Matteo Ricci was born on October 16, 1552 in Macerata, Italy just a few months before the death of Francis Xavier. He joined the Society of Jesus on August 15, 1571. He became burdened for mission in the Orient under the influence of Alessadro Valignani. This burden grew into love and service for the Chinese people as he continued to live among them and learn their language and culture. He devoted his life and service in China from 1583—1610. Ricci’s ministry was full of controversies as he used accommodation method instead of the then accepted tabula rasa of other Catholic orders. This brilliant priest had taken the risk of doing something new and different, as well as a long and arduous process of missionizing the Chinese people. Matteo Ricci was indeed an Italian priest with a heart for the Orient. As a result, this study aims to answer the question whether he should be rightly called the “pioneer” of Christianity in China? With regards to his accommodation method and the controversies that tie with it, did he make the right assessment on his stand on ancestral worship and the terms Shàngdì (上帝) and Tiān (天) in reference for God?

Matteo Ricci’s education had been a crucial factor as far as his vocation as a missionary is concerned. Early on in life, Ricci finished his higher studies in a Jesuit college with distinction. At seventeen, his father sent him to Rome to further his education. His family wanted him to be in the legal profession. As a student, he had studied mathematics, cosmology and astronomy under Christopher Clavius who was one of the greatest masters of that time period (Ricci 1942, xi; Kim 2004, 151; Latourette 1929, 92). Unknowingly, such learned knowledge will open the doors of China for him. He studied law for three years but with the influences of the Fathers in Macerata, his heart longed for religious vocation. To pursue such vocation, he requested to be admitted to the Society of Jesus.
In August 15, 1571, he joined the society. Ricci knew that his father had other plans for him. Consequently, he wrote his father a letter asking for approval and blessing for his desire to be in religious service. His father was surprised and upset with the letter that he immediately set out for Rome to withdraw his son from the society. On the first day of his journey, he fell sick. He was convinced that this is a divine visitation hence he returned home and gave his blessing and approval to his son. He wrote him a letter stating that his decision to choose such vocation is sensible and in tune with God’s will (Ricci 1942, xi–xii).

His apprenticeship as a Jesuit priest came under the direction of Father Alessandro Valignani. Valignani was famous for his important and decisive direction of the Society of Jesus in India, Japan and China as Society Visitor of the entire eastern region. Ricci pursued his studies in Philosophy and Theology at the Jesuit College in Rome. In 1577, he volunteered to work in the Orient. He arrived in Goa, India together with 13 other missionaries on September 13, 1578. He stayed in India for four years, finishing his course in Theology and at the same time acting as Professor of Rhetoric at Goa and Cochin (Ricci 1942, xii; Latourette 1929, 92). During this time, Ricci also baptized and trained children, a ministry he did not feel called to accomplish. When Valignani sent for him to join him in Macao in 1582, he considered this as an answered prayer (Tucker 2004, 67). In 1583, Ricci arrived Macao.

When we say pioneer, it can connote many meanings such as being the first, founder, leader, breaking new ground, paving the way or establisher. Apparently since Ricci was obviously not the first to enter China, we will thus limit the definition of pioneer for this study as groundbreaker and innovator; establisher and leader. With this in mind, we will first reason why Ricci and not Alopen or Corvino should be given the title. Secondly, why Ricci and not his other contemporaries such as Valignani or Ruggieri? Lastly, evaluating his contributions for mission work will help us see why he should indeed be rightly called the “pioneer” of Christian mission in China.
Historical evidences showed that Ricci was not the first missionary to ever step into China. The Nestorians were the first Christians to have entered China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 635) by way of the Silk Road. During the reign of Emperor Taizong, Persian merchants enter China through trade routes in South India to the coastal lines in China (Irvin 2001, 257). Alopen, the Nestorian missionary, was well received by the Emperor Taizong, who himself studied the religion and gave orders of disseminating it to the people. Events took its turn in AD 845 when the Daoist Emperor Wuzong made a decree banning all forms of monasticism like Buddhism and including Nestorian Christianity. The Nestorians were monastic in nature. He ordered the people to go back to private life and forbade the practice of monasticism. Henceforth, Christianity in China dwindled in numbers and influence. No wonder when a monk and other five companions were sent to inquire about the Church in China in AD 987, they found no trace of Christianity at all (Neill 1971, 81–83).
In 1292, John of Monte Corvino came to this country and befriended the Great Kublai Khan. Corvino was a Franciscan monk who was full of zeal. He built two churches and baptized about six thousand people. He gathered 150 boys and formed a school. He taught them Greek and Latin. Though Corvino and his co-workers claimed converts of thirty thousand, again traces of these seemed to disappear as the Mongols were expelled in 1368 and the Ming Dynasty took over (Mueller 1947, 32–33).
The first and second missionary movements (seventh and thirteenth centuries respectively) did penetrate into China and did spread the gospel. We cannot deny the fact that both Alopen and Corvino should be given acknowledgement for their labor and toil. The former had even left a monument discovered at Hsianfu in 1623 as a testimony of their presence and even influence among the Chinese people during that particular time period (Neill 1986: 81–83). Both Alopen and Corvino had claimed to have converts and left influences and followers. Nonetheless, during periods of persecution and expulsion, both movements were not able to maintain and continue their missions. Years of gap and untraceable converts led Kenneth Latourette to say,

Twice, in the seventh and then in the thirteenth century, Christianity had been introduced to China. Both times its constituency seems to have been prevailingly foreign and neither time does it appear to have won many converts from among the Chinese themselves. Twice it had died out, and so completely that we do not know precisely when or how (Latourette 2007, II: 938–39)

In comparison to the third missionary movement of the Catholics in the sixteenth century, Christianity in China was able to get a better grip and a deeper impression that continues its influences even up to the present day. Latourette added,

Now, in the sixteenth century Christianity was brought again to China. It was through Roman Catholics and was planted so firmly that in spite of persecution it persisted and grew (Latourette 2007, II: 939)

Thus, the mission work of the Catholics in sixteenth century is the one considered as truly pioneering with continuity and progress. It was groundbreaking and innovating especially with Jesuit’s method of accommodation, as well as leading and establishing with the works and influence of Matteo Ricci. Alopen and Corvino had both initiated the mission but lost it along the way. But Ricci, who stood out among the many Catholic missionaries of different orders that entered China in this time period, was able to establish Christianity and its influence until today.
Why Ricci and not his other contemporaries? Some may argue that Alessandro Valignani or Michele Ruggieri would be more appropriately called “pioneer” since both have been in China even before Ricci and both have made their own contributions. Another may ask, what about Francis Xavier? Francis Xavier was a Jesuit missionary, one of Ignacio Loyola’s inner six. He went to India, Malacca, and Japan. He wanted to enter China but did not make it. He died on an island just off the coast of China (Tucker 2004, 66). Legend said he prayed for someone to take his place to enter China. Interestingly though, Ricci was born the same year Xavier died. Xavier thus is out of the question.

On the other hand, Alessandro Valignani was appointed Society Visitor to the Indies in 1573. On his way to Japan, he was detained for ten months in Macao due to a storm. It was enough for him to observe the place and caught the vision to see it evangelized. He then invited Michele Ruggieri and later Matteo Ricci to serve in China (Latourette 1929, 91). Valignani wanted them to master the language which was used by the Chinese literati elite (Brockey 2007, 31). He followed the Jesuit’s policy which is in tune with the founder Ignatius Loyola. Loyola did not fail to minister to the poor but he believed that the work of God can be best promoted when the elite or upper classes were first reached. This strategy seemed to work well for them in China. Since they would be at the mercy of the Emperor and government, befriending the elite would give them protection (Latourette 1929, 92–93). Valignani may have caught the vision for mission in China. He may have the power to send envoys to China. He may have tremendous influence with his administrative and leadership skills. But he did not stay and live with the people in China. He did not execute different methods for effective evangelism among the Chinese. He himself did not lead the mission in China. If to be a pioneer is to be an initiator, groundbreaker, leader and establisher, he seemed to fail in the last two categories.
The last contender was Michele Ruggieri. Ruggieri reached Macao in July, 1579. He then started the tedious task of learning Mandarin and not the local dialect, Cantonese (Latourette 1929, 91). Ruggieri had endured much hardship in learning the Mandarin language but eventually his labor paid off. He spoke Mandarin to the local official for permission to stay in Canton which was granted due to their curiosity and his linguistic ability. These men were drawn to the European mainly because of his clocks and prisms and his ability to share about foreign lands in their language (Brockey 2007, 31–32). Brockey believes that the title “founder” or “pioneer” of Christianity in China ought to be given to Ruggieri instead of Ricci. He believed that it was because of Ruggieri that the door was opened for the Jesuit priests to live in the capital Guangdong Province. Ruggieri was given the temple in Zhaoqing and allowed to have companions with him. He chose Ricci and Francesco Pasio to live with him. (Brockey 2007, 32–33). Ruggieri may seem to have a groundbreaking contribution with the Guangdong incident and an initiator as the first Jesuit to work in China. He may be attributed as leader among the Jesuits until he left in 1588 and taught Ricci the basic Chinese grammar and vocabularies (Brockey 2007, 246–247). The fact is both Ruggieri and Ricci had zealously applied accommodation method in response to Chinese mission by shaving their heads and wearing the Buddhist garb which they later realized was not an effective method. However, Ruggieri did not establish the mission the way Ricci had. The latter’s achievements and accomplishments truly surpassed Ruggieri and their other contemporaries.
What were Ricci’s achievements and accomplishments that had surpassed his contemporaries? First of all, in terms of mastery of the Mandarin language, Ricci surpassed them all. The Chinese language does not use alphabet, instead, they draw figures to represent the things signified. Chinese language is “the most difficult and most intricate ever heard or read about” (Ricci 1942, 131–132). Ricci mastered the language that he could converse and dialogue with the literati. Eventually, he was able to write tracts and books in the Chinese language. He did a lot of translation work as well. His ability to communicate in the Chinese language paved the way for developing friendship with the elite and eventually the emperor. Books that he had written are as follows: Treatise on Friendship (1595); Treatise of Mnemonic Arts (1596); Translates into Chinese Euclid’s Elements of Geometry (1607); The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (1603); Ten Discourses by a Paradoxical Man (1608) (Kim 2004, 152–159). Second achievement is in connection with his mastery of language. Ricci did not only learn the Chinese language but studied the classical Confucian literature. He was specially gifted with a bright mind and memory. He was so into these classics that later he was recognized as one of the literati. What Thomas Aquinas did to Aristotelianism, Ricci did to Confucianism (Bevans 2006, 187). Jonathan Spence noted that Ricci gave up his hope of seeing thousands upon thousands of Chinese to Christ, as an alternative resigned to study more carefully the Confucian teachings even among the company of hostile scholars. Ricci thought if Confucianism is a set of philosophy, the Chinese can accept Christianity as well and not forsake their traditional beliefs. He tried to make Confucianism compatible with Christianity and this attracted the Chinese and paved the way for conversions. Yet he was not without critics, he was accused of not being faithful to the basic teachings of the Church (Tucker 2004, 68). Meanwhile, he was able to argue against the Buddhist claims using Confucian text (Spence 1992, 46–47). Ricci removed the Buddhist garb in 1594 and putted on the Confucian scholar attire (Kim 2004, 153). Thirdly, Ricci widened his circle of influence among the literati and even with the emperor himself. With his abilities and talents as a mathematician, cartographer, astronomer, and even clock repairman, Ricci was able to strengthen his relations with the literati and attracted the emperor. Ricci had his eyes set on Beijing. He longed to witness to the emperor. In 1598, he and his companions were invited to stay in Beijing which was the capital of the empire. But the stay was shortened due to the anti-foreign sentiments aggravated by the renewed war between the Japanese and Koreans. In 1601, Ricci and his companions returned to Beijing and stayed until his death in 1610. The emperor provided a place for his burial. This is very strange for a Chinese, more so for a foreigner. Ricci was later referred by historians as “wise man from the West” (Bevans 2006, 187). Lastly, Ricci left many other contributions and legacies: (1) as early as 1615, the Jesuits obtained approval from the pope to use the Chinese language in the liturgy and the administration of the sacraments. Sadly, this privilege was never used probably because of the scarcity of the Chinese priests. By the time they want to practice it, it was denied. (2) His tracts were used by the Protestants in the 18th century (Tucker 2004, 70). (3) Paul Hsu, one of the converts of Ricci’s ministry, became a zealous Christian. His daughter Candida, widowed early, gave her life fully to the work of the Lord. It was said that she devised the professional story-tellers of the gospel story to speedily spread Christianity in China among the masses (Latourette 1929, 95). Paul Hsu’s descendants such as Madame Sun Yat Sen and Madame Chiang Kai Shek became prominent women who made a difference in the history of China. Therefore, the number (two thousand) of converts during Ricci’s ministry may not be big as compared to the vast population of China; but the cultivation process had begun (Tucker 2004, 70). As Ricci on his death bed said he merely open the door of China and much work still needs to be done.

Most missionaries at this time period used tabula rasa in foreign mission. Tabula rasa is to completely disregard the culture of the people since it was thought to be primitive and crude. When the culture is removed, then and there one can start to build the Christian faith. But Francis Xavier cannot agree with this strategy as he applied it among the Japanese. Thus, a new idea of “accommodation” was formulated (Neill 1971, 133). Alessandro Valignani developed a model of mission that is a “sweet and gentle way” or il modo soave. Bevans notes that

[b]eginning in Japan, he insisted on the importance of preparing and accepting Japanese for priesthood; translating the Scripture, catechisms, and prayers into the local languages, a practice that had been initiated by Xavier; and accommodating the style of the mission and church in terms of architecture, clothing, diet, and social formalities (Bevans 2006, 186).

Under Valignani’s influence and supervision, Ricci used “accommodation” as the method of mission in China. The Jesuits’ rejection of the tabula rasa and application of accommodation method had raised many criticisms especially from the Franciscans and Dominicans who practiced the former. In addition, the monopoly of the Jesuits over China caused jealousy and fault-finding among the Franciscans and Dominicans. These eventually gave birth to the Chinese Rites Controversy.

One of the Chinese rites controversies was the names of God controversy which persisted even until the twentieth century. Alopen the Nestorian and Ching-Ching in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) used “Buddha,” “I-Shen,” and “Aloho” for the Christian God (Kim, 28). The Catholics in Ricci’s time used Tiān Zhŭ Jiào 天主教 since the Chinese phonetic does not have D for Deus. Tiān Zhŭ 天主 which means Lord of Heaven was deemed the most appropriate term for God. For this reason, the Chinese term for Catholicism is Tiān Zhŭ Jiào 天主教 (the religion on Tiān Zhŭ). However, this term is closely connected to the Buddhist term for its god Thusita Heaven (Kim 2004, 146). Initially in his ministry, Ricci used Tiān Zhŭ for God. But later, he was convinced that the Confucian reference for the ancient god as Shàng Dì 上帝 or simply Tiān 天 is more appropriate (Neill 1971, 141). According to Ricci, the literati recognized that there is one Supreme Being and they did not erect any temples nor do they have priests to lead the rituals. Instead, only the emperor has the right to offer sacrifices in two of the magnificent temples in Beijing and Nanking. The goal for these temples is for the king alone to give worship to this supreme god (Ricci 1942, 95). Ricci revised the work of Ruggieri’s True Record of the Lord of Heaven (Tiān Zhŭ Shí Lu 天主實錄) with his The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (Tiān Zhŭ Shí Yì 天主實義) in 1594. Kim states that Ricci

[rejects] Ruggieri’s search for the point of contact between Christianity and the Chinese religion in the doctrinal affinity between Christianity and Buddhism, Ricci revised not only the format but also the basic arguments of the book, based on the Confucian frames of reference and terminology (Kim 2004, 162).

Ricci’s work drew affinity between the Confucian Most High God Shàng Dì and Tiān with the Christian Deus. He also used the Confucian style of dialogue in this book. According to Ricci, the purity of the original Shàng Dì, as the Supreme Being, was tainted with Buddhism in the Song Dynasty (960—1279). He believed that the best way to evangelize the Chinese is to connect with them through the existing truths inherent in their own ancient classical tradition. However, the Vatican, influenced by other orders, equated the use of Shàng Dì or Tiān to the Christian God as blasphemy. These issues angered the Kangxi Emperor that he ordered the expulsion of all Catholic priests in the 18th century (Lazich 2000, 254–55). Amusingly, many Chinese Christians including myself have no problems with the use of Shàng Dì. In fact, Protestants would rather use Shàng Dì or Shen than Tiān or Tiān Zhŭ to distinguish themselves from Roman Catholicism. For this, Ricci have indeed triumphed over the issue of which was the proper Chinese reference for God.
The second controversy was about the ancestral veneration or ancestral worship. In the beginning, as Ricci argued in his journals, the Chinese themselves see this ceremony as giving honor to the dead parents and ancestors and testifying to their love. They know that the dead do not need the food placed on the graves. But they hoped that through this ritual, the children and uneducated adults will learn how to respect and support their parents who are still living since the literati even still expressed love to their dead parents. Ricci further reported that originally the Chinese did not consider their ancestors as gods nor did they petition them for anything. Nevertheless, he exhorted the Christians to give alms to the poor instead of giving offerings to their dead (Ricci 1942, 96). Ricci concluded that the rites are cultural and social, not religious. Therefore, it is not idolatrous to practice those (Bevans 2006, 189). The problem with Ricci’s stand is that the majority of the common folks do not understand the original Confucian teachings but rather a mixture of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Ricci’s lack of association with the masses failed him in understanding this issue in a wider perspective. A lot of superstitions are incorporated in the filial piety that produces ancestral worship rather than ancestral veneration. Even at present, many Chinese do not know the real story behind the practice. They simply practice the rituals out of tradition and that is Confucius’ filial piety mixed with superstitions and Buddhism and Daoism’s teachings on afterlife.

Matteo Ricci may not be right all the time as he used the method of accommodation in the mission field. At any rate, the accommodation method at this time was in its initial and experimental stage. Nevertheless, his zeal and his perseverance in serving the Chinese people were undeniably inspiring and moving. Some may argue that Michele Ruggieri should rightly be called the “founder of Christianity in China” yet with the 27 years of Ricci’s dedication and love for the Chinese people; his achievements and legacies that is still evident until today cannot be dismissed. For this reason, it is just but right to give him that honor as “pioneer of Christianity in China”.

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Juliet Lee Uytanlet

Dr. Juliet Lee Uytanlet finished her PhD in Intercultural Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. Her dissertation entitled The Hybrid Tsinoys: Challenges of Hybridity and Homogeneity as Sociocultural Constructs among the Chinese in the Philippines (American Society of Missiology Monograph Series Book 28) was published in 2016. She and her husband are currently teaching in the Biblical Seminary of the Philippines. Her interests are in cultural hybridity, postcolonialism, and Chinese Diaspora.

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