Matteo Ricci

Overall Rating: 9
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Author: Matteo Ricci
Title: China in the 16th Century
Time: 1582-1610
Destination: China
Length: 38 years
Type: missionary stay

the original expat

[Note: this book is hard to find and a bit expensive.]

The story: MR is a Jesuit priest from Italy. He arrives at the Portuguese outpost of Macao in the second half of the 16th century, determined to carry Christianity into China. The Jesuits would very much like to get into both Japan and China, but it proves a difficult endeavor for them.
MR takes a new approach though. He is among the first foreigners to seriously study Chinese, and he masters it well. Over the course of the next years, he breaches into the Southern province of Guangdong, negotiating with officials and establishing missionary dwellings in several places, then he makes his way North to the old capital of Nanjing, and finally, after almost two decades, he manages to reach the heart of the Chinese empire – Beijing.
He resides there until his death, spending his days proselytizing and conversing with intellectuals, writing books and never losing hope to meet the Emperor himself. This never happens though. When MR eventually dies in Beijing in 1610, imperial decree assigns him a burial place in a former temple outside of the Western city wall, a great honor for the missionaries, but also an elegant way to keep them at distance from the Forbidden City.

Matteo Ricci making a dynasty come alive

The book is very lengthy, very detailed and very awesome! There are too many interesting observations about China to be found here, and you are probably going to find yourself earmarking every other page (I loved the part where the missionaries proved that “Cathay” was in fact “China”, a problem that had been puzzling Europeans for quite a while then). When MR (or rather the editors of his diary) talks about the beauty of cities like Nanjing or Beijing, his deep affection for China makes these places come alive again in their former glory. And what’s more, he describes not only the missionaries’ negotiations with Chinese officials, but also their own interpretations and attitudes towards these negotiations. So basically you get to see all sorts of cultural misunderstandings unfold, only the people involved here were alive several centuries ago, and the world seems to have changed quite a bit since then.

nine or ten?

I would have liked to give this book a 10/10 rating, because there is so much interesting content to be found in here. But then I figured that it might be rather difficult or even boring to read for people who are not that interested in historical China. After all, its 600 densely printed pages full of historical renderings of Chinese words, names and places can be a bit overwhelming.
So there you go: 9/10. For everyone who wants to learn more about China, this is a ten though!


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