Matteo Ricci: Oriental Mathematics & Astronomy


Matteo-Ricci-PortraitFather Matteo Ricci (06 Oct 1552 in Macerata, Italy – 11 May 1610 in Peking, China) was a Jesuit missionary in China under the Ming dynasty. He authored numerous scientific texts, chiefly in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. An extraordinary example of enculturating the faith in China through the means of scientific thought, he held important offices in the Chinese court and to this day is well known in China by the name Li-Ma-teu.

He studied mathematics, cosmology, and astronomy with renowned astronomer Christopher Clavius, a German-born Jesuit who was the primary architect of the Gregorian calendar.

In 1582, he joined fellow Jesuit Michele Ruggieri atMacau, a bustling commercial center and enclave for Europeans. At this time, Macau was an island off the coast of Guangdong province (later, in the 17th century, land reclamation turned it into a peninsula, although it shares only .19 miles of coastline with the mainland).

Travel from Macau to the mainland was strictly regulated, and the Jesuits followed European merchants into the Chinese interior for commercial fairs twice a year. The goal of the missionaries was to establish themselves on the mainland, and this they accomplished, after several failed attempts, in 1583. Ruggieri and Ricci received permission to construct a mission at Zhaoqing, an important administrative center and seat of the viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi—the first Christian mission on mainland China.

In 1601, after being forced to move his missionary activities to several different sites within China, Ricci finally was allowed to establish residency in Beijing. It was here that his skill with Mandarin Chinese, his translations and original works in that language, and his introduction of scientific knowledge and instrumentation from the West were most appreciated and most helpful in supporting his missionary activity. It is his work here, in collaboration with Chinese scholars, that is most remembered—both in China and in the West. He translated Confucian texts into Latin and co-wrote a Chinese translation and commentary of parts of Euclid’s “Elements” with Chinese governor, theologian, scientist and mathematician Xu “Paul” Guangqi (1562–1633).  As part of this collaboration, the 1602 “Map of 10,000 Countries of the Earth,” was created. Upon his death in 1610, Li-ma-teu, as he was known in China, had led approximately 2,500 Chinese to Catholicism, and established the foundations of a Chinese-Christian culture.

On 24 October 2001, Pope John Paul II put forth a message on the occasion of the four-hundredth anniversary of Matteo Ricci’s arrival in Peking. He states: “For four centuries, China has highly esteemed Li Madou, ‘the Sage of the West,’ the name by which Father Matteo Ricci was known and continues to be known today. Historically and culturally he was a pioneer, a precious connecting link between West and East, between the European Renaissance culture and the Chinese culture, and between the ancient and magnificent Chinese civilization and the world of Europe.”


further reading: The Renaissance Mathematicus –  An Italo- Chinese Jesuit

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