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Matteo Ricci, S.J.
(1552 to 1610)
and his contributions to science in China

Matteo Ricci, S.J.

Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy and died in Peking, China. Against his father's wishes, who forbade any talk of religious topics around the home, Matteo Ricci entered the Jesuits. At the end of his training he was assigned to the China Mission, and arrived there in 1583, where he worked for 27 years. Eventually he was welcomed to the academies and gained many influential friendships. He opened a residence in Nanking for himself, his fellow Jesuits and his scientific instruments. Later he became the court mathematician in Peking. His books Geometrica Practica and Trigonometrica were translations of Christopher Clavius' works into Chinese. He made Western developments in mathematics available to the Chinese and in 1584 and 1600 he published the first maps of China ever available to the West. For the first time the Chinese had an idea of the distribution of oceans and land masses. He introduced trigonometric and astronomical instruments, and translated the first six books of Euclid into Chinese. The Chinese geometrical works for which he is remembered were books on the astrolabe, the sphere, measures and isoperimetrics. But especially important was his Chinese version of the first six books of Euclid's Elements, which was written in collaboration with one of his pupils. Entitled A first textbook of geometry, this work assures Ricci an important place in the history of mathematics.

Ricci's success was due to his personal qualities, his complete adaptation to Chinese customs (choosing the attire of a Chinese scholar) and to his authoritative knowledge of the sciences. He is remembered for his Chinese works on religious and moral topics, as well as works on scientific topics such as the astrolabe, sphere, arithmetic, measure and isoperimetrics. It is still possible to visit his tomb in the Peking suburbs. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports, "Probably no European name of past centuries is so well known in China as that of Li-ma-teu (Ricci Matteo)."

Ricci's contributions to geography included his calculation of the breadth of China, which was three-quarters of the breadth assumed by Western geographers. At the time Ricci's maps of China were considered more accurate even than the contemporary maps of Europe. Also he identified China and Peking with the Cathay Marco Polo, and he shares this latter recognition with another Jesuit, a Coadjutor Brother, Benedetto de Goes, S.J., who made a journey from India to China during the years 1602-1605, in order to verify that China and Cathay were the same.

Matteo Ricci brought trigonometry to China, and Ricci's successors, Verbiest and Schall von Bell, then used the geometric and trigonometric concepts to bring about a revolution in the sciences of astronomy, the design of astronomical instruments, mapmaking, and the intricate art of making accurate calendars. The Jesuits were inveterate mapmakers and were continually traveling around the empire, even though travel conditions were quite primitive. The TRS recounts 52 journeys by Ricci and Verbiest alone.

The Jesuits long had an interest to find an overland route from Europe through Christian Russia. The Tsar's ambassador to China at the time, named Spathary, was able to speak Latin and so could converse with the Jesuits. This involved another Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest in negotiations over the border between the two countries; later it was partly under his direction that the Russo-Chinese borders were determined, and it was his surveyors who were sent out to mark them. It did not, however, put an end to border disputes, and for the past three centuries these borders continue to be contested.

The China mission has been spoken of with awe and admiration by historians such as Joseph Needham, who relates the vicissitudes and hardships under which the Jesuits labored in his monumental work, Civilization in China. (vol. 3 p. 173)
Ricci, Schall, Verbiest and, in a later generation, Gaubil, were in China at a period of spontaneous decline of indigenous science, the Ming dynasty and early Ching, a decline which had nothing obviously to do with the forces which sent them there and permitted them to stay. . . There was of course the almost insuperable difficulty of language at a time when sinology hardly existed and no good dictionaries had been made.

Gilbert Highet in his book The Art of Teaching. New York ( pg. 222-223) spoke of the Jesuit Methods.
The Jesuits went to unparalleled lengths and showed unbelievable patience in adapting themselves to the people they had determined to teach. For instance, they sent out a small expedition of ten or twelve priests to Christianize four hundred million Chinese. This almost impossible task they started by studying China. The Jesuits therefore spent several years learning Chinese philosophy, art, and literature, making ready to meet the Chinese on their own level. After the imperial officials had slowly, reluctantly admitted them, the Jesuits at once flattered them by talking to them in their own tongue, and attracted them by displaying specially prepared maps and astronomical instruments. Instead of being rejected as foreign barbarians, they were accepted as intelligent and cultivated men. One of them, who became a painter in the Chinese style, is now regarded as one of the classical artists of China.

From about 1600 until the suppression in 1773, Jesuits were practically the sole source of Chinese knowledge about Western astronomy, geometry and trigonometry. Appointments in the Astronomical Bureau provided the Jesuits with access to the ruling elite, whose conversion was their main object. Mathematical and astronomical treatises demonstrated high learning and proved that the missionaries were civilized and socially acceptable. While trigonometry became an analytic science in Europe, in the Orient it remained primitive until the Jesuits came.

For 20 years Ricci had tried to reach the emperor in person, but the emperor was a recluse not accustomed to seeing his own people. For a time suspicious landlords would drive Ricci and his companions from their dwellings, until they hit on the plan of renting haunted houses. Then no one bothered them. Unexpectedly the emperor summoned Ricci and his companions to inquire about a ringing clock brought to him by the Jesuits. His own scientists had failed to fix it when it stopped. Since the emperor could not receive these foreigners in person, he had an artist draw full length portraits of them, so that they could have a vicarious interview. Another opportunity was occasioned by an eclipse of the sun: the prediction of the expected time and duration made by his own Chinese astronomers differed considerably from the Jesuit prediction. When the latter prediction proved correct, the place of the Jesuit mathematicians was secure. It is curious that the Jesuits taught the Chinese the heliocentric theory, unaware that Galileo's trial had taken place. So at the very moment Galileo was being accused of heresy in Rome, the Jesuits in China were teaching the same heliocentric message that they had learned from their Jesuit colleagues before they had left Rome. There was a good five-year lag in communications.

Mateo Ricci, S.J. understood and appreciated Chinese culture fully from the beginning and his example should serve as an inspiration to many. From earliest times, the Church has learned to express the Gospel through the help of ideas and in the culture of various peoples, because the message that she preaches is intended for all peoples and nations. The Christian message is not the exclusive property of any one group or race; it is addressed to everyone and belongs to everyone. There is therefore no opposition or incompatibility in being at the same time truly Christian and authentically Chinese.

Matteo Ricci was a pioneer of cultural relations between China and the West, and his profound appreciation of Chinese cultural and moral values enabled him to make China known to the West and the West to China. Ricci made his reputation as a scientist of great versatility, and by his display of such novelties as Venetian prisms, European books and paintings and engravings, sundials, clocks, and maps, he attracted a steady audience. He designed and displayed for the first time his great World Map which brought about a revolution in traditional Chinese cosmography. This was the beginning of his major contribution to the diffusion of knowledge and the religious apostolate he promoted, that is, the composition of works in Chinese on such varied topics as mathematics, literature, apologetics, and popular catechetics. There were more than twenty of these works. The prestige he gained in the highest cultural spheres by. his wisdom, scientific knowledge, and capacity for philosophical speculation won him a hearing when he spoke of the gospel message. Without any trace of superiority in his manner, he used a process of dialogue which was characterized by an esteem and respect for everyone. This enabled him to bring the Gospel to the highest non-Christian civilization of his time. By working out a synthesis of the human and moral values in Chinese culture and of the integral gospel message, his method anticipated the pastoral approach of the Church today.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Matteo Ricci's arrival in China, the July 1983 issue of an official Chinese magazine from Peking in English published a warm account of Ricci with numerous photographs of some of his better known works which are now in the Peking Library collection. There is a photograph of a portrait of Ricci with the notation that the original is in the archives of the Society of Jesus in Rome. There is also a photograph of the Madonna and Child, a painting brought to China by Ricci. At about the same time, Peking Radio did a long program on Ricci, centering on his role as initiator of cultural and scientific relations between China and the West.

Matteo RicciThe wall of China
Chinese ommemorative stamp of Ricci Ricci and his lay companion Paul Siu


Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu ( AHSI ) Rome: Institutum Historicum
Bangert, William A History of the Society of Jesus. St. Louis: St. Louis Institute, 1972uis, 1810
Boyer, Carl A history of mathematics. New York: Wiley, 1968
Burke-Gaffney, M. W. Kepler and the Jesuits. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1944,
Cajori, Florian A history of mathematical notations 2 vols. Chicago: Open Court, 1928
Encyclopedia Britannica. 24 vols. Chicago: Benton, 1959
Gallagher, Louis China in 16th Century: journals of Matthew Ricci New York: 1953
Gillispie, Charles. C. ed., Dictionary of Scientific biography. 16 vols. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1970
Oldenburg, Henry ed. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. vols. 1-30. London: 1665-1715
Reilly, Conor "A catalogue of Jesuitica in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London" in A.H.S.I. vol. 27,1958, p. 339-362
Sarton, GeorgeThe study of the history of mathematics. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard, 1936
Sommervogel, Carolus Bibliothèque de la compagnie de Jésus. 12 volumes. Bruxelles: Société Belge de Libraire, 1890-1960

Mention of Matteo Ricci is made in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography: Vol. 3 p311, Vol. 4 p457, Vol. 7 p19, Vol. 10 p103, Vol. 11 p402-403, Vol. 14 p162-4.
Also 36 entries are found in Sommervogel; some examples are the following:
Ki ho youen pen - Geometrica Practica (Peking, 1595 ;later reprinted in Nanking,1865)
Hoen kai tong hien tou cho - Explanation of the celestial sphere (Peking, 1607)

Also quoted in this essay are:
Gilbert Highet: The Art of Teaching. New York: Knopf, 1954, p. 222-223.
Joseph Needham: Civilization in China. vol. 3 Cambridge: University Press, 1959, p. 173.
John F. Baddeley: Russia, Mongolia, China, 1602-1676. New York: Burt Franklin, 1916.

Adventures of Some Early Jesuit Scientists

José de Acosta, S.J. - 1600: Pioneer of the Geophysical Sciences
François De Aguilon, S.J. - 1617: and his Six books on Optics
Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J. - 1787: and his atomic theory
Christopher Clavius, S.J. - 1612: and his Gregorian Calendar
Honoré Fabri, S.J. - 1688: and his post-calculus geometry
Francesco M. Grimaldi, S.J. - 1663: and his diffraction of light
Paul Guldin, S.J. - 1643: applications of Guldin's Rule
Maximilian Hell, S.J. - 1792: and his Mesmerizing encounters
Athanasius Kircher, S.J. - 1680: The Master of a Hundred Arts
Francesco Lana-Terzi, S.J. - 1687: The Father of Aeronautics
Francis Line, S.J. - 1654: the hunted and elusive clock maker
Juan Molina, S.J. - 1829: The First Scientist of Chile
Jerôme Nadal, S.J. -1580: perspective art and composition of place
Ignace Pardies, S.J. - 1673: and his influence on Newton
Andrea Pozzo, S.J. - 1709: and his perspective geometry
Vincent Riccati, S.J. - 1775: and his hyperbolic functions
Matteo Ricci, S.J. - 1610: who brought scientific innovations to China
John Baptist Riccioli, S.J. - 167I: and his long-lived selenograph
Girolamo Saccheri, S.J. - 1733: and his solution to Euclid's blemish
Theorems of Saccheri, S.J. - 1733: and his non Euclidean Geometry
Christopher Scheiner, S.J. - 1650: sunspots and his equatorial mount
Gaspar Schott, S.J. - 1666: and the experiment at Magdeburg
Angelo Secchi, S.J. - 1878: the Father of Astrophysics
Joseph Stepling, S.J. - 1650: symbolic logic and his research academy
André Tacquet, S.J. - 1660: and his treatment of infinitesimals
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S. J. - 1955: and The Phenomenon of man
Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. - 1688: an influential Jesuit scientist in China
Juan Bautista Villalpando, S.J. - 1608: and his version of Solomon's Temple
Gregory Saint Vincent, S.J. - 1667: and his polar coordinates
Nicolas Zucchi, S.J. - 1670: the renowned telescope maker

Influence of Some Early Jesuit Scientists

The 35 lunar craters named to honor Jesuit Scientists: their location and description
Post-Pombal Portugal opinion of Pre-Pombal Jesuit Scientists: a recent conference
Seismology, The Jesuit Science. a Jesuit history of geophysics

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Jesuit history, tradition and spirituality

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