An Italo-Chinese Jesuit

The first history of science post that I wrote for The Renaissance Mathematicus was about the Jesuit mathematicus and educational reformer Christoph Clavius and his introduction of the mathematical sciences into the curricula of the European Catholic schools, colleges and universities at the beginning of the seventeenth century. My post ends with a brief list of some of the most prominent Jesuit and non-Jesuit beneficiaries of Clavius’ mathematical education programme in the seventeenth century. One of the earliest of Clavius’ graduates, who studied under the master himself in Rome, was the Italian Jesuit mathematicus Matteo Ricci who was born 6th October 1552.

Ricci entered the Jesuit order in 1571 and studied mathematics, astronomy and cartography amongst other things under Clavius at the Collegio Romano. After graduation in 1577 he applied and was accepted to serve in the Jesuit mission to India. As was usual he was first sent to Coimbra in Portugal to prepare for his Asian service and then in 1578 he sailed to the Jesuit mission in Goa. From here Ricci was sent to Macao in China in 1582. In 1583 he was invited by the Chinese governor to settle in Zhaoqing. Ricci succeeded in becoming accepted into Chinese society, where all other Europeans in the early modern period had failed, by accommodating to Chinese mores and habits. He clothed himself as a Buddhist monk and learnt to speak, read and write Classical Chinese; even writing the first Chinese-Portuguese dictionary. Even given his gentle accommodative approach it took Ricci nineteen years to gain access to Beijing and the centre of Chinese power. From 1588 until his death in 1610 he was the leader of the Jesuit mission to China.

During his time in Zhaoqing Ricci produced the first modern Chinese map of the world based on the world map of Abraham Ortelius thereby introducing the Chinese to America for the first time.

1604 Japanese copy of Ricci’s Chinese World Map

Later he went on to produce the first modern map of the Far East

Ricci’s Far East Map

With the help of his Chinese Christian converts Ricci produced a Chinese translation of the first six books of Clavius’ annotated edition of the Elements of Euclid thus introducing the Chinese to Western mathematics.

 Ricci and his  prominent convert, Xu Guangqi (Copperplate print from Athanasius Kircher’s China illustrata, 1667

Through his knowledge of astronomy Ricci succeeded in becoming appointed as an advisor to the Chinese government. The mathematical abilities that Ricci acquired from Clavius made it possible for him as the first European in the early modern period to penetrate Chinese society and to build a bridgehead for the Jesuit mission to China. Ricci successors in this mission, in particular Ferdinand Verbiest and Adam Schall von Bell, building on Ricci’s successes introduced modern European astronomy, including Copernican heliocentricity, into China.

Transmission of scientific knowledge from one culture to another plays an important role in the history of science. Till about the thirteenth century CE the Chinese were scientifically and technically well in advance of Europe but by the seventeenth century they were lagging well behind. The Jesuit mission to China in the seventeenth century brought the Chinese up to date on the newest developments in Western mathematics, astronomy and cartography. The door to this transmission of knowledge was opened by Matteo Ricci.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of science, Renaissance Science

8 responses to “An Italo-Chinese Jesuit

  1. Pingback: An Italo-Chinese Jesuit | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Thank you for this entry. I believe your readers will find that Leibniz’ unfinished essay “Discourse on Natural Theology of the Chinese” is particularly germane to this important topic.

  3. What did the Chinese believe before Ricci? Was it similar to the Ptolemaic model, with epicycles and everything?

  4. Before contact with the Portuguese the Chinese had basically a flat earth world view.

  5. Have just been told on FB that Protestant missionaries in competition with the Jesuits introduced a geocentric system, and this system was more widely accepted than the heliocentric system until the 1830s.

    • Schall von Bell included Copernicanism in his Chinese astronomical encyclopedia but the Jesuit’s themselves propagated a geocentric-heliocentric Tychonic cosmology in China as they did in Europe.

  6. Pingback: Jesuit Day | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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