Dialogo è accettare l'altro come è e come egli stesso si definisce e si presenta a noi, di non cessare di essere se stessi mentre ci si confronta con il diverso, di essere consapevoli che la nostra identità esce arricchita e non sminuita da chi di questa identità non accetta alcuni elementi, magari anche quelli che noi riteniamo fondamentali. La riconciliazione è possibile, tra i cristiani e nella compagnia degli uomini. (Enzo Bianchi, priore della Comunità di Bose)

Ricci exhibition shows a lost age of cultural vitality

di Lu Jingxian

For those of us who believe the balance of power is shifting to the East, and an era of Chinese power is coming, it might be worthwhile to look back a lengthy trip 400 years ago.

Matteo Ricci, an Italian missionary, first set foot on the Chinese mainland in 1583 after years in Goa and Macao.

He came from a continent going through the Renaissance, and where nascent capitalism, in the form of the Italian banks, was beginning to develop. He was about to meet a country that was determined to shut itself off from the rest of the world.

In a sense, Ricci's trip brought the first clashes of civilizations between the West and China. The ongoing exhibition "Matteo Ricci: Messenger of Science, Technology and Culture between East and West" at the Capital Museum of Beijing offers a glimpse of this landmark encounter.

Born into a noble family, Ricci received solid education in math, geography and astronomy while going through seminary. It was this new knowledge that helped Ricci won the acceptance of local officials. The Chinese, possessed of a profound cultural arrogance at the time, received these novel ideas with curiosity.

Ricci impressed scholars with his superb memory skills. He translated six books of Euclid's Elements of Geometry into Chinese. His gift clock fascinated the Wanli Emperor (1563 -1620). Many Chinese learned from the map of the world he drew and the globe he constructed that China was not the center of the world, but a part.

The willingness of Ricci to make friends opened the eyes and hearts of Chinese. In fact, Ricci represented a golden age of European thought. It was the time when Leonardo da Vinci demonstrated the unprecedented scope and depth of his creativity; Shakespeare was writing his plays, and long-held geocentric concepts was challenged by Copernicus's helio-centric cosmology.

The exhibition items, from solar corona, musket with fine decoration to impressionism oil painting, display the excitement of this great time. The tale of Ricci is not just about himself.

It was a thriving Europe, with the ambition to conquest and dominate, behind him that made Ricci's China venture a success.

Ricci was granted a residence in Beijing by imperial decree, a rare case in China then, and lived there for the rest of his life. He was the first foreign national in Chinese history permitted a burial place by the emperor.

Through Ricci, China and the West began a conversation for the first time. But the two worlds charted different roads. China shut itself from the rest of the world and went back to its self-contented mood. Maritime expeditions, which had once reached the coast of Africa, had been called off long before Ricci arrived.

The isolation helped avoid the clashes, but also delayed change. The inward-looking mindset prevented China from sensing the looming catastrophe, until it was forced to open its door under guns and shells.

Four hundreds years later, China seems to be getting over the bitter taste of the past century and is repositioning itself in the world. In some ways, the world looks like 400 years ago, but the power balance of East and West is reversed. After hundreds of years of prosperity, the West seems to be plagued by crises big and small, so that a prolonged decline looks inevitable.

China, meanwhile, has been invigorated through decades of reform and is feeling an inner urge to expand its worldwide influence.

Yet what, intellectually, does China have to offer now?

Four hundred years ago, Matteo Ricci and his companions brought the basic ideas of science and technology to China. Those ideas broadened our vision and laid down the foundations that many later developments relied on. The geometric ideas Ricci introduced are still taught in Chinese schools.

But imagine in another 400 years, an exhibition was held in the Louvre Museum on a single Chinese's great trip to Europe in 2010. What fascinating items would there be to display?

The author is an editor with the Global Times. lujingxian@ globaltimes.com.cn


Global Times

14 marzo 2010