Lost in translation

20 07 2009


Random notes on Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

Spence’s book is one that I have wanted to write on for weeks, but I am not really feeling disciplined enough to write a tight, well-crafted essay on it. To summarize, the book is about the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s ambitions and dreams to convert the Emperor of China and thus the whole country to Roman Catholicism, and all the misfires, foibles, and tragedies that occur along the way. For this task, Ricci felt it necessary to adopt the garb of a Confucian scholar and attempt to lure the upper class into Catholicism through education, a typical Jesuit tactic. The particular bait that Ricci was trying to use was a set of memory techniques once popular but now extinct in the West. (I can’t even remember AG’s cellphone number.) He hoped to help young aspiring bureaucrats pass the exams necessary to enter civil service in imperial China, and in exchange, he hoped to show that the “barbarians” of the West had much to offer, especially in the religious realm. While not a total failure, he was far from a success. The closest he got to the Emperor himself, for example, was prostrating before his empty throne; the “divine” ruler was far too paranoid about his own safety to see anyone other than the inner circle of his court.

I didn’t love the book, but there is far too much in it to really describe it all in one sitting, which means that it is probably a good book. The best parts are when it becomes absolutely clear that they believed in ways that we modern people just don’t understand. In one episode, on a ship on its way to the Indies, the Jesuit fathers were caught up in a storm, and their first reaction was to throw their Agnus Dei medal into the sea to calm the waves. (It reminds me of AG’s mother who once told me to have blessed palms reads to burn and throw outside in the event of a bad storm.) People at that time could still be orthodox Christians and yet believe in “undiscovered occult influences that pulsated in their Neoplatonic universes”. Even reformed England was crawling with “cunning men” skilled in the art of sympathetic magic.

But those details I suppose are far from the point of the book. At each turn, Ricci encountered Chinese behaviors and attitudes that were far from the Christian norm he was trying to preach. From the cruelty of bureaucrats to commoners, the homosexual debauchery of the wealthy, and the nihilistic doctrines of Buddhists ascetics, Christianity seemed to have a continual uphill battle in China, and the reader is left marvelling at a personal faith that could be left so long in a foreign land without the support of even basic human companionship. All of it sort of hit one point home for me, and that is that perhaps Catholicism cannot really triumph anywhere unless there is an army involved. I say that not at all cynically, for armies can bring all sorts of things, but they also create a captive audience. Only the most left-wing, postcolonialist intellectual can claim that Catholicism is not deeply embedded in the Mexican, Peruvian, or Filipino psyche, in spite of the fact that it was imposed by force.

One other interesting episode of the book was how many people that the Jesuits encountered in east Asia thought that the Christian god was a woman holding a child. This of course is what they took away when they saw all the pictures of the Madonna, and few of the crucifix. Indeed, this was somewhat intentional, since in one episode, when one Chinese neophyte found an image of a half naked man nailed to two wooden planks, he thought it to be witchcraft and was horrified. Indeed, even the pagans were given to venerating Mary, but the cross to them continued to be a scandal… (insert Pauline quote). Of course, the early Christians did not seem to have crucifixes either, and preferred images like the Good Shepherd to the suffering Man-God hanging from a tree.

As for Catholic evangelism in general, I did not come away from the book very optimistic. More informed and enlightened people will have to step in an augment my knowledge on this subject as applied in the east Asian situation. At the end of the book, I felt Ricci to be a bit of a tragic figure: a man who had dreams of converting the largest empire on earth, but ended up talking past people, rather than talking to them. My biggest fear is that we are doing the same in our own conversation with the modern world. It’s not a pleasant feeling.



9 responses

20 11 2013

hmmm…would you say that the jesuits were somewhat successful in japan without an army at its back?

22 07 2009
Sam Urfer

It’s interesting to note that there are about as many Catholics in China as there were in the Roman Empire when Constantine became emperor, approximately. Obviously a much, much lower percentage of the population, but still a significant number.

21 07 2009


I’m aware of the existence of two Catholic Churches in China, the Chinese Patriotic Association and the “underground Church” loyal to Rome. Given that atheism is the official religion of China, it’s difficult to really get accurate statistics on the number of Catholics in either group. As far as I can tell, there seem to be something like 4 million Patriotic Catholics and maybe 12 million underground Catholics. The number of Chinese Protestants seems to range from 10 million to 100 million (some say that there are hundreds of millions of Chinese “house churches” but there’s no way to know for sure). Is there a Catholic identity of the Catholics of China? Maybe. I would think that being a member of a small (by Chinese standards) and unpopular religion would create some kind of group identity.There seems to be very little written in English about Catholic culture in Africa and Asia. Even during the papal trip to Africa, not much was written about what Catholicism actually looks like to the people of Angola and Cameroon.

21 07 2009
The Western Confucian

I should also have mentioned that Ricci, or Lì Mǎdòu, is a revered figure in here Asia, even among non-Catholics. When I mentioned his name to a group of Chinese students, their eyes lit up. A leftist Korean professor once praised him to me as the prime example of Westerner who understood Asia and was not afflicted by what Edward Said called “Orientalism.”

21 07 2009
The Western Confucian

In 1784, some Korean Confucian scholars brought back Fr. Ricci’s book and many converted to Catholicism in what was perhaps the only self-evangelization in Church history. Many suffered persecution and martyrdom without ever having access to a priest.

The story is told in novelized form in Hahn Moo-Sook ‘s Encounter. Of the subject of your post, she writes:

“Ricci publicly announced that he had come to China to supplement Confucian belief, and to attack the absurdity of Buddhism. He argued that the Catholic God and the Confucian Lord-on-High were equivalent, and that the Confucian term Heaven, or Providence, was compatible with the Catholic concept of God the Creator. Citing passages from Confucian classics, he demonstrated that the concepts of the soul’s immortality and good and evil in Catholicism were analogous to the fundamental teachings of Confucianism.”

Of he Korean self-evangelization, she writes:

“”It was not through the efforts of missionaries that Catholicism spread in Korea. In the beginning it was studied as an academic interest by scholar-officials of the Southerner faction, who had by then lost political power. Disillusioned with the empty, obsolete, and contradictory metaphysics of the day, they developed a profound interest in the Western books brought into Korea by the annual mission to the Peking court. With an insatiable thirst for new knowledge, they marvelled at the newly introduced learning, more logical, scientific, and practical than any they had known. Scientific advancement in mathematics and calendrical computation hitherto unknown to them greatly stimulated and influenced these scholar-officials. They joined forces in a new scholarly trend called Sirhak, or ‘practical learning,’ which used an empirical approach aimed at ‘institutional reform of government’ and ‘economic enrichment in society.'”

21 07 2009

All of it sort of hit one point home for me, and that is that perhaps Catholicism cannot really triumph anywhere unless there is an army involved.

Who alive today converted to Catholicism under occupation? Who in the last four centuries? Even the Mexicans converted en masse not because of an occupying army, but because of the Virgin of Guadeloupe.

Rome was a much more advanced civilization than the one to which Catholicism was born, and yet the Church prevailed there also. A great many broad generalizations seem to have been made in the course of the essay.

Leah makes some interesting points, but seems to miss that the ‘official’ Catholic Church in China is quite robust, if co-opted by the communists.

20 07 2009

I think the difference with The West’s relationship with China was very different than with Africa or South America. Because the African and South American peoples that Western missionaries came into contact with were technologically behind when compared to themselves, it was easy to impose their religion on them through force and equally easy to write them all off as barbarians in need of civilization. In comparison, China was much more advanced than the West up until the 17th or 18th century or so. Even during the quasi-colonialism of the 19th century, the Chinese were never really seen as being inferior (at least not in the same way as South Americans and Africans) so much as being a degenerate civilization that had grown fat and effeminate. This is why many Westerners that lived in China pre-PRC could complain on the one hand about things like footbinding, opium dens, and the lack of civil society while falling in love with the Confucian scholar lifestyle. This is also why the Chinese tend to see themselves as being humiliated by the West, but not nessesarily oppressed in the same way that an African or a Latin American might. The existence of Buddhism in China shows that foreign religions can flourish in China. Supposedly, underground evangelical Protestantism is getting to be really popular in China, since all you need is a Bible and a living room and you’re set, whereas Catholicism requires an infrastructure that’s difficult to sustain under current conditions. So I think Ricci’s problem was that he was dealing with a very different environment than missionaries who went to Africa and Latin America. Since there’s never been any real civil society in China, the notion of a religion that’s headed in a foreign country has always been very threatening, which is why the Catholic Church is illegal there.

20 07 2009

In some predominantly Chinese parishes in Manila, there are sizable Buddhist ‘spiritual tourists’ who occasionally visit to offer their supplications to the Virgin Mary, whom they equate with the bodhisattva of compassion, Guanyin. Apparently this practice gained popularity in the 50s with the arrival of fresh Chinese immigrants to the Philippines, but the practice seems to be much older than that. One might recall, for example, that the great image of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Manila was carved by a ‘sangley infiel’ who was later converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Even more astonishing is how some Muslims revere the image of Our Lady of the Pillar in Mindanao. I’ve been told that some of them even crawl on their knees to beg for her clemency. Fascinating stuff, really.

20 07 2009

More informed and enlightened people will have to step in an augment my knowledge on this subject as applied in the east Asian situation.

I strongly recommend Silence, by Suzuko Endo

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