The history of exchange between ancient China and the West cannot be complete without mentioning the contributions of Marco Polo (1254-1324) and Matteo Ricci, SJ (Li Madou, 1552-1610). If Marco Polo, a merchant from Venice, introduced China to Europeans and left them a magic and rich Orient, then Matteo Ricci was the "cultural icon" who introduced Western science to China, married Chinese cultural and spiritual values to Catholicism, and established cultural communication and collaboration between the East and the West.
This year is the fourth death centenary of Ricci, who was buried in Beijing on the orders of Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) for his contributions to China's science, cartography, mathematics and philosophy.
The Pope praised the Jesuit thus: "Ricci dedicated long years of his life to weaving a profound dialogue between the West and the East working incisively to root the Gospel in the culture of the great people of China. Even today, his example remains a model of fruitful encounter between European and Chinese civilizations."
Why has Ricci enjoyed such a high reputation in China and Europe both? "Ricci mapped out the policy of the Catholic mission in China - the policy of cultural accommodation, which is 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do'," says Zhang Guogang, a Tsinghua University professor whose areas of research are Studies on Society and Institutions of Medieval China and Sino-Foreign Relations.
"Ricci's cultural accommodation approach is essentially a line of thinking and attitude that, with genuine humility, shows respect to Chinese people and culture", Zhang says. "Thanks to this attitude he could be accepted by officials and scholars, and deepen his understanding of China and gradually develop a set of feasible behavioral patterns for missionaries coming to the Middle Kingdom."
Ricci's journey began in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1578. He traveled via India and reached Macao in 1582 where he applied himself to the study of Chinese language and customs. "Like other Europeans, before dealing directly with Chinese people, Ricci could rely only on his European experience and the ideas and practices left by his predecessors to understand China," Zhang says.
Ricci was different from many Europeans traveling to China, but he could retain or renounce the experiences he had acquired from his predecessors only after being exposed to Chinese culture. His respect for Chinese culture and customs, and his keen insight played a big role in it, though.
Ricci founded the Jesuit tradition of learning the Chinese language and Confucian classics. "Seeing that Chinese culture was strongly intertwined with Confucian values, he realized Christian teachings could be presented as Confucian principles, such as filial piety, reciprocity and personal virtue."
His first book written in Chinese, Treatise on Friendship, (Jiaoyou Lun), in which he says, "My friend is not another person but my second self, so I shall treat my friend just like myself," won him the trust of many Chinese scholars and officials. His knowledge and appreciation of Chinese culture made some Chinese scholar-bureaucrats who came in close contact with him think that he was a "Western Confucian" and came from a "Far Western" state of etiquette, Zhang says.
Instead of excluding traditional Chinese culture, Ricci tried to link Catholicism with Confucianism delicately and use existing Chinese concepts to explain Christianity so that the Jesuits and the Catholic faith they preached could no longer be considered foreign or harmful.
"In other words, the ultimate goal of Ricci's cultural accommodation policy was to integrate Chinese culture and Catholicism and establish a synthesis of Confucian ideology and Catholicism." He initiated the practice of attracting Chinese interest in Christianity by first intriguing them with Western curiosities, including chime clocks, mathematical and astronomical instruments, oil paintings and world maps.
"From the perspective of cultural exchange, Ricci's approach has far-reaching implications in terms of culture innovation. It is a pioneering exploration on cross-cultural collaboration with a breakthrough in the practice of equality and against cultural parochialism." His approach has been preserved as a basic policy of religious integration, which paved the way for the establishment and development of Catholicism in China.
Zhang uses the relationship between the homes of a woman's parents and her husband's family to describe the contact between two cultures. "Take Buddhism's introduction into China for example. When a foreign culture from India (home of Buddhism's parents) was married into China (husband's home), it had to adapt to the new environment and life. And without interference from its parents' family, Buddhism in China gradually experienced a process of accommodation, conflict and adaptation, and finally became accepted in China," Zhang says.
Despite this precedence, no one, from the founders of the Society of Jesuits in China to its followers, could say to what extent should a missionary compromise in order to integrate into a particular society. "In order to make the Gospel more accessible to Chinese, Ricci made an unprecedented compromise," Zhang says.
"In considering his intense academic and spiritual activity, we cannot but remain favorably impressed by the innovative and unusual skill with which he, with full respect, approached Chinese cultural and spiritual traditions. It was, in fact, this approach that characterized his mission, which aimed to seek possible harmony between the noble and millennial Chinese civilization and the novelty of Christianity," the Pope said.
Today, globalization is making every corner of the world even more closely connected in terms of transportation, sharing of information and economic development, with the global economic integration and cultural diversity proceeding side by side. "Thanks to globalization, different cultures and civilizations are being exposed to each other more frequently. So it has become incumbent to learn and reflect on the 'cultural accommodation' and 'religious tolerance' policy of striving for harmony but not sameness. Civilizations should coexist with each other peacefully without any one being imposed on another," Zhang says.
For example and inspiration, we can turn to Matteo Ricci.
(China Daily 05/06/2010 page9)