Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.31.2: THE MEMORY PALACE OF MATTEO RICCI, by Jonathan D. Spence, 1984 [BR]

V031-02_memoryPalanceWFr. Matteo Ricci was, as were many Jesuits of his time, a man who combined “street smarts” with high native intelligence.   A missionary needed those attributes, and a healthy dose of luck, to go off scavenging souls in Asia in the middle of the 16 th Century.     My own street smarts didn’t serve me that well when I was in Beijing.   When I finally found the first Catholic church that Ricci founded around 1577 in Beijing I was in near need of heavenly assistance myself, and oxygen, from plowing through the city’s three-pack-a-day pollution.   At the time I was persuaded by what I had read that the Chinese had put one over on the wily Italian Jebbie; they sold him a former execution ground, hence an accursed setting, on which to build his catholic church.   They must have laughing up their Ming Dynasty sleeves at the evil spirits rising out of the ground to do battle with Catholic angels and saints.   Feeling as I do about missionaries and evangelists, [1] I liked that mental image.


But on reading The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci , a fascinating account of the adventures of the Jesuits in Asia, I am not so sure.   Spence, who has a knack for going after the “story” in his historical books on China, [2] relates that Ricci might well have known he could get the land for the church cheap, as he did when he purchased supposedly “haunted” houses for his missionaries in other Chinese cities.   It would not have been improper for a Jesuit of the time to rank good business up there with spiritual concerns. Blending secular matters with his mission, and maybe turning the tables on authorities out to make a fool of him, would not have been out of character for Ricci.  


Ricci arrived in China, after periods of adjustment in India and Macao.   He brought with him a gimmick to amaze and ingratiate himself with the locals and their overlords.   Well before sixty-gigabyte hard drives people in both the East and the West were very interested in personal memory.   The Chinese in particular, with thousands of characters to learn and remember in their quasi-ideographic script, were especially interested in “memory systems.” [3]   Ricci had one, an associational method (to simplify it) of placing “people” in various rooms of an imaginary mansion, that worked well enough for him; he could recite long passages from memory.   But where Ricci really got clever about teaching his method to the Chinese was his use of passages from the New Testament.   What better way of getting the infidels to engage Christian lore and liturgy than to practice committing it to memory.   Before they knew it, the Chinese were remembering Christ walking on water, his “virgin” birth, and his crucifixion.    


Though Ricci made a share of converts the Chinese didn’t always accept Christianity uncritically.   There is always the problem of the authenticity of the faith of converts who have been won over, as it were, by the blandishments of mnemonic methods or by commodities such as clocks (one of the few commodities the Chinese thought worthy of interest from the West).   In particular, the Chinese thought the image of the crucified Christ as gory and a rather odd way of representing a deity.   Why advertise your god as a victim, they wondered.   And the Chinese were disposed to see Christianity as worthy of adoption because they approached their gods as supplicants; if the Christians could offer a god that might be better at granting longevity, happiness and wealth, it made sense to convert.


Of all missionaries, the Jesuits were probably best prepared to deal with such concerns.   Part of their rigorous ratio studiourm of theology, mathematics, classical literature, and science was their training in methods of “disputation.”     As students they were put through a regime that sharpened their rhetorical abilities to counter and parry arguments, expose heretical holdings, and generally make an opponent feel that he has encountered a rhetorical “black belt.”   And a well-prepared Jesuit might be capable of holding his own in several languages.   Small wonder, then, that these determined prelates in black soutaines were often regarded, even by their co-religionists, as formidable and dangerous.   That “SJ” (Society of Jesus) suffix to their names seemed to some to reflect the militaristic background of their founder, Ignatius Loyola. [4]


Ricci’s lifetime coincided with the period of the ugly underbelly of the Roman Catholic Church—the Inquisition. Moreover, the Jesuit hierarchy hailed from Portugal ad Spain, where the Inquisition, owing to the presence in those parts of large numbers of Jews and Muslims, was especially nasty.   The “heretic” hunt had even gotten to Goa, when Ricci was there, preying upon and praying over a large number of Spanish expelled Jews that had settled there.   To his credit Ricci protested to the Jesuit hierarchy about their treatment by the Church. Ricci and the Jesuits of the Asian missions seemed to be more preoccupied with the locals than with hunting down huihui (as the Chinese referred to Muslims) or the perfidia judaica. Indeed, some of Ricci’s colleagues were themselves conversos .   The Jesuits were always prowling to recruit the most intelligent men into their order.


Matteo Ricci died, at age 58, on May 8, 1610, in bed, probably of overwork from becoming an unofficial tutor for Chinese preparing for the jinshi . [5]   He published several books, a dictionary, and religious tracts.   By Spence’s account he was probably spiritual, but not to the point that it interfered much with his earthly pursuits.   A good mind needs constant challenge, and like a good Jesuit missionary he wondered mostly about the world he was in and seemed to leave the other stuff to his God.   I like very much something he wrote that indicates that secular ideas had a hold on his interest.


It often happens that those who live at a later time are unable to grasp the point at which the great undertakings or actions of this world had their origin.   And I, constantly seeking the reason for this phenomenon, could find no other answer than this, namely that all things (including those that come at last to triumph mightily) are at their beginnings so small and faint in outline that one cannot easily convince oneself that from them will grow matters of great moment . [6]


Ricci might have been referring to a crucifixion the Romans conducted on a Jewish troublemaker in Judea around 34B.C.   But like a good Jesuit teacher, he lets us form our own conclusions.

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.4.2006)

[1] “Invasion of the Soulsnatchers,” The Wild East, Issue 4, May 2003, Pp. 16-17

[2] Favorites of this reader are his Death of Woman Wang , and The Question of Hu .

[3] A good memory was a prime asset when the Chinese took triennial jinshi examinations, the highest level civil service exams.   One of Ricci’s students, Xu Guangqi, managed to pass his exams with distinction with the help of memory methods.   Such training was also an opportunity for the Jesuits to impart Western knowledge in cartography, chemistry,, geometry, and mathematics to Chinese scholars.   Xu assisted Ricci in a translation of Euclid into Chinese.

[4] Like Loyola, Ricci walked with a limp in the latter years of his life.   Loyola had been shot in the leg in battle and underwent painful operations to repair a limb that might otherwise have been amputated.   Ricci broke his leg jumping from a window when his residence was attacked by a mob of Chinese.

[5] This writer didn’t know when he was in Beijing where Ricci’s body ended up. His tomb stands behind the French Church at 12 Maweigou (Horsetail Ditch) Road in the Fuchengmen district. According to the code of the Ming Dynasty, foreigners who died in China had to be buried in Macao. The Jesuits made a special plea to the court, requesting a burial plot in Beijing in view of Ricci’ s contributions to China. Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty granted his permission and designated a Buddhist temple, which had been appropriated from a court eunuch for the purpose. In October of 1610,   Ricci’s body was transferred to the tomb.

[6] Quoted from Pasquale M d’Elia, S.J,,   Storia dell’ Introduzione del Christianismo in Cina(1942-1949)