This is a charming work of history and biography – not an oil painting, a sketch. Jonathon D. Spence presents us with the story of Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s extra-ordinary life in Ming Dynasty China. The book is framed around Ricci’s “memory palace” – an European memory aid that Ricci hoped would appeal to the scholarly sensibilities of the Chinese elite.
The idea of the memory palace is that you place what you want to remember in a imaginary building and the objects de arte inside are linked to the individual items you want to remember. For example, in your imaginary dream palace, you enter the forecourt, which has say four statues in it; each statue is dramatic and vivid, say, two warriors fighting – and this prompts you to recall the Chinese ideogram for “war.” Ricci was a master of this technique, apparently able to recall entire books and repeat them forwards and backwards. If this technique seems unwieldy – effectively giving you more to remember (as it seems to me), bare in mind that Ricci lived in a society that was still essentially oral and verbal – their capacity for memory was therefore far more linked to song and the spoken word.
I found two of Spence’s books simply browsing in Powell’s – and I knew that they would be winners from the moment I saw them. More of a cultural history through the lens of one man’s life, we are guided through the world of early-modern/Counter Reformation Europe, and the world of the Jeuits in East Asia. This schema works because Matteo Ricci himself was such a fascinating, brilliant character.
From Papal-controlled central Italy, Ricci became a Jesuit priest and as young man, sailed out to China and spent the rest of his life attempting to convert the Chinese the Christianity. Facing the complex web of Chinese belief, Ricci made little headway but was remarkably successful in interesting the Ming court in Western mathematics and technology. His attempts to make christianity “palatable” to the Chinese borders on heresy.
Ming society was a curious mixture of belief – the common people were largely Buddhist or Taoist, with a healthy dose of folk customs and superstitions. The ruling class practised the loose corpus of philosophical and ethical doctrines known as Confucianism, which has this epicurean, agnostic, and one is tempted to say humanistic vein. Thus Ming China was a cosmopolitan place compared to Counter-Reformation Europe, and the monotheistic strictures and fears of Christianity made little headway. A telling event recounted by Spence is the reaction of a courtly eunuch finding a dramatic, baroque crucifix – the agony and torture of Christ; his emaciated body – all being vividly rendered in wood, shocked and angered the eunuch, who showed it to the assembled Chinese – they found the concept of the “tortured” God inexplicable, and the obsession with the “torture” itself the Chinese found to be somewhere between quite odd and downright evil (they may have a point). It was a ‘PR’ disaster for Ricci, who was unable to find a reasonable explanation for it on the spot. The Jesuits in China focused largely on the Virgin Mary, backed by God-the-Father and the more edifying exploits of the Apostles.
This world of Jesuits, emperors, science and religion – I got hooked on it from James Clavell’s Shogun – is one that is fascinating. In many ways, this is Shogun but factual.
Informative, interesting, vivid.