Monday, March 03, 2014

'The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci ' Jonathan D. Spence

The memory palace stands on its elevation, suffused in an even light. The reception hall is still silent, yet inside there is more for the mind to dwell on…

Jonathan Spence has made a name for himself as the author of books on various aspects of Chinese history which aspire to be more than informative works of scholarship or historiography, works which aim at the status of literature. He does this by eschewing a conventional exposition in which narrative is balanced by analysis, and looks for a more thematic, artistic, human approach. In this way he reveals new insights into the culture he is writing about, and has created a new kind of genre, one that sits between literature and history, and shares the best of both. It helps that Spence can also write really vividly.

Here he casts his eye on the story of Matteo Ricci’s interaction with the Ming Dynasty, using as his basis four images that Ricci described in his work on memory palaces, mental images that he designed in order to teach his Chinese listeners/readers how to design their own memory palaces; and four drawings that Ricci designed for inclusion in a book called The Ink Garden, published by one of his Chinese friends in 1606. The book alternates between a description of image and drawing, teasing out as much information as possible about the background of the image/drawing, and using it as a springboard to look at various aspects of Ricci’s life, work, and the interaction between two cultures.

In his analysis, for example, of the third picture from The Ink Garden, ‘The Men of Sodom’, Spence compares the Biblical passage which prompted the picture, and Ricci’s own verbal descriptor of the picture, drawing out the changes that Ricci made to the story that he believed would appeal to his audience, the suppressions of material that he felt would be beyond them – or inconvenient to explain, such as the incest between Lot and his daughters, and the inexplicably cruel death of Lot’s wife by salination. Spence also then compares the final version of the drawing Ricci made with another drawing Ricci used as a basis for his own, the engraving of Crispin de Pas which Ricci had with him, again, expanding on the changes Ricci made, and which he felt were necessary to get his message across to his audience.

This method of close readings supplemented with descriptions of the world of Ricci’s youth and the world of Ming Dynasty China recreates a wonderfully detailed and vibrant portrait of the world in the sixteenth century, both the outer world of externalities of shipping and horrible sea voyages, for example, and the inner world of mentalities and ideologies, a recreation that doesn’t only focus on Europe, but one that shows how Europe and China were slowly drawn together by the inexorable pull of trade, profit and the desire for exploration and conquest, both territorial and ideological. The book is not only interesting for students of Ming China, but also for students of Renaissance Europe.

Spence is fecund with his use of detail, and scrupulous with his judgments. He makes no comments on the dreadful lies that Ricci told about his religion; he voices no disapproval of the strong profit motive underlying the Jesuit mission to China (the Jesuits established their own trading cycles with Japan and India, reaping enormous profits, giving rise to the rumours among the Chinese that the Jesuits were alchemical wizards who had mastered the art of turning base metal into silver – the basis of Chinese currency-, for how else could they explain the seemingly endless inflow and outflow of specie into the Jesuit coffers?); he conveys no sense of outrage at how the Jesuits threw overboard any ‘unsuitable’ books they found their shipmates reading on the long, dangerous and very boring voyage out. Spence simply presents the facts and lets them speak for themselves, citing for example, a letter from a Chinese scholar to Ricci, suggesting that Ricci’s attacks on Buddhism are wrong headed, and politely requesting Ricci to actually read some of the Buddhist texts, and helpfully appending a list of relevant sutras, and then Ricci’s reply to him, with all its rudeness, self-importance and narrow-mindedness.

Ricci, in spite of his learning, linguistic gifts, scientific accomplishments and personal courage, considered as an embodiment of a culture that believed itself superior to China’s, comes across as arrogant, dull-minded, unscrupulously foxy, a people user, a bearer of a creed replete with blood and cruelty that is crude in comparison with the subtlety of Buddhism and the liberal minded-openness of Daoism. With each set-back the mission encounters, the reader rejoices that the spread of Christianity has been foiled or hindered in some way, and that its noisome nonsense has been minimized. And yet one can’t help but feel sorry for Ricci the man, or at least empathize with his experience as a despised foreigner in a culture vastly superior to his own, with his loneliness and isolation, with the hatred he encountered amongst ordinary Chinese – which even resulted in an attack on the Jesuit compound in Shaozhou by a howling angry mob – and by his efforts to learn the language.

Ricci’s guiding dream, his goal throughout all the long years of his life in China was eventually to effect a conversion of the Emperor Wanli to Christianity, a goal which shows at once his hubris and naivety, in imagining for one second that the Son of Heaven, the highest human embodiment of a culture much older and wiser than Ricci’s own, would stoop to listen to Ricci’s pablum about a virgin birth and worship of a man who died on an instrument of torture. When Ricci was finally admitted to the Presence, he met only an empty chair. The Wanli Emperor lived in total seclusion and never gave personal audiences, not to anybody, not even to the highest princes of his realm, and certainly not to a greasy, hairy, sweaty, long-nosed foreigner with overweening ambitions; and Ricci had to make obeisance to a piece of furniture, which is an image of an encounter between cultures that stays with you long after you read about it.

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