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)

Speech on the First Matteo Ricci Symposium on China-European Cultural Exchange and Applied Ethics

di H.E. Serge Abou, Ambassador, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to China

The First Matteo Ricci Symposium on China-European Cultural Exchange and Applied Ethics took place on 11th May, 2010 at University of International Business and Economics. This event was designed to ease intercultural dialogue between China and Europe, and enabled several Chinese and European scholars and officials to express their views on sino-european relations.

Mr Ambassador,
Dear distinguished scholars
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me, as an Ambassador of the European Union to China, to speak in front of such a distinguished audience. All of us, I know, share this deep awareness of the true importance of cultural exchanges between China and Europe.

It is also an honour for me to pay tribute to the memory of a man like Matteo Ricci, who, amongst the first, built bridges between China and Europe. All the distinguished speakers, who preceded me, brilliantly emphasized the significance of Matteo Ricci's work. To my mind he remains a great reference for today's euro-china relation.

I am all the more honoured to speak today, since Matteo Ricci entered in Beijing as "European ambassador", according to an imperial decree. In that sense, he is the most illustrious of my predecessors here.

As Matteo Ricci said "A nation may survive without wealth, but it cannot survive without friends". He is an example for those of us committed to building the friendship between Europe and China. The path of true cooperation and mutual understanding is a demanding one. But I would like to underline three aspects of Ricci's life that can guide us on it.

First, Matteo Ricci was a man of culture. He found in his own eclectic European culture, the strength and the openness to plunge into the mystery and beauty of Chinese language. In the the1580s, he published the first ever European-Chinese dictionary. I know that all of you, as true lovers of the Chinese culture, are very aware of such an achievement. Those who, as me, have experienced the difficulty and the pleasure to learn Mandarin can only hold this work in awe.

Today, China and Europe follow the way he opened, by promoting exchanges of people and knowledge. The European Union is committed to make this thought alive. For instance, the Erasmus Mundus program has enabled more than 1000 Chinese students and academics to be granted scholarships in some of Europe's most prestigious institutions. And today the European Union welcomes more Chinese students and scholars than any other place in the world.

Matteo Ricci was also one of the first European scholars to study Confucianism, a philosophy that made a deep impression on him. For his part, he offered to China the fruits of his own European education and culture and became the first European adviser of the Imperial court. In his day he was criticised by some for trying to bridge these two great civilisations. But today we can see the wisdom of the path he chose.

Today's event continues this tradition of intercultural dialogue in a modern way. We will be carrying forward before the next EU-China summit when European and Chinese intellectuals will convene in Brussels for philosophical debate before politicians start their work.

Secondly Matteo Ricci was a man of science, deeply convinced of the necessity to share it the most wider possible. He confronted his ideas with Chinese science, thus creating the first scientific sino-european community. He closely collaborated with Qu Taisu, the most eminent Chinese scholar of that time. Together, they translated in Chinese Euclid's Elements of Geometry, one of the pillars of the European scientific thought. I am, as a mathematician, very aware of this true achievement.

Today, China and Europe follow his path, cooperating on numerous scientific projects, for instance carrying out joint researches on green energy. President Barroso recently officially opened the Clean Energy Centre (EC2) in Tsinghua University, in a gesture that I see as a tribute to Matteo Ricci's memory. This commitment is also visible in projects like NZEC project (Near Zero Emissions Coal) designed to build carbon capture and storage facilities. The European Union gives technical assistance in many other fields like support for biodiversity. This reminds us that the challenges we face nowadays, like climate change or food supply security, can only be overcome by a close scientific cooperation, and the European Union takes a leading role in this field.

Third, Matteo Ricci was a man of dialogue. Matteo Ricci taught us that patience and openness are the only way of overcoming our misunderstandings, and learning from each other. His expulsion from Zhaoqing, in 1589, did not discourage him from learning more about Chinese culture, and pursuing his work, leading him to finally become the first European to enter the Forbidden city in 1601. His tenacity as well as his sense of dialogue made so much to strengthen relation between China and Europe. This is a great lesson for us: our relation need to be guided by mutual understanding, patience and open-mindedness.

But the European Union remains committed to promote its vision of an open society, based on the freedom of thought, freedom of expression and the respect of all beliefs and political opinions. This great idea was at the core of Matteo Ricci's thought; his life was a brilliant illustration of this "spirit of tolerance" which remains at the heart of our European philosophy.

On these topics, I am firmly of the opinion that China and Europe can build, step by step, a deep and trusting relation. Each step towards mutual understanding and confidence is important. This is as well one of the most important lessons of more than 50 years of European construction.

It is an interesting coincidence that I am delivering this speech having just returned from the Shanghai Expo, where thousands of Europeans will showcase the best of Europe to millions of Chinese visitors, to share with them and to learn from China. This is motivated by the same desire for mutual learning that inspired Matteo Ricci in China all those years ago. Fortunately, travelling from Europe to China is much easier today.

I have asked myself two questions about the life of Matteo Ricci:

Why spend such a long time, so far from his country, with no hope to meet again with his relatives and friends in the beauty of the glorious Italian cities? And why spend his life so exclusively devoted to study, to scientific and spiritual quest, trying to realise a synthesis between Christian and Confucian culture?

My answer to the first question is to be found in the book of Genesis, in the very first Chapter of the Bible, which Matteo Ricci certainly would have read and considered. Joseph, Jacob’s son was in the desert when he met a man who asked him “where are you going?” and Joseph answered “I am looking for my brothers”. Ricci was also looking for his brothers: brothers in science and in spirituality.

And the answer to the second question: Why this strenuous effort for this quest without any hope of immediate results? The answer was given to me by a famous member of the French mathematic school: Jean Dieudonné who was trying to explain why generations of mathematicians tried to solve the most difficult problems, without any hope of glory and recognition – such as the proof of Fermat’s last theorem, which seems to have no possible concrete application in physics or chemistry.
The answer was:”for the honour of the Human Mind”.

Thank you Matteo Ricci and long life to you.


Delegation of the European Union to China

11 maggio 2010