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.

It is difficult to think of a study which better deserves the description ‘history from above’ than a self-portrait of a Chinese emperor: Spence followed it, in 1978, with a moving essay in history from below called The Death of Woman Wang. What he did this time was to take four cases from a handbook on the office of magistrate, and use them to illuminate conditions in one county in the province of Shantung in the troubled years of the later 17th century, when the peasants were suffering even more than usual from floods, plagues and the depredations of bandits and tax-collectors. The four stories, including that of Wang, ‘the woman who ran away’, which gives the book its title, are not so much stories as images, and the book is not so much a narrative as an attempt at combining or juxtaposing images, a historical montage.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1982) looks rather more like a work of conventional history, an account of the origins and development of the Chinese Revolution which runs from 1895 to 1980. Once more, however, the author’s interest in biography and in historical snapshots asserts itself and his book is built round a small number of individuals, such as the writers Lu Xun and Ding Ling (in this study Spence adopts the Pinyin system of romanising Chinese names). These individuals did not play a leading part in the events of the revolution. They were selected because, as Spence suggests, they ‘described their hopes and their sorrows with particular sensitivity’ and because their personal experiences ‘help to define the nature of the times through which they lived’. The constant cross-cutting from private lives to public issues and from one individual to another is in danger of leaving the reader confused, but at the same time the device of the multiple viewpoint does make conflict more intelligible.

Spence’s latest book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, is at first sight a wilfully bizarre piece of work, a combination of Frances Yates, Joseph Needham and one of those novels which deliberately subverts chronology. All the same, it is in many ways effective, as well as being a natural development from the author’s earlier experiments with historical form. In 1595, Ricci wrote to Rome about the crowds of scholars who were paying him visits, not to hear about Christ, but to learn alchemy, mathematics and the art of memory. Spence has little to tell us about alchemy and mathematics – or about clocks or astronomy for that matter, despite Ricci’s interest in these subjects – but he concentrates on what earlier historians neglected, Ricci’s mnemonics. Mnemonics was an art of obvious utility in a culture as examination-oriented as that of Ming China. Hence Ricci made quite an impression when he gave public demonstrations of his ability to repeat lists of ideograms backwards or to recite texts after reading them only once. ‘By impressing the Chinese with his memory skills Ricci hoped to interest them in his culture; through interesting them in his culture he hoped to draw them to an interest in his God.’

Ricci had been trained by the Jesuits at Rome in the late Renaissance variety of the Classical art of memory, which worked by associating the words to be remembered with images – as vivid and as unusual as possible – arranged in a highly-structured space such as the interior of a building – a church, perhaps, a theatre or a palace. He would also have practised the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, with their instructions on ‘composition of place’ – on the use, in other words, of mental images (notably the image of hell) as a stimulus to religious meditation. So it was appropriate that it should have been a Jesuit who taught the Chinese literati how to build a memory palace, writing a treatise on the subject which still survives. It is around four memory images described in this treatise that Spence has chosen to organise his book, combining them with four engravings of religious subjects which were given by Ricci to a Chinese acquaintance to print in an anthology of painting and calligraphy with the delightful title The Ink Garden.

The engravings – four exotic Western flowers in a Chinese garden – portray St Peter in the Waves; the road to Emmaus; the men of Sodom; and the Virgin and Child. The memory images comprise two warriors fighting; a Muslim woman from the west of China; a farmer, sickle in hand; and a maidservant who, like the Virgin, carries a child. The eight images are not difficult to remember, but it takes some ingenuity to structure a work of history around them, as Spence has done. The warriors prompt a discussion of the place of violence in both Italy and China at this time; the farmer, symbolising ‘profit and harvest’, acts as a reminder of the importance of trade and of the economic problems of the mission; St Peter in the waves evokes the difficulties and dangers of travel; the men of Sodom illustrate luxury and vice in Europe and in Asia, and so on. In each case Spence is careful to juxtapose East and West, the China to which Ricci was trying to accommodate himself and his message and the Italy in which he had grown up.

The descriptions have never been so colourful or the juxtapositions so dramatic as in this latest montage by Spence, who travelled from Macerata (Ricci’s birthplace in the Papal States) to Macao (where he began learning Chinese), in order to ensure visual precision. His book is, as one might have expected, fluently written and irresistibly readable. It carries us smoothly on towards its mysterious destination, the work of a born storyteller who – like many contemporary storytellers, but relatively few professional historians – is no longer satisfied with an account of what happened in the order in which it happened, one thing after another and the characters in order of appearance. Ricci dies on page 161, but the book flows on regardless, with four bends in the river – two memory images and two pictures – still to come.

It is certainly a pleasure to find a historian who combines a sense of form with an interest in formal experiment, and once the reader has become accustomed to the images they may not seem very different from the more abstract ‘topics’ into which a more conventional historian would have divided this essay on the encounter between two cultures.

All the same, the exigencies of form – or is it his personal choice? – lead Spence to omit, or to pass rapidly over, what I would regard as some of the most fascinating questions which this cultural encounter raises. The question of perception, for example: the question of each culture’s response to the image – and the images – of the other. It is true that the reader is given some inkling of the way in which the Chinese responded to a few Western images, from the Virgin Mary, which ‘fused with other visions of benevolent deities from China’s own past’ (such as the goddess Kuan Yin), to the crucifix which got Ricci into trouble when it was found in his baggage because it was interpreted as an aid to sorcery. But one would also have liked to know what Chinese artists made of Ricci’s engravings, three of them the work of the Flemish master Anthony Wierix. They were not the only works of art to which Ricci introduced the Chinese. In his book The Compelling Image (1982), the American art historian James Cahill suggests that Ricci’s Western engravings of cities and mountains (including several by Wierix) had a significant effect on the development of Chinese painting in the 17th century. Cahill discusses the cultural contacts of this period in terms of affinity and resistance: the affinity between the landscapes of the two traditions, Western and Chinese, on the one hand, and, on the other, ‘the Chinese resistance to the Jesuits’ efforts to teach them the Italian system of perspective’. Such questions, however fascinating, are not easy to raise within the framework of a biography, let alone that of four memory images.

Again, Spence tells us something of Ricci’s characteristically late-Renaissance interest in stoic moral philosophy, a philosophy which pervades his Chinese treatise, Ten Discourses by a Paradoxical Man, but his own framework will not allow him to bring out the cultural significance of this stoicism and of its appeal to Chinese intellectuals. His section on the image of the huihui woman (a Muslim from western China, employed by Spence to symbolise the Westerners as seen through Chinese eyes), notes that Ricci saw parallels between Buddhism and Christianity and also that he described the Chinese people as ‘pythagoreans’ because they believed in the transmigration of souls. However, the point implicit in these comparisons, concerning the importance of ready-made schemata in the process by which one culture perceives another, is not developed anywhere in the book.

To understand this encounter between cultures more fully, to explain the paradox of Chinese enthusiasm for some Western ideas together with their total impermeability to others, would require a study focused not on the 17 years of Ricci’s China mission but on a much longer period. It is a study of this latter kind which Jacques Gernet has provided in his Chine et Christianisme, a book which seems to have appeared just too late for Spence to use it.

Gernet deals with the period from Ricci’s arrival in China to the late 17th century, and his basic theme is that of the Chinese reaction to Christianity, or rather the shift from an initially sympathetic response to a hostile one. The sympathy is explained by Gernet in terms of affinities, or what the Chinese perceived as affinities, between indigenous traditions and the message of the exotic Westerners. Ricci’s account of his attempt to present Christianity as close to the teachings of Confucius turns out to have missed many of the nuances, ironies and paradoxes of the situation. For one thing, he not only began by wearing the robes of a bonze but was welcomed by the Buddhists as one of themselves. The Emperor, too, seems to have regarded Christianity as a slightly eccentric form of Buddhism. Ricci was aware of parallels between Buddhism and Christianity – the monasteries, the saints, the rituals, the images, the doctrines of heaven and hell – but he interpreted these parallels as examples of a literally diabolical parody of the true religion. For their part, the Chinese perceived Christianity as an inversion of the normal order of things. Why, for example, did Christ sit at the right hand of God the Father, when everyone knows that the seat of honour is on the left?

Ricci changed into the robes of a scholar and attacked the doctrines of the Buddhists who had welcomed him. In doing this, he gained the sympathy of the scholars who – unknown to him – were especially concerned at this time to purify Confucianism from Buddhist influences. The Chinese literati saw Ricci in terms of another indigenous tradition, that of the moral teachers associated with private academies. They appreciated the Ten Discourses of a Paradoxical Man because they found affinities between Ricci’s Christian stoicism and their own ethic. ‘Follow Nature,’ for example, was a slogan common to both the Chinese and Western traditions. As for Ricci, he described Confucius as ‘another Seneca’.

This harmony did not last. The shift from sympathy to hostility took place because, as Gernet shows, Ricci’s successors in the China mission lacked his caution and preached Christianity more openly than he had done and also to a wider audience. As a result, the mandarins began to think of Christianity as subversive and to treat it as yet another heterodox popular sect, closer to the millenarian White Lotus Society than to the Hanlin Academy. The authorities interpreted the Christian message in political terms, while the missionaries interpreted the growing official hostility in religious terms. The twain never met.

Gernet’s book is the third remarkable study of culture contacts, cross-purposes, and mutual misunderstandings to be published in the Gallimard ‘Bibliothèque des Histoires’, the others being Quetzlcoatl et Guadalupe, by Jacques Lafaye, and Nathan Wachtel’s La Vision des Vaincus, which deal respectively with Mexico and Peru in the 16th and 17th centuries. All three studies draw strength from a distinctively French tradition of intellectual history the histoire des mentalités developed between the wars by Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Georges Lefebvre and, not least, the Sinologist Marcel Granet, a follower of Emile Durkheim whose major work, La Pensée Chinoise, appeared in 1934.

Characteristic of this approach is the triple stress on collective attitudes (mentalités collectives); on structures of thought (cadres mentaux); and on change over the long term (la longue durée), a stress which is certainly to be found in Gernet’s book. Like Cahill’s study of landscape painting, Chine et Christianisme has two main themes, affinity and resistance. The sympathetic interest shown by many Chinese in the Christian mission in the Ricci period is explained by the apparent affinities between the two cultures, although in the long term these affinities revealed themselves to be superficial, while the differences between the two modes of thought turned out to be fundamental. T’ien, for example, is a concept with resonances and associations very different from ‘Heaven’, although Ricci employed one to translate the other, and the differences between the two terms reveal major differences in world-view. Gernet’s major theme is therefore the resistance of one culture to penetration by another. Just as Chinese artists rejected Western perspective, so Chinese philosophers refused to accept the scholastic mode of thinking characteristic of Ricci and his colleagues. As a result the missionaries decided that the Chinese lacked logic, that they were incapable of reasoning. Gernet, however, points out the difficulty of communicating Western doctrines in a culture which lacked the basic Western distinctions between substance and accident, soul and body, spiritual and temporal, and in which the language had a totally different structure. In such a situation there was no middle way between the thorough assimilation of the new ideas and their total rejection.

For an amusing example of the assimilation process we need look no further than Ricci’s own posthumous career in China, venerated as a Buddhist saint, the patron of the clockmakers of Shanghai. In the long term, however, educated Chinese came to see Christianity and the West as a menace to their cultural traditions, and they chose the path of rejection. Until, that is, some of them felt the need to fight the West with its own weapons, and to absorb the minimum of Western technology necessary to resist Western dominance ...

Jacques Gernet and Jonathan Spence have produced two remarkable and distinguished studies which deserve to be taken seriously and read widely. Spence’s is brilliantly impressionistic, a highly individual achievement, a literary tour de force. Gernet’s study is less colourful, more academic, and more highly conceptualised in the French manner. Spence makes us feel the shock of contact with an alien culture; Gernet explains how and why Chinese and Westerners tried and failed to understand each other. Spence’s is a more distinguished work of literature. Gernet’s is a greater contribution to our understanding of the past.