K’ang-Hsi, a contemporary of Louis XIV (although by K’ang-Hsi’s imperial standards the Sun King was a mere barbarian princeling). The book is not a biography but a portrait, indeed a kind of self-portrait, an attempt to explore K’ang-Hsi’s mind by making a kind of jigsaw or mosaic of the Emperor’s personal opinions, which are to be found scattered here and there in the official documents of the period, and arranging them under headings such as ‘sons’, ‘growing old’, ‘ruling’ and so on. The effect is not unlike a Chinese Memoirs of Hadrian. At the end one may be uncertain whether the text is a novel or a history, whether the voice is that of the Emperor or his historian, but the author’s skill and perceptiveness are not in doubt.

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