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China’s attacks on Christianity will fail while the spirit of Mateo Ricci lives on

Friday 7th September 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

China’s attacks on Christianity will fail while the spirit of Mateo Ricci lives on

Lord Alton of Liverpool

Last week, two Catholic priests, Fr Wang Yiqin and Fr Li Shidong were forcibly removed from their Chinese parishes for holding a youth summer camp that had not been authorised by China’s Communist authorities.

Increasing attacks on religious faith – against Chinese Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs – looks like part of a new Maoist Cultural Revolution. The shocking sight of bulldozed churches and mosques – including the obliteration of the  famous Golden Lampstand Church in Shanxi Province – is reminiscent of Stalin’s destruction of Orthodox churches and monasteries.

A Chinese church is destroyed by the Communist authorities.

Yet, where was the outrage to these events – including dramatic video of that 50,000 capacity church being dynamited?

This determined crackdown began in February when President Xi’s new religious regulations come into force. These require the registration of all religious bodies, which must be ‘Sinoised’ and freed from ‘foreign’ influences and rebuilt on ‘socialist’ principles. Intriguingly, the well cared for tomb, in Beijing, of a 16th century Italian Jesuit missionary, Mateo Ricci SJ – left untouched, on Mao’s own orders, during the Cultural Revolution’s desecration of the graves of foreigners – suggests that it must be possible for States to reach a proper accommodation with religion.

One of the rooms in the newly built Theodore House – part of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst (CHC) – celebrates the memory of Matteo Ricci. The Trustees of the CHC believe Ricci’s own story is instructive and should give encouragement in the face of contemporary persecution.

The Cambridge scholar, Mary Laven, in Mission to China, charts Ricci’s encounter with China and her people. She reminds us that Christianity is not a new religion in China. In 635, in the seventh century, Olopen, a Nestorian monk, travelled to the Eastern city of Changan (today’s Xi’an); and there were other sporadic, later attempts (including that of St Francis Xavier), to take Christianity to China.

But it was Matteo Ricci’s arrival which would lead to more than 2,000 conversions and to the widespread dissemination of the Christian narrative. And it is Ricci’s intelligent approach – based on friendship and respect – which should inspire us today.

On reaching China the Europeans initially shaved their heads and dressed as monks but soon realised that by identifying with Buddhist and Taoist idolatry they were failing to reach the literati – the educated Confucian elite. So, Ricci chose instead to dress and behave as a Confucian scholar – engaging China’s culture and leadership through science, books and reason – fides et ratio.

Matteo Ricci's statue still stands proudly in Beijing (below) – out-lasting Mao’s cynical Cultural Revolution, a symbol of China’s Christian heritage

‘The Chinese have a wonderful intelligence, natural and acute,’ he wrote, ’from which, if we could teach our sciences, not only would they have great success among these eminent men, but it would also be a means of introducing them easily to our holy law and they would never forget such a benefit.’

Unlike his more aggressive Portuguese and Spanish counterparts, whose presence in Macao became a source of conflict with the Chinese authorities, Ricci’s admiring embrace of Chinese culture, language and customs, gradually gave him a following in many circles.

Ricci’s publication of his world map, the Mappamondo, along with translations of Western classical scholarship; his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics; his decision to import hitherto unknown musical instruments, such as the harpsichord, along with Venetian prisms and mechanical clocks, all gained him acceptance and, despite occasional attempts to close the missions, the ultimate forbearance of the Emperor.

His reasoned approach also bore spiritual fruit – with the Jesuit’s work blessed by healings and miracles. In his diary, Ricci wrote: ‘From morning to night, I am kept busy discussing the doctrines of our faith. Many desire to forsake their idols and become Christians’.

Ricci brought the hugely admired Plantin Bible to China – eight gilded folio volumes with printed parallel texts in Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. His True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven was printed and distributed widely, drawing heavily on Aquinas but also appropriating Confucian ideas to bolster the Christian cause.

He brilliantly repositioned the important Chinese custom of ancestor worship by tracing everything back to ‘the first ancestor’ – the Creator, the Lord of Heaven. It was a later repudiation by the Holy See of this interpretation which would end the Emperor’s patronage of the mission and the expulsion of Jesuits.

Ricci’s legacy includes some of the oldest astronomical instruments

In 1742 Pope Benedict XIV terminated any further discussion of the issue; a decree which was repealed only in 1938. Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical Princeps Pastorum, rehabilitated Ricci’s methodology and reputation saying Ricci should be “the model of missionaries.” Ricci’s other 16th century writings were his Catechism and a treatise On Friendship, building on Confucius’ belief, expressed in the Analects, that ‘To have friends coming from distant places – is that not delightful?’ Simultaneously Ricci introduced his readers to Cicero’s assertion that “the reasons for friendship are reciprocal need and mutual help.” Amicitia perfecta – perfect friendship – was, for Ricci, the highest of ideals. Certainly the Chinese came to value him as a true friend.

On his death, on 11th May 1610, he was uniquely accorded a burial site in Beijing by the Emperor – which, according to Laven was “an extraordinary coup, which testified to the success of nearly 30 years of careful networking and diplomacy.”

His legacy included astronomical instruments and installations brought by Jesuits to Beijing, which – like his tomb – remained untouched even during China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution.

An even more enduring memory has been Ricci’s admirable willingness to find ways through difficult situations and his innate respect for Chinese culture and civilisation – something to inspire both the Church and the Chinese authorities. Chinese leaders should study the story of Matteo Ricci but they should also study compelling research that shows that those societies that respect religious freedom are the most prosperous and the most stable.

China is a great country with much to offer the world – but it needs to think more deeply about the self- inflicted damage it is doing by trying to eliminate religious freedom and by suppressing Christianity. A country built only on materialism will become a country without a soul – and that, in turn, would be an unhappy society lacking in harmony or respect – values every society needs.

Alienating millions of religious believers, rather than harnessing them in Ricci’s spirit of friendship, is both wrong-headed and short-sighted.

The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst will be playing its part in telling the story of China’s persecuted Christians and in ensuring that they are not forgotten.

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Relics of how brave Catholic missionaries cracked China

Friday 3rd March 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Relics of how brave Catholic missionaries cracked China

‘The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself…. In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behaviour: in their prayers, sacrifices, ritual, meditations, and so forth.

‘These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being.’ 

This quote, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Vatican’s website, underpins the selection of astronomical artefacts in this article. These artefacts span different religions and cultures. The collections at Stonyhurst include some remarkable scientific artefacts, reminders of the significant role played in astronomy by Jesuits in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Some, such as the Viatorium, were part of a missionary enterprise by the Jesuits, whose scientific expertise gained for them access to regions and countries which would otherwise be forbidden territory. 

The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst exists to provide a suitable setting for the rare and significant collections which the college has acquired over the centuries. Through careful, scholarly interpretation and explanation, these objects have a vital role to play in the education and illumination of all who come into contact with them.

The watercolour of Fr Matteo Ricci SJ was made by Charles Weld, a pupil of Stonyhurst College in the early nineteenth century. He spent much time in Rome from 1845 to 1850 copying paintings of significance to the Jesuit order. An inscription by Charles Weld at the bottom of the paper records that the original painting hangs in the Museo Borgiano at the Collegio Propaganda Fide in Rome. It is assumed that the original painting was by a Jesuit lay brother living in China with Matteo Ricci.

China in the 1550s was a self contained world with its own distinctive ancient culture. Since the eighth century, Christian missionaries had been trying to gain a foothold there without any real success. 

The watercolour of Fr Matteo Ricci SJ by Charles Weld, a Stonyhurst pupil in the early 19th century

In 1552 St Francis Xavier died in sight of mainland China, without ever setting foot on Chinese soil. That same year, Matteo Ricci was born in Italy. He became a Jesuit at the age of nineteen and in 1582, he arrived as a missionary in China. Ricci was highly educated, having studied mathematics, astronomy, literature, philosophy and mechanics.

He reported back to his superiors: ‘I have applied myself to the Chinese tongue and can assure your reverence that it is a different thing from German or Greek … the spoken tongue is prey to so many ambiguities that many sounds mean more than a thousand things … As to the alphabet, it is a thing one would not believe in had one not seen and tried it as I have.’

Ricci quickly adopted the dress and habits of the people around him, and became fluent in Mandarin. His intellect and wisdom earned him great respect in China, and it was his scientific expertise that finally won him an invitation to Peking (now called Beijing) from the Ming emperor, Wan-li (1573-1620), who heard about his collection of European clocks.


The viatorum Fr Schall used in his missionary work in China in the 17th century

The emperor was greatly impressed with Ricci’s learning and kept him at court for 10 years, never actually meeting him, but his favour opened to the Jesuit the doors to Chinese society. Ricci lectured widely on physics, philosophy and Western science, attracting thousands to hear him.

He died at the height of his fame in 1610, fully aware that he had achieved little in the way of converts to Christianity but hoping that he had prepared the way for subsequent missionaries to build on his reputation. His epitaph read: ‘The man from the distant west, renowned judge, author of famous books.’ More than a thousand Jesuit missionaries were to follow him to China in the hundred years after his death. One such was Johann Adam Schall von Bell, a German Jesuit astronomer from Cologne who was sent to Peking as a missionary in 1622. Schall was noticed by the emperor of China, Zhu Youjian, through his faultless predictions of the timings of two lunar eclipses. He wanted permission to preach Christianity but he needed the emperor’s approval

As a test of his scientific skill, in 1627 the emperor ordered him to reform the Chinese calendar which was based on the movements of the constellations, and which over many centuries had become unreliable through inaccurate astronomical observations. Fr Schall worked on the project until 1635, and the recalibrated calendar earned him great fame and respect, as well as the all-important permission to carry out his evangelising work. 

Schall was a respected and honoured scholar at the Chinese court, but on the death of Zhu Youjian in 1644, he was thrown into prison and condemned to death. 

He was saved by a severe earthquake in Beijing which was seen as a judgement on the sentence on such a notable scholar. He was released from prison and spent the last year of his life in the capital, dying in 1666.

The Viatorium was used for astronomical and surveying tasks. The case carries an inscription with Fr Schall’s name and the date 1638. The lid has characters which translate as Sun and Moon dial for a hundred wanderings. 

The circular brass plate on the lid shows the phases of the moon, and the twelve two-hour periods into which the Chinese day was divided. The dial shows the days of the month and the twenty-four solar periods of the year. Inside the box is a space which once contained a compass and a Chinese proverb advising the reader to be aware of the fleeting passage of time and of the need to use it wisely

The college possesses a celestial globe made for Islamic scientists. This brass globe, which maps out the heavens for astronomers, is the eleventh oldest Islamic globe known to exist.

It was made in India at the court of the great Mughal emperor, Jahangir (1569-1627), whose son, Shah Jehan (1592-1666), built the Taj Mahal. Jahangir was a cultured man, keen on science, who welcomed western scholars and scientists, particularly Jesuit astronomers, to his court.

The globe is inscribed ‘Qaim Muhammed ibn Isa ibn Allahdad Asturlabi Lahuri Humayuni’ and is dated 1623.

Qaim Muhammed was an astrolabe maker in Lahore, part of a remarkable family which had produced fine quality astronomical instruments for four generations. Their family firm was renowned for its celestial globes such as this one. The globe is seamless, made by a process known as the lost wax method, also used by western Renaissance sculptors. It seems likely that the highly prestigious and expensive globe was commissioned by Itiqad Khan, the brother of Jahangir’s wife, Nur Jahan.

The principal stars of the heavens are indicated by silver dots inlaid into the brass and arranged in Islamicate zodiac form. The circle of the sun’s path is clearly marked, as are the lines that divide the sphere into celestial longitude and latitude. The globe shows all the visible stars and the forty-eight constellations listed by the ancient astronomers such as Ptolemy. It is constructed in such a way that the observer has to imagine that he is placed in the heavens looking down on the constellations, while the earth is hidden inside the globe.

The celestial globe used by the Islamic scholars

 The faith of Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day at specified positions of the sun, and facing Mecca. Using spheres such as this one, in conjunction with other instruments, astronomers were able to use the stars to pinpoint the correct location of Mecca and the exact times for prayer. 

The importance of dates and times for Islamic prayer was also the reason for the creation of a small, beautifully illuminated Persian manuscript, which intermingles mathematical tables, with prayers and instructions for ritual washing.

As the Catholic catechism acknowledges, man has historically sought the meaning of his own existence, and wondered at the glory of the heavens, using his God-given intelligence and ingenuity to try and puzzle out the laws of the Universe.