Memory and Matteo Ricci

Jonathan Spence’s book The Death of Woman Wang is an entrancing assessment of provincial China. It weaves together the stories of individuals, some of high rank, some freshly rescued from obscurity, with those of myth and legend, creating an absorbing, enriching portrait of a nation and of an era. In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence takes a slightly different tack. Again his subject is China, but this time, rather than attempting only to look at the country from within, he incorporates the perspective of those who came from without. The eponymous subject of this work was a Jesuit priest from Italy, a keen proselytiser, and one of the pioneering Western missionaries sent to China to spread Christianity among its vast population.

Thus Spence’s telling of Ricci’s story is both example of global history and also of microhistory; he uses an individual perspective, and makes use of a great tranche of documents regarding the life of one man, but he does so to illuminate more than that: not only one country – and a great, vast country at that – but also dynamics which affected the entire world and caused men to travel the length and breadth its surface, fired with religious zeal.

This is a partial and particular tour of both China and Europe, led by a well-travelled narrator. Ricci spent time in India as well as in China. Spence’s book is an idiosyncratic portrait of an age.

But Ricci did not just go to China for leisure. He did not a travel solely to satisfy his curiosity, or to conduct business. His ambition was greater and his ideals higher. Converts – that was the thing, and as high-born and influential as he could get them.

Ricci made use of his charm, his willingness to learn the local language, and also his sincere and prominent faithfulness, in a bid to win over the Chinese. But there was one other tool at his disposal: his titular memory palace, a construction Spence explains well.

A memory palace is built around a real location or an imagined one. It must appear real. One then fashions images, often absurd, overly-dramatic ones, and positions them within this non-physical space, associating each with information and a location. This allows for the easy navigation of memory, and the storing, if the practitioner is well-trained, of vast amounts of information.

Ricci was well-trained. He could memorise thousands of Chinese ideograms in order, despite never having seen them before. Ricci impressed the Chinese with his memory techniques, and thought that if he taught them how to use the same, they could be attracted to Christianity.

He knew that their children wanted to pass examinations in order to earn degrees and to advance within the imperial bureaucracy. He was successful in delighting his hosts, but not in converting them. Ultimately, at least as regards this main aspiration, he was unable to attain his primary objective.

In his broader life, however, Ricci was anything but inactive. He translated books into Chinese, wrote dairies and works of history; in geography, Ricci even produced, with the help of many others, a world map with the place names transliterated into Chinese. It was reproduced many times, and eventually a copy appeared on the wall in the imperial palace.

Much of this was intended as an auxiliary effort at converting the locals, and Ricci attempted to proselytise the locals by various means, including gifts of illustrated Bibles, producing polyglot scriptures and so on. He also wrote apologetics and explanations of Christian doctrine, and paired simplified Bible stories with illustrations drawn from works of European craftsmen. Ricci took an especial interest in the perception of the Virgin Mary among the Chinese, which he attempted to influence by having an image of her created to illustrate his biblical stories.

Ricci was an avid follower of mathematics and an evangelist for Euclid and his own teacher, Christopher Clavius. He wrote on the subject and suggested Chinese scholars learn from Western equivalents in astronomy. A polyglot and a polymath, then.

But his life consisted of more than that. Even getting to China was something of a trial. Ricci endured sea journeys which Spence conjures up convincingly – horribly so.

Spence uses the idea of the palace – Ricci’s own memory palace – to surround and to enclose his narrative, which is a series of tableaux. It is effective, even beautiful. He prefaces the episodic descriptions of his subject’s life with a sort of internal paratext, written in the present tense, in which Ricci himself stocks his memory palace with figures representing the Chinese characters he employed to illustrate certain truths about Christianity. But they tell us more than that, and are useful bookmarks, end-stopping some stories and beginning others.

This book is like The Death of Woman Wang, but it is perhaps better as a chronicle. There are more definite facts here; less is built upon the retelling of legendary happenings.

Ricci’s story is only a small part of the Chinese history of this period, but it provides an admirable personal perspective. One man’s life can illuminate so much more about his era. This includes discussions of colonialism and conversion, something which was linked both in Ricci’s mind and those of his Chinese hosts. He and his fellow Jesuits had to work hard to prove to the Chinese that they were not agents of a foreign power, but rather friendly guests.

And they had to do their best to convert people while maintaining the social status – and social activity – of guests. This strained their lifestyle at times and also their vows of modesty regarding earthly possessions. Ricci and his fellow Jesuits endured hardships, especially in journeying around China, but they were sometimes deluged with gifts, which they had real difficulty accepting.

This is a book, then, about cross-cultural exchange, foreign conversion, morality across nations, the intersection of religion, politics and power, and one man’s attempt to chronicle all of this, both as an observer and partisan, for those in China and those at home in Europe – all through books, letters, writings of a general nature, and the splendid edifice of his memory palace itself.