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The memory palace of Matteo Ricci.

In the second half of the sixteenth century--after the conquest of the Americas--Madrid, Lisbon and Rome were setting their sights on the material and ideological subjugation of the East. Portuguese beachheads had been established in Macao and Goa, and Francis Xavier himself had brought the Word to India and Japan. He died in 1552 on a barren island off the coast of China, trying to get in, dreaming of the conversion of the Ming Empire.

Goa, a tiny colony on a stretch of paradisiacal beach on the southwestern coast of India, was a glimpse of the kind of world they might have made. It was a place where fortunes could be won, by whites, in the trade of cloth and spices, opium and kidnapped children. It was a place where Brahmans were sent to the galleys, temples razed, festivals and rites forbidden; where hundreds of school-children would be assembled in rows to recite the Lord's Prayer and spit in unison at the mention of a Hindu god. In Goa, its Grand Inquisitor wrote, the land was "filled . . . with fire and the ashes from the dead bodies of heretics and apostates." Their confiscated property was a useful source of income for the church.

But the missionaries failed to penetrate deeper into India, failed even to interest, let alone convert, the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Enthusiasm shifted to Japan, where they had, at first, greater success but were soon defeated and disillusioned by the obscure motivations and the shifting alliances of the rival courts. China, under the rule of the weak Emperor Wanli, who rarely left the palace and allowed the country to be run by the eunuchs, then became the prize. The Jesuits in Macao had become rich from their investments in the Japan-China silk trade, and they had proved particularly helpful to the Chinese by returning slaves who had escaped from the interior into the colony. In 1582, thirty years after the death of Xavier, thanks to the familiar combination of bribery, favors and coercion, they were permitted to take up residence in China itself.

They sent, among a few others, Matteo Ricci, the subject of Jonathan Spence's new book. Ricci had spent five years in Goa and was to live the last twenty-seven years of his life in China. He was, according to Joseph Needham, "one of the most remarkable and brilliant men in history," and his residence, for good or ill, inserted China into the world. For the Chinese, Ricci was the bearer of the news of Western science; for the West, the posthumous publication of his journals and letters provided further tales of the wonders of China, a confirmation of Marco Polo who, after 300 years, had receded into memory as a great fabulist.

There had been missionaries in China before: Nestorians from as early as the seventh century, and Franciscans in the thirteenth. All had failed and vanished. But Ricci succeeded by first establishing himself as a sage and a power broker long before his purpose was made clear. He was, in a way, a mole for Jesus; he kept his crucifix hidden.

For the first six years he adopted the role of a poor Buddhist monk, with shaved head and saffron robe, as he studied the language and the people, who he thought would be drawn by his asectic purity. The strategy failed, and he realized that he would attract attention only by being what he was, extraordinary. He switched to the elegant purple robes of a scholar and, with his new command of the language, found himself a celebrity.

Ricci brought the Chinese clocks and astrolabes, harpsichords and telescopes. He translated Euclid and snatches of the Greek and Roman philosophers, wrote songs for the Emperor, calculated eclipses, reformed the calendar, prepared a map of the world with Chinese place names, built sundials and introduced Western theories and practices in hydraulics and surveying, geometry and optics, agriculture and astronomy.

He did not bring them, of course, the sciences themselves, but rather new information and new perspectives for reevaluating what they already knew. For the Chinese scholars it was a return to the great age of Chinese science, a millenium or more which had ended three centuries earlier, with the Mongol conquest.

And he did not bring them--except in small doses to a selected few--the Christian dogma. He too dreamed of the conversion of China, and particularly hoped to win the Emperor Wanli. (The closest he came was being allowed--a great honor--to prostrate himself before the empty throne.) But he saw his primary function as that of establishing the respectability, and perhaps the superiority, of Western wisdom, thereby paving the way for the word of God. He was, he wrote, "opening up the wild woods and fighting with the wild beasts and poisonous snakes that lurk within."

He restricted his proselytizing to small gestures, like inscribing the sundials he built with homiletic messages of human frailty and God's grace. (So Cromwell's cannons were inscribed "God is Love.") The benign figure of Mary was emphasized to the point where the Chinese commonly believed the Christian God was a woman. When a palace eunuch discovered Ricci's crucifix, he thought it a black-magic effigy in a plot to kill the king. (Indeed one wonders how the missionaries ever hoped to replace the image of the beatific Buddha with that of man undergoing torture.) In general, the Chinese thought he was an alchemist, and confused him with the Moslems, Jews and Nestorian Christians who had passed through the country. They saw no distinction between the three Mediterranean monotheisms, and in that they may have been wiser than the West.

There is no doubt that Ricci thought himself among "wild beasts and poisonous snakes" in the spiritual woods of China. He assumed that Asians were "born to serve rather than to command," and had no qualms about slavery. (In fact, he believed it to be one of god's ways of bringing in converts, and owned a few himself.) He misread Confucian doctrine, with its hierarchy leading up to a "supreme ruler," as a rudimentary form of monotheism, and thought it had "the fewest errors of all pagan sects." Buddhism he found a seething fleshpot, "a Babylon of doctrines." Converts--and there were not, at first, very many--were praised for destroying their heathen sculpture and books.

Yet what was extraordinary, almost sinister, about Ricci was his tremendous understanding of Chinese things, a sympathy within the antipathy (or perhaps vice versa). His Christian writings in Chinese sound like something from the Chinese classics: "A man who has strong faith in the Way can walk on the yielding water as if on solid rock. . . . When the wise man follows heaven's decrees, fire does not burn him, a sword does not cut him, water does not drown him." And his marvelous map of the world--which Spence unfortunately does not reproduce--presents the six continents (Europe, Libya, Asia, North America, South America and Mowalanichia, that great mass south of the Capes of Good Hope and the Horn) in the loopy Swiss-cheese style of esoteric Taoist art, where the solid is defined by the void, the earth by the "constellation holes" of the sky. Sinophile and Sinophobe, inexhaustible fountain of information about both East and West, he worked in tremendous isolation. Letters from Europe could take as many as seventeen years to arrive (three was the norm) and most of Ricci's library was carried in his head.

His prodigious memory was the product of intensive mnemonic training in the Jesuit colleges of Rome and Florence, a system of memory techniques that dated back at least as far as the first century B.C. and was used until cheap printing simplified access to information. It depended, briefly, on the construction of imaginary mental palaces, filled with indelible, highly associative images. (Francis Yates's great book The Art of Memory, details the history of the mnemonic system as an organizing principle for much of medieval and Renaissance culture.)

Ricci's first book in Chinese was--nice gesture--a Treatise on Friendship. His second was a Treatise on the Mnemonic Arts, which he correctly guessed would attract the young men who needed to memorize the classics to pass the examinations that insured a place in the bureaucracy. (The Chinese mnemonic system, which had produced wonders, had by that time largely disappeared.)

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci is constructed from four images from Ricci's memory book, as well as four Bible illustrations which Ricci provided for a printmaker as examples of Western art. Each image leads Spence to a topic--war and violence, water and travel, foreigners, trade and profit, understanding and education, sin, the Virgin Mary--which he discusses without chronological sequence. The action shifts back and forth between Asia and the Europe of the Counter-Reformation, between historical and biographical events.

It is a dazzling structure: to take a word like "water" and then extrapolate, in meticulous detail, what it would have meant to this person, living in this time and these places. Surely Spence will have many imitators. But the unintentional effect of the procedure, in this case, is that it is all background with little foreground: Ricci himself remains something of a blur. I suspect the format would be more successful with a figure whose life and relative importance is generally better known.

As the subject is Matteo Ricci and not, say, Columbus, I think the book needs one more chapter to make it perfect. (As it is, it ends with a rather weak "poetic" epilogue). A chapter assessing the effect of Ricci on both East and West. (To cite one example, Ricci's posthumously published journals were hugely popular and influential in the early seventeenth century. Spence naturally relies heavily on them, but never mentions their life in book form.) Or a chapter where Spence himself, who remains "objective" and invisible throughout, steps from behind the scenery to comment. A chapter which, in a few strokes, would pull it all together. In Confucian terms, a pivot, a still center to hold together this world of shimmering specifics he has drawn.
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Author:Weinberger, Eliot
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 29, 1984
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