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Xu Guangqi - The Catholic Confucian

By Clark Alejandrino

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Christianity, the world’s largest religion, has achieved very little success in China, the world’s most populous country. Deep-rooted cultural tradition and strong autocratic government are the usual explanations as to why the former fails to make significant inroads in the latter. This article is a reflection about Christianity’s present prospects in China through the relationship between the Fr. Matteo Ricci and his convert Xu Guangqi some four hundred years ago.

Matteo Ricci was an Italian Jesuit who was given permission in 1601 to live in Beijing, the Ming dynasty capital, as a scholar with an imperial stipend. He and his fellow Jesuits impressed the dynasty and its officials with their erudition, in particular, in astronomy and mathematics which proved to be very practical to a civilization that believed the stars told of the rise and fall of dynasties and possessed an economy that relied heavily on waterworks that required more than rudimentary knowledge of geometry to create and maintain.A Ming dynasty official named Xu Guangqi decided to learn from Ricci, leading to the creation of the Chongzhen Calendar, a more accurate version of the Chinese calendar with corrections inspired by Western astronomy, and a translation of Euclid’s Geometry which was published in 1607. The fourth centenary of the latter’s publication inspired a conference in Shanghai that I recently attended. Today, as China modernizes and embraces the world of capitalism, it celebrates Xu Guangqi as a modern scientist and great synthesizer of East-West culture and civilization. Scholars, mostly Chinese, often attribute Xu’s conversion to Catholicism in 1603 to his interest in Western science and its practical use in the Chinese setting. Others, mainly Catholics and the Jesuits, explain his conversion as the result of his sincere faith in God through the revelation of Ricci. While I do not reject any of these explanations, Chu Hung-lam (Zhu Honglin), a Ming historian based in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explains more satisfactorily why Xu made this decision and gives Christianity and the Jesuits hope for the future in China. Chu revisited Xu’s classical learning and Neo-Confucian background as a means to understand his openness to Christianity. Through his reading of several essays by Xu, Chu shows the importance of the Neo-Confucian discourse on vacuity and tranquility (虛靜 xujing) in Xu’s thought. One essay argues that the sage shares the same qualities as a new-born baby (their minds are pure, clear and vacuous) thus “absence of preconception frees one from bias and enables him [Xu Guangqi] to reach out and feel the resonance.” Chu points out that this idea comes from Mencius’ premise that “men are born with some universal qualities” and that “men’s minds respond to one another in equal measures” and thus “only an open mind is truly receptive.”

xu-guangqi.jpgIn regard to morality, Chu demonstrates Xu’s openness through this quote: “Vacuity has no material, so [in the void] square and circle appear as they are and then disappear. In the absence of the self [i.e. subjective view], a plate appears as a plate and a bowl as a bowl. The sage and the worthy have only one undivided virtue, which therefore is seen as uprightness or as kindness…I believe that to seek an official who is upright or kind, you need to consider his intention as fundamental. If he has the right intention, the uprightness and the kindness in him cannot but appear as one.” Chu concludes that as a Confucian, Xu placed “heavy emphasis on intention in judging human actions.” I have no doubt that Ricci must have impressed Xu Guangqi with not just his impeccable knowledge of Western science and mathematics but also his person. Ricci’s life was inspired by the Jesuit spirituality in St. Ignatius’ manual called Spiritual Exercises. We know that Xu was “well-versed” with this book and that Xu translated and published Ricci’s Twenty Five Sentences in 1605. The Jesuits were also open to understanding Chinese civilization and finding in it the keys to opening China to Christianity. Xu was no doubt impressed by Ricci’s study and translation of the Confucian classics. Thus we have two men ‘responding to each other in equal measure’ with minds that can only be described as ‘truly receptive.’ Finding in Ricci ‘the right intention’ and ‘the uprightness and the kindness in him [that] cannot but appear as one,’ makes it unsurprising that Xu’s conversion was, according to Prof. Chu, “made by his own choice,” and that “he could be at once a devout Christian and a faithful Confucian.”

What does all this say about the history of Christianity in China and what the Jesuits are doing now in the Philippines? When we look at the support the Jesuits are giving to the Chinese Studies Program in Ateneo, we are reminded of the Jesuit idea that to unlock China we need to understand its culture and civilization first. Knowing that Xu Guangqi’s openness to Ricci and his conversion to Christianity stemmed from his Neo-Confucian background is powerful proof that the Jesuits are in the right direction.In the hope that the Jesuits and Christianity will someday make significant gains in China and touch the Chinese through the character that Christian Faith can mold, I leave to Xu Guangqi the final word, his beautiful description of his relationship with Matteo Ricci: “All my life I was easily suspicious…it was only [after I met Ricci] that I no longer found anything to doubt.”


Gregory Blue, “Xu Guangqi in the West: Early Jesuit Sources and the Construction of an Identity,” in Catherine Jami, Peter Engelfriet, and Gregory Blue, eds., Statecraft and Intellectual Renewal in Late Ming China: The Cross-Cultural Synthesis of Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 26.

(A shorter version of this essay appears in the China Business Philippines magazine, February 2008 edition. Clark Alejandrino is a professor of Chinese Language and History at the Ateneo de Manila University. He has a Master’s degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Sydney.)

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