Who has the biggest books?

Craig Clunas

  • Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724 by Liam Matthew Brockey
    Harvard, 496 pp, £22.95, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02448 9

In the autumn of 1609, the Chinese diarist Li Rihua recorded the talk at a dinner party attended by a number of ‘old coastal hands’ who had served as officials in the south-eastern provinces of the Ming empire. Conversation turned to the geopolitics of this sensitive frontier region, its trading enclaves and the various peoples who came to them. He heard about the most famous of these visitors, a man from the north-western extremity of the world: ‘Li Madou was sent by the rulers of Macau to spy on the imperial court, which has caused recent consideration being given to clearing Macau out. There is a temple in Macau, in which Li Madou was once a monk.’ Li Madou was the Chinese name of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), one of the first people to be globally famous in his own lifetime, talked about in Nanjing as in Rome and Lima. As ‘The Wise Man from the West’, he was the subject of Vincent Cronin’s laudatory 1955 biography, still in print today. He was also at the centre of Jonathan Spence’s 1984 study, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, which focused on Ricci’s use of the classical ars memoriae as a way of gaining access to members of China’s educated elite, whose interest in techniques that might help them memorise the classic texts tested by the imperial examination system made them at the very least curious about his methods. One of the ‘Generation of Giants’ that gave its name to George Dunne’s classic study of the first Jesuit missionaries in China, Ricci remains a figure of enduring fascination both in China and in Europe, often used as a model of how mutual respect can be shown between intellectuals from different cultures.

Ricci is certainly a presence in Liam Matthew Brockey’s new account of the Jesuit mission, from its first tentative appearance in the Ming empire until its dissolution by imperial command in the early 18th century. But Brockey is determined to keep him in his place, in the belief that too much attention has been given to Ricci and a few famous successors, to their policy of ‘accommodation’ with elite Chinese society through mastering its literature and culture, and to their presence at the imperial court, as astronomers and scientific consultants. The book’s central aim is to restore a focus on the enterprise of religious conversion, and to dispel what Brockey sees as a misconception, that the Jesuits sought only elite converts, and were not interested in ordinary people.

This case is convincingly made, but dully made, too, so keen is Brockey on avoiding any hagiographic talk of a generation of giants. This is particularly true of the first half of the book, a chronological account of the mission heavy on organisational detail. It is followed by rather more sprightly thematic chapters on topics such as the training of missionaries within the Society of Jesus, their engagement with the Chinese language, and their strategies of conversion and church-building. Throughout, Brockey relies on Jesuit archival sources, mostly material preserved in Portugal and Italy, so that the tale is always told from the Jesuit point of view.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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