Matteo Ricci: A model for modern, culturally sensitive, holistic missions?

Jul 2017    

Matteo Ricci (Matthew Ricci, Pinyin ‘Limadou’) was born in Macerata, central Italy, 1552. He entered the Jesuit Roman College where, in addition to philosophy and theology, he also studied mathematics, cosmology, and astronomy under Father Christopher Clavius, a renowned mathematician and astronomer. It was this education in mathematics and science that would be used very effectively in his ministry in China.

In 1577, he applied for a missionary expedition to the Far East and was sent to the Portuguese port of Macao. Up till that point, Christian missionaries had been restricted to Macao, and they were not allowed into China proper.

The Chinese government was suspicious of foreigners, and wary of their efforts at evangelisation. However, when word reached the governor of Zhaoqing (Guangdong/Guangxi) of Ricci’s expertise in mathematics, science, and geography, he invited Ricci to come and live in his province.

Ricci brought with him his books, as well as a supply of clocks, astronomical devices, maps, paintings, and other mechanical gadgets. This turned out to be brilliant foresight, as word of his presence spread and his house was always filled with curious visitors, among them the top scholars and officials.

Ricci was a brilliant linguist as well as talented mathematician and scientist. He was able to master the Chinese language and effectively translate scientific works into Chinese. He also had a keen interest in Chinese culture and Chinese classics, and this enabled him to connect with, and have deep discussions with the scholars of the day.

He also wrote a Portuguese–Chinese dictionary with Ruggieri, the first in any European language, and translated various other Chinese works. In this way, Ricci helped open up China to the world, and the world to China.

In 1601, Ricci was invited to become adviser to the imperial court, in view of his expertise in astronomy and science. He was the first European to be invited into the Forbidden City. The story is told that the Emperor summoned Ricci to fix a ringing clock that had been presented to him by the Jesuits. None of the court officials had been able to fix it.

Thus Ricci and his fellow priests became the official clock-winders of the imperial court, and when enemies tried to expel the Jesuits, the palace eunuchs ensured this would not happen, as they were afraid they could not maintain the clock on their own!

Ricci wrote, “It is a miracle of the omnipotent hand of the Most High; the miracle appears all the greater in that not only do we dwell in Peking, but we enjoy here an incontestable authority.”

Ricci was given free access to the Forbidden City and even a stipend from the Emperor. Once established in Beijing, Ricci was able to meet officials, scholars, and leading members of society and converted a number of them to Christianity.

In 1595, Ricci wrote On Friendship, his first book in Chinese.  This was really a manifesto for Ricci’s methods, based on friendship evangelism. He developed close friendship and collaboration with Chinese scholars such as Paul Xu, Li Zhizao, Qu Taisu, and Feng Yingjing.

He also left behind a lasting impact on his disciples, friends and converts. For example, one of his most famous converts was Paul Xu Guangqi, a leading scholar-bureaucrat, agricultural scientist, astronomer, and mathematician in his own right.

Xu passed his faith to his children who kept it alive for generations. His grand-daughter Candida Xu devoted her time to training ‘Bible women’, who would take the Gospel into the villages through story-telling. Two of his famous descendants were Madame Sun Yat Sen and Madame Chiang Kai Shek (the Soong sisters), who were both noted for their political influence and their Christian faith.

Matteo Ricci’s holistic approach to missions was way ahead of his time. In this day and age, there is an even greater urgency for talented men and women to use their God-given expertise in various secular fields to bring a strategic approach to missions, and even open doors in limited access countries. We would do well to learn from some of the innovative and inspiring examples of Ricci and his colleagues.



Hsia, R. Po-chia. A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci 1552-1610. Oxford: Oxford    University Press, 2012.

Liu, Yu. Harmonious Disagreement: Matteo Ricci and His Closest Chinese Friends (Asian Thought and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2015.

Tucker, Ruth A. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1983.

Dr Roland Chia –

is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (


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