In the autumn of 1609, the Chinese diarist Li Rihua recorded the talk at a dinner party attended by a number of 'old coastal hands' who had served as officials in the south-eastern provinces of the Ming empire. Conversation turned to the geopolitics of this sensitive frontier region, its trading enclaves and the various peoples who came to them. He heard about the most famous of these visitors, a man from the north-western extremity of the world: 'Li Madou was sent by the rulers of Macau to spy on the imperial court, which has caused recent consideration being given to clearing Macau out. There is a temple in Macau, in which Li Madou was once a monk.' Li Madou was the Chinese name of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), one of the first people to be globally famous in his own lifetime, talked about in Nanjing as in Rome and Lima. As 'The Wise Man from the West', he was the subject of Vincent Cronin's laudatory 1955 biography, still in print today. He was also at the centre of Jonathan Spence's 1984 study, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, which focused on Ricci's use of the classical ars memoriae as a way of gaining access to members of China's educated elite, whose interest in techniques that might help them memorise the classic texts tested by the imperial examination system made them at the very least curious about his methods. One of the 'Generation of Giants' that gave its name to George Dunne's classic study of the first Jesuit missionaries in China, Ricci remains a figure of enduring fascination both in China and in Europe, often used as a model of how mutual respect can be shown between intellectuals from different cultures.
LRB 7 February 2008 | PDF Download