Born in Macerata in Italy, Matteo Ricci studied in Jesuit colleges in Florence and Rome before setting out for Goa in India in 1578, where he was ordained as a priest. Together with another priest, Michele Ruggieri, he arrived in 1582 in Macao on China’s southern coast, where the Chinese government had allowed the Portuguese to establish a trading center.
Five years earlier, Father Alessandro Valignano, superior of all Jesuit mission in the East Indies (which included China), had set down rules that Jesuit missionaries in China should adapt to Chinese culture, learning to speak, read, and write Chinese, and seek to transform China from within for the long-term goal of conversion.
There could not have been a better choice than Ricci to perform this task. Ricci wore Chinese clothes, moved among educated Chinese, and impressed them with his knowledge in astronomy, mathematics, geography, and other academic disciplines.
After 15 years in Zhaoqing (Shaoching) and Nanjing (Nanking), he was finally allowed to go to Beijing (Peking) in 1601, where he was initially housed in the Residence for Tributary Envoys. Ricci was granted an imperial audience, but the reclusive Wanli (Wan-li), emperor of China, did not appear in person.
He kowtowed to an empty throne but his many gifts, which included holy pictures, a reliquary, other religious objects, plus two clocks, a spinet, and other items made in Europe, were accepted. He was granted permission to build a church and establish a mission in the capital city. He greatly impressed the court when he calculated the time of an eclipse more accurately than had the Chinese and Arab court astronomers.
Since exact calendar making and astronomical predictions were highly important to the Chinese government, Ricci wrote home begging for experts in those fields to be sent to China. As a result, Jesuit astronomers built an observatory in Beijing and a Jesuit headed the Board of Astronomy, a department of the Ministry of Rites, until the mid-18th century.
Ricci was a prodigious writer and translator. He authored Treatises on Mnemonic Arts, Treatise on Friendship, True Meaning of the and Lord of Heaven, and Ten Discourses by a Paradoxical Man, translated Euclid’s Elements of Geometry into Chinese and began to translate the Chinese classical Four Books into Latin.
He also made a map of the world and composed songs. His fame as scholar and scientist won many prominent admirers and friends. He also made converts, the most famous being Grand Secretary Hu Guangqi (Hsu Kuang-ch’i) and President of the Board of Public Works Li Zhizao (Li Chih-tsao).
Ricci died in 1610. His work was carried on by generations of talented Jesuit scholars and missionaries who were dedicated to their faith and were also important cultural ambassadors.