Overshadowed by finals and graduation, which preoccupied the minds of many students, a building on Brighton Campus welcomed visitors to the Ricci Institute on May 4th, 2022. The center was founded in 1984 and previously resided at San Francisco University. However, due to several factors, including limited space and the lack of a doctoral program, the center started looking for alternative locations and eventually settled here at Boston College. Academics and students can access an extensive collection of paintings, photos, writings, and other works within the building’s walls. According to archivist Mark Mir, this includes over 100,000 physical books and a further 400,000 digital records, covering history, moral philosophy, medicine, and more. The Ricci Institute’s mission, as Director M. Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J. writes, is to “provide support and encouragement to all those who study the history of East-West cultural encounters as well as the history of Christianity in China,” a mission that is intimately linked with the Jesuit identity.
When entering the building, one is faced with the portraits of Matteo Ricci (|利玛窦) and Xu Guangqi (徐光啓, baptized name Paul Xu). The former serves as the center’s namesake. Ricci, a trained Jesuit, was sent to China in 1583 and founded his mission, working to foster cultural exchanges between the East and the West until his death in 1610. Essential to his philosophy was the idea that Confucian thought could serve as a complement to Catholic belief. To him, Confucianism focused more on political and moral ideas, with the belief that morals could be developed through exercise and practice like any other skill. This philosophy, however, lacked a religious aspect, which is where Ricci aimed to integrate Christianity.
Of particular note was his role as a geographer, bringing knowledge of Europe to China through translating European maps. The Kunyu Wangguo Quantu (坤舆万国全图), the first Chinese world map, is one such work. Ricci also worked closely with Xu to translate various European works into Chinese for the purposes of mathematics, technology, astronomy, and other disciplines. Together they translated various works including Euclid’s Elements. Xu would continue to spread western influence in China as well, working in astronomy and agriculture.
At the Ricci Institute’s first lecture, “From Matteo Ricci to Pope Francis: The Jesuits and Christian Dialogue in China,” Dr. Anthony E. Clark charted Ricci’s legacy and urged open communication (lecture recorded on zoom here). He outlined three Jesuit principles for dealing with China: responding to historical context, an adaptable religious tradition, and the continuation of avenues of dialogue. Ricci himself was known for his emphasis on friendship in China, and has published an essay on the topic. Not only did it reflect the relationship between Ricci and Xu, but the amicable tone he set would influence his legacy on Jesuit doctrine in China. Notably, he wrote the essay in the Chinese letters tradition, strategically appealing to the Confucian Literati by using a medium they were familiar with. This is not to say that there were no disagreements. Indeed, Ricci and other Jesuits evaluated Confucianism chronologically, rejecting later Confucianism’s embrace of a religious dimension through Buddhism and thus a repudiation of Christianity. Even the Tianzhu Shiyi, a work where Ricci asserts the monotheism of early Christianity and thus usurps the authority of the emperor (only the emperor could decide orthodoxy from heterodox), channels the legacy of Confucius’ dialogues by writing in a dialectical style.
The Jesuit approach was even more flexible under the Qing dynasty, which came to power a little over 30 years after Ricci’s death. Under the Qing, Jesuits were classified as “household slaves,” owned directly by the emperor and managed by the imperial household. However, the Jesuits continued their work as missionaries, working under their new status to foster dialogue. Indeed, the attempts were successful for a time, with the 1692 Board of Rights allowing Christianity to be legally preached in China. Such a victory for the Jesuits was only possible under an environment of mutual trust between the Qing and the Jesuits. Even more notable were the cosmic Confucian beliefs of the Qing, who saw themselves as favorites of the cosmic universe, distinctly different from the Christian God. One emperor, Tian Long, went as far as to proclaim himself the reincarnation of a Buddhist figure, embracing the very religion that Ricci so heavily criticized before. The Jesuit approach even adapted to the banning of Christianity in 1724 under the Edict of Prohibition, continuing to operate in China despite a ban on preaching. To this end Dr. Clark quoted Political Scientist John Mearsheimer, observing that Jesuit dialogue must “work with the material at hand” and sometimes “interests should come before values.”
Dr. Clark hosted his lecture on the 103rd anniversary of the May 4th movement, a timing which was no coincidence, as he called the movement a “watershed” moment and a turning point towards modernity. One effect of the movement was to abolish the imperial examinations. The examination's roots date back to as early as the Han dynasty in 124 BCE and developed into a meritocratic method of socio-economic progression. Under the Song dynasty, 400,000 candidates each year were tested on their knowledge of the Confucian classics as a chance for power and prestige; in reality, less than 1% passed. These exams were so important that today dushuren (读书人), or those who read books, is translated as intellectual. Abolishing the exams not only affected the bureaucrats who held positions of power, but also disenfranchised wide swathes of the population who spent their years studying for the exams; such an effect is especially significant considering the fact that the average person who passed did so when they were in their early 30s, without even considering those who were intimately familiar with the classics but never passed the exam. Science and democracy had usurped Confucianism, and with it Catholicism, forever shifting the emphasis of Catholic-Chinese relations from culture and religion to politics.
Since the advent of the May 4th movement Sino-Vatican relations played up conflict and rejected Ricci’s method of dialogue, a trend only recently reversed by Pope Francis. The last Jesuits were expelled from Shanghai in the 1950s, followed by the expulsion of all missionaries and the Christian faith being driven underground during the cultural revolution. Even after the Mao era, Pope John Paul II canonized numerous Chinese martyrs in 2000, setting off a diplomatic row and renewing tensions. However, in many ways, Francis, the church’s first Jesuit pope, has returned to Ricci in his rejection of a hardline approach. In 2018, the Vatican and Beijing signed an agreement allowing the Holy See to approve or reject Chinese bishops, the first official communication between the two parties since Beijing broke off contact in 1951 (the deal has since been extended). To avoid any confusion, the church has repeatedly clarified that the agreement “does not cover direct diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, the juridical status of the Catholic Chinese Church, or the relations between the clergy and the country’s authorities.” (Vatican News)
Recent dialogue around China has been heavily hawkish, and the reaction to Francis’ actions has been no exception. The Washington Post ran an article in 2018 when the agreement was first signed, accusing Francis of “giving in” to the CCP. Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong and leader of the opposition to the deal, has called it “[sending] the flock into the mouths of the wolves,” as quoted in the Guardian. Two years on, after the renewal of the deal, an article published in Foreign Policy lambasted the deal as “very profoundly naïve, wrong, immoral, and dangerous.” China today remains an atheist state, and Beijing remains heavily skeptical of any challenges to its power, including Christianity.
However, for many Jesuits, from Matteo Ricci to Pope Francis to the leaders of the Ricci Institute, dialogue is worth pursuing, even in the face of religious suppression and numerous human rights violations. Dr. Clark ended his lecture with a quote from Pope Francis, delivered to a group of Japanese students in 2013. “All wars, all struggles, all problems that are not resolved, with which we face, are due to a lack of dialogue.”