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Book Review


Hsia, R. Po-Chia. A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xiv+359pp.


     The career of the famous Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci has long attracted scholarly interest. Ricci has been a particularly popular subject of late, as evidenced by a spate of books on his life and mission.1 Such interest comes as no surprise. As China's burgeoning role in world affairs grows ever more manifest, it is only natural that scholars and readers should turn their attention to earlier cultural intermediaries such as Ricci.

     In A Jesuit in the Forbidden City, R. Po-Chia Hsia provides a comprehensive biography of the renowned missionary. Drawing on extensive research in Chinese- as well as European-language sources, Hsia's portrait is a remarkably detailed one, exploring Ricci's early years in Macerata and Rome, his education and training in the Jesuit order during the post-Reformation reinvigoration of the Church, his travails on "Portuguese Seas" en route to his ultimate destination, and, of course, his famous three decades of dogged, yet creative missionary work in the Ming Empire. Throughout, Hsia balances description of the numerous locales and their denizens with detailed discussion of the strategies Ricci and his fellows employed in their work and the erudite debates in which they found themselves engaged.

     The Ricci that emerges from Hsia's book is a spectacularly learned man supremely confident in the truth of his mission—but one who exercised a flexibility and cosmopolitan pragmatism that were vital to his success. While stationed in Goa, for example, Ricci was among the minority of Jesuits who supported the admission of Indians to the Company. He admired the literary, political, and material cultures of Ming China—he wrote to a fellow Jesuit that "nothing in the world" was greater than the grandeur of China (73)—and recognized the need to work within existing systems to convey his message. Hsia describes how one of Ricci's earliest challenges in China was to convince Chinese that Christianity was something other than a new school of Buddhism. Jesuits in China originally dressed as Buddhist monks—bald, shaved, robed, and introducing themselves as "monks from India"—and their earliest converts were Buddhists whose conversions were not so much conversions as "liturgical an doctrinal substitutions, which preserved a deep structure of emotional and psychological continuity for the neophytes" (96). Increasingly, Hsia explains, Ricci developed a new proselytizing program that methodically repudiated Buddhism and focused on converting literati and mandarin elites. Central to this new approach was an appropriation of Confucianism for missionary purposes, an anti-Buddhist "Confucian-Christian synthesis" (135-36, 253). No longer dressing as a Buddhist monk, Ricci adopted literati garb—silk robes, tall hats, beard, long hair—and worked to emphasize the parallels between ancient Confucian classics and the most basic of Christian doctrines, even arguing that Chinese sages "knew and worshipped the true God in antiquity, but that knowledge and practice had been subverted by literati of subsequent ages and especially by the introduction of Buddhism to China" (224). In radically simplifying Christian doctrine—so much so, he wrote, that he was introducing "not even one hair on the hide of nine buffaloes" (272)—Ricci was attempting not merely to translate Christian ideas into Chinese words, but into Confucian culture. By the time he died in 1610, Ricci's leadership had helped establish a community of 2,500 Chinese converts, having had particular success among the intellectuals of the troubled last generations of the Ming Dynasty.

     In addition to treating the broader, intellectual stakes of the Jesuit-Chinese encounter, Hsia explores the material realities of missionary life. He shows how Ricci and company were utterly dependent on the patronage of Chinese authorities, whose whims and favor were crucial shapers of their fates. Successful missionary work was made possible as much by chance and the regular provision of gifts—crystal prisms, western books, maps, scientific instruments, and so forth—as by anything else. Indeed, the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620) is said to have kept the Jesuits in Beijing because he needed them to service his clocks. This more mundane, superficial side of missionary work taxed Ricci—as did his utter separation from his Italian home. However successful he was in learning Chinese and working within Chinese structures, he never ceased to regard China as an alien land, and filled his letters to Europe with longing lamentations about his far-flung fate in service of his faith.

     Ricci's is a striking tale of premodern cultural transmission, and Hsia tells it well. Particularly strong is his attention to the telling detail or anecdote. He explains, for example, that while Ricci's melancholy had many causes—the difficulty of his mission and distance from home primary among them—it was also a product of his daily immersion in things foreign. Ricci and other Jesuits imitated Chinese literati in so much—dress, diet, deportment, decorum—but certain practices remained beyond the pale. Although the Jesuits, Ricci explained, "all dressed in honorable Chinese style with long sleeves and square berets, with long beards and long hair, [they] cannot imitate [the literati] in their fastidious ways with fingernails, which many wear more than a palm and a half in length, and, in order they may not crack, they put long tubes over them, something that seems filthy and deformed to us, but taken very seriously by them, since they are more fragile than glass" (283). Particularly noteworthy is the deft way Hsia introduces the many towns and locales that together constituted Ricci's life, providing the reader enough detail to be drawn in, yet not so much as to be overloaded. In introducing Beijing, for instance

     Ricci disliked Beijing. Dust everywhere. The streets were unpaved. There was little water. When the northern winds swept down from the Mongolian Desert, they whipped up the dust like so many small twisters, blowing in the face of people, who went about the city covered with black hoods to protect their eyes from the sand that got into everything […] In the winter months, the winds served up a revolting mixture of sand, desiccated feces, and coal dust, the latter from the ubiquitous heating material used in northern China, dug from the surface of the land. Wood was long gone. The hills to the north and west of Beijing had been deforested for more than a century before Ricci. After the capital was transferred from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421, the population of the former forlorn frontier town quadrupled within half a century; the great demand for fuel quickly denuded the hills around Beijing. (172-73)

     While not strictly necessary, such lush scene setting is a strength of the book, enhancing its readability and helping the reader to better comprehend Ricci's world.

     Attention to detail is, however, also perhaps the main shortcoming of the book. This reviewer would have benefited from more explicit exposition of arguments and analysis of major themes. The details sometimes overwhelm, serving up a parade of similar stories—Ricci met with this Chinese scholar, Ricci met with that Chinese scholar—that will likely blur together for many readers. Had these been condensed further, the book could have been better suited for potential use in undergraduate classrooms.

     But this is a minor quibble about a fascinating, well-researched book that will prove valuable to advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and interested lay readers alike—and will provide teachers with excellent material to enliven class lectures and discussion. It deserves a wide readership.

Mark Soderstrom is an assistant professor of history at Aurora University in Aurora, IL. His primary research interest is Imperial Russian history, and he teaches a range of courses on Russian, East Asian, and world history. He can be contacted at



1 Examples include Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Penguin, 1985); Liam Matthew Brockey, Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Matteo Ricci, On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince, trans. Timothy Billings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Michela Fontana, Matteo Ricci: A Jesuit in the Ming Court (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011); Mary Laven, Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East (London: Faber & Faber, 2011).



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