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The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

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In 1577, the Jesuit Priest Matteo Ricci set out from Italy to bring Christian faith and Western thought to Ming dynasty China. To capture the complex emotional and religious drama of Ricci's extraordinary life, Jonathan Spence relates his subject's experiences with several images that Ricci himself created--four images derived from the events in the bible and others from a book on the art of memory that Ricci wrote in Chinese and circulated among members of the Ming dynasty elite.

A rich and compelling narrative about a remarkable life, The Memory Palace Of Matteo Ricci is also a significant work of global history, juxtaposing the world of Counter-Reformation Europe with that of Ming China.

368 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1984

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About the author

Jonathan D. Spence

69 books264 followers
Jonathan D. Spence is a historian specializing in Chinese history. His self-selected Chinese name is Shǐ Jǐngqiān (simplified Chinese: 史景迁; traditional Chinese: 史景遷), which roughly translates to "A historian who admires Sima Qian."

He has been Sterling Professor of History at Yale University since 1993. His most famous book is The Search for Modern China, which has become one of the standard texts on the last several hundred years of Chinese history.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 58 reviews
Profile Image for Tom.
192 reviews120 followers
January 19, 2008
One of the most brilliant biographies I have ever read, about one of the most interesting people to have ever walked the earth (in my opinion). Spence connects Ricci's Counter-Reformation Italian background with his work as a Jesuit missionary to China, all structured non-linearly, around images from Ricci's memory palace, a mnemonic technique with which Ricci could recall a random list of words forwards and backwards after one reading.

I cannot give this book higher praise.
Profile Image for Lynne Kelly.
Author 16 books125 followers
October 7, 2016
If I had bought this book as a biography of Matteo Ricci or because of an interest in the history of the time, I would have rated it much higher. As I studiously avoid gruesome details of past horrors, I did not finish the book.

I bought the book because of my fascination with mnemonics and thought I was going to read about memory palaces in a historical and biographical context. Although they get a bit of a mention at the start, that is about it. The title is grossly misleading.

For those who like gory history and biography, well written and well researched, this book is likely to please you far more than it did me.
1,074 reviews105 followers
December 10, 2017
Stranger in a Strange Land

Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest, lived in China for 27 years, from 1582 to 1610, working towards the conversion of the Chinese. Do you think he bit off more than he could chew ? Maybe so. At any rate, he gave it his best. Why he was inclined to do so, and how he went about doing it, are the basic topics of this most interestingly constructed book. I would say there are several levels to consider. First, the training and background of such a missionary figure in that time, including the works of philosophy and religion that influenced him. The hardships of being a missionary are not neglected. Second, the Chinese society of that time and why Ricci's mission was basically "Mission Impossible". Third, a study in contradictions: the misunderstanding of each "side" of the other's longterm goals, the contradictory images of other faiths (Buddhism, Judaism, Islam), the clash between trade and faith in Europe, and the different concepts of morality. While globalization had begun, it had a long, long way to go. A fourth theme might be more literary: how a scholar like Spence could construct such a literary approach to history, making it sparkle and shine in ingenious ways for a reader. I was fascinated by this process. I would say that for anyone interested in history per se, this would be a five star book. However, if you are primarily concerned with China, this study is more about Europe and perhaps, "Europe meets China in the late 16th century". If you are more interested in Europe, there are probably more central works for you. Readers interested in what a `memory palace' might be are advised to obtain a copy of the book. It's a fascinating read if not the easiest.
Profile Image for Lynne-marie.
464 reviews3 followers
June 14, 2009
I first read this book when it came out in hardcover, in 1984 and just re-read the hardcover copy that the library still preserved. Aside from the point that Spence fixes on Ricci's memory images to organize his historical information, and that the tale of Ricci's life could not be told without reference to the "memory palace" system he taught, this book is not primarily about that mneumonic trick. It is a historical tapestry of everything that touched on Ricci's life: his home of Macerata, Italy; his training in and much about the Jesuits; his posting to Goa and by some sidle-wise reasoning about Portugal and then Spain and then the state of sea travel. Spence uses Ricci and his four pictographs & six tales, published in China in 1605 by the Chinese inkstone connoisseur Cheng Dayue, as a part of his "The Ink Garden", as jumping off points to detail the world of 1550-1610, Ricci's life span, and as he progresses, he focuses more closely on China and Ricci's life there. Increasingly, the tapestry includes the politics of the Papacy and the international situation as well as the plight of the alien Jesuits in China, forbidden to ever leave, but ever suspected of sedition and treason. This is a masterly book not only for it's scholarship, but for the way the author draws its myriad threads into a coherent whole.
Profile Image for Andrej Mrevlje.
28 reviews
September 26, 2017
It's the second time, after many years, that I am going through this book. Matteo Ricci was an unusual character, Spence is a complicated writer and beautiful mind.
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,488 reviews1 follower
March 29, 2022
"The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci" is a brilliant work by a great scholar that falls slightly short of its very great ambitions. Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was one of the early Jesuit missionaries to China. His primary assignment was not to obtain converts (which was something for which he had very little talent) but to promote diplomatic relations with the Ming Dynasty at which he was decidedly unsuccessful. However, he was an intellectual of tremendous stature. He was the first person to translate the writings of Confucius into a Western language (i.e. Latin). In "The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven" he argued that Christianity and Confucianism were very similar. Ricci's enduring legacy has been a profound respect among Western intellectuals for the religion and theology of China.
The talented Ricci also wrote in Chinese and Spence's book is organized around his "Treatise on Mnemonic Arts". In his adopted language, Ricci explained a system of memorization (often referred to as Memory Palace) used by Cicero and Quintilian in which images of familiar spaces are used to store and retrieve information. Ricci proposed four images. The first was the Chinese ideograph for War. The second was the ideograph for the imperative "shall". The third was the ideograph for profit and harvest. The fourth image was a picture of the Virgin Mary. Spence devotes a separate chapter to each of these images.
Unfortunately, Spence then complicates things by discussing biblical pictures that Ricci selected for a Chinese book of prints. Spence writes separate chapters on each of the pictures following the Memory Palace images that he believes that they are related to. He links a picture of Christ in the Waves to the first ideograph (war). A picture of the road to Emmaus is related to the second ("shall") ideograph. A picture of the "Men of Sodom" is attached to the third ideograph which is for profit and harvest. Finally he uses a picture of the Madonna and Child for the Virgin Mary image of the memory palace.
Spence's structure is unquestionably cumbersome and confusing. He presents Ricci's life as it aligns with the images of his memory palace rather than according to the chronological time-line. Thus Ricci's death comes on page 161 at the end of the fifth chapter that deals with the second picture. Four chapters and 107 pages of text remain.
What Spence's approach does do is to drive home the point that Ricci was not a man of the 17th century not the 21st. His view of the world belonged in many ways to the Scholastic era or late Antiquity. Prominent authors such as Erasmus, Melancthton and Rabelais were already challenging the pertinence of Memory Palaces. The very first recorded attack had come from the pen of Cornelius Agrippa almost 20 years before the birth of Ricci.
Oblivious to the fact that the memorization system of the Memory Palace was on the way out, Ricci had hoped that his Chinese language treatise about it would greatly interest the Chinese. Ricci's hopes were founded on the obsession among the Chinese about winning bureaucratic posts through the Imperial examinations which required great feats of recall. Sadly for Ricci, his treatise proved to be of very little interest Chinese although some of his friends among the Chinese scholars made politely favorable comments.
Ultimately Spence's book is well worth the considerable aggravations that it causes. It brilliantly situates a major intellectual in the history of Western European ideas and masterfully explains how his ideas meshed or did not mesh with those of China.
Profile Image for Brent Pinkall.
236 reviews13 followers
May 10, 2021
A really fun and unique biography of Matteo Ricci. I first came across this book while studying the ancient mnemonic method of loci (i.e. memory palace). But don't be mislead by the title. This is not primarily a book about mnemonics. Ricci wrote a Chinese book about the method of loci (the first of its kind in China) to introduce the Chinese to Western mnemonics in hopes of winning converts to Christianity. In the book, Ricci explains how to use the method of loci by converting four Chinese characters into images and placing them in an imaginary room. The book also originally included four religious pictures. Spence organizes his biography according to these eight images, the content of each chapter corresponding to an image. It's a very clever way to organize a biography, and it's amazing how well everything "fits"--it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Sometimes, though, the constraints of conforming the biography to these eight images takes its toll, and the content feels forced or irrelevant. Spence will sometimes spend many pages describing events that aren't really that relevant to Ricci, and the biography isn't told in chronological order. But Spence is a superb scholar and incredibly well-learned. He makes some very insightful observations and has a knack for noticing interesting but obscure details.

I especially enjoyed his retelling of how Ricci composed hymns to be sung to the Wanli Emperor by imperial musicians. Ricci had always hoped to win an audience with the emperor in the Forbidden City but never succeeded. He did, however, become close friends with the emperor's eunuchs and persuaded them to perform music composed by him, which the emperor enjoyed. One of the eight hymns he composed is structured around a traditional Chinese polarity of "inside" (nei) and "outside" (wai), and these can be applied to things like different mental states or the difference between those within the Middle Kingdom and barbarians outside. But in this hymn, he seems to hint at contrasting life within the sheltered and secretive Forbbiden City with life outside the palace walls. He ends the hymn with this line: "Keep the heart inside, for that brings the profit." The word "profit" in Chinese is the same as Ricci's Chinese surname (Li), and as Spence points out, when the eunuch would sing this line, he would actually be singing: "Living inside the court, there's Ricci." Can we take a moment to savor the poetic beauty of this line? Just marvelous.

My admiration for Ricci has grown exponentially since I've started studying him. He was incredibly intelligent and a true pioneer in every sense of the term. Spence sheds some light on the great hardships he underwent in order to bring the gospel to the Chinese, and in light of the circumstances, it truly seems impossible that he could have accomplished all of the things he accomplished. He is the material legends are made of. What a man. My only regret is that the gospel he brought was stained with the errors of Roman Catholicism. Just to give one example, Ricci's emphasis on devotion to Mary was so great that the standard understanding of Christianity throughout China was that God was a woman. Ricci spent much effort in his later years trying to correct this misconception. But still, what a man.
Profile Image for Laura.
339 reviews1 follower
November 24, 2019
I learned a great many historical anecdotes from his book, but none of them were what I was expecting to learn from this book. This was part biography, part 'hey did you know this weird little side story in this era of history?', which isn't terrible but it made this entire venture seem a bit disorganized. Also, tone it down on the academic jargon. It was definitely well researched, which I appreciated but at times so dense that it didn't seem worth it to continue. That being said, this was an era of history that I knew little about, so I felt I absorbed so much new information. The book's primary focus, to me, was the Jesuit's missionary practices in the late sixteenth century concerning China and India, with a sprinkling of Japan in there as well. But Matteo was interesting but flat, and after the initial descriptions of medieval European memory practices, a smattering of Matteo's education on such practices, and even less about his hopeful educating of the Chinese of such practices, there was practically nothing else on memory practices for the rest of the book. Informative, but disorganized in presentation and focus.
Profile Image for Katie.
439 reviews265 followers
October 29, 2012
A fascinating book, though a little bit frustrating. I absolutely love the idea behind this book, but I think the execution only sometimes matches up to the concept's promise.

Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit missionary who spent a few decades in India and China in the later 16th century. He became quite the celebrity while he was over there, famous not only for his missionary activity but also his translation work, his creation of an immensely popular world map, his rumored skills at alchemy (rumors he tried to quash, though he didn't always try very hard), and his prodigious memory. It's the last aspect of Ricci's fame that gives Spence his framing device for the book.

The idea of a memory palace was not a new one in Matteo Ricci's time - it stretched back to ancient Rome - but it had regained a new popularity in Renaissance thought and the affective piety of Ignatius Loyola and other Counter Reformation Catholics. It's based on the idea of creating mental images of everything you need to remember, and organizing them in a mental space - a room, a palace, a city - so that you can find it when you need it. Spence takes four images from Matteo's own memory palace, along with four religious images he curated, and builds his biography from there.

It's a hugely impressionistic work, which is the best and worst part about it. The book almost works like memory - it floats around through Ricci's life in a kind of free association adventure. One of the images includes Peter's attempt to walk on water and the chapter jumps off from there to delve through all of Matteo's water-related adventures from his first trip over to Goa to a rather harrowing journey through Chinese river rapids that ended with the drowning of his friend. An image of a peasant about to harvest - a memory image for the Chinese character for profit - leads to a discussion of trade and gift exchange. It's a kind of fascinating way to approach a biography. While each chapter has a vaguely chronological drift to it, the book as a whole does not - Matteo Ricci's death scene occurs about 2/3 of the way through. Unfortunately it can also be a little frustrating as a reader. There were loads of points where I would have loved a more detailed treatment of a topic, but the memory adventure will just sort of tumble forward into another facet of Ricci's life and world.

Despite that, though, it's worth reading for the content (which is really interesting) and for it's adventurous form. I really like that Spence tried something new like this, even if it doesn't always work perfectly. When it does work, it's wonderful - he tends to close each chapter, for example, with a particularly vivid aspect of Matteo's life, frequently one involving violence. It gives the book the feeling of exploring someone's actual memory, as if a long trail of associations led back to an especially vivid moment. More history books should experiment with this sort of thing.
Profile Image for Tony Laplume.
Author 46 books33 followers
July 18, 2013
Like a number of other history books I've read, Spence's chronicle of Matteo Ricci's missionary efforts in China seems to have a distinct lack of perspective, although otherwise it's pretty interesting reading.

Whereas a book like Peter Ackroyd's London is meant to be ridiculously expansive, Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror went all over the place without seeming regard for how any of it would come across to the reader. Some of these writers simply don't seem to understand that they're not just providing a survey or trying to impress the reader with all the research they've done, but being comprehensive in the sense that their reader ends up knowing their subject as well as they do. This becomes impossible when information is cataloged instead of explored.

The memory palace of the title serves as a curious springboard for Spence. Each chapter ostensibly kicks off with an illustration Ricci chose to help the Chinese better understand the Catholic faith and its direct links to their existing culture. And yet Spence quickly segues into thoughts that more explore the world Ricci knew than the one that makes much sense either to the subject at hand or its significance for Spence's own readers. Ricci's memory palace was a technique to expand the memory, and perhaps the whole point of the book was that Spence was in fact decoding the images, but he doesn't spend a great deal of time explaining that this is what he'll do. Perhaps it's only the implication?

Clearly Spence's first love in this affair is the Chinese world itself. He's written other books to that regard. The reader could take that away as the main draw, too, but the author isn't terribly expansive about that, either, much less Ricci's life and lasting legacy. (The worst element of Distant Mirror was that its author chose a central figure who was more the subject of supposition than concrete fact, so I guess this is another common problem of the genre.) You can also read it as an example of faith as it was viewed in the time of the Counter-Reformation, or even the period of the early exploration of the New World.

Perhaps all these competing elements left Spence at a loss as to how to present them all, or he merely thought his book would be a curiosity, as it might be argued the Chinese ultimately embraced Ricci and his memory palace gimmick. Either way, it's not a painful read by any means, just not what it could have been.
580 reviews24 followers
December 12, 2019
I was attracted to this book because I am refreshing my youthful knowledge of ancient Greek. I have to visit or revisit every feature of this marvelously complex language. The forms of words blossom and grow dramatically. It's as if the language were a living chain-reaction.

The study calls for the application of memory. I don't just enjoy the transformation of the words, the multiplication of their forms; I also have to apply some brute memorization. This is not a bad thing, but it does require hard work and systematization. Fortunately, grammarians of old have done a lot of the systematizing. They don't, however, do the memorization for me!

I had heard of memory palaces before. When I saw this book, I thought: This is interesting in itself and, aha! maybe I can learn a thing or two about how to "house" all those Greek forms. They do require a palace or at least a big country house! And, look, Matteo Ricci -- one of those fantastically dedicated, intellectual, and courageous Jesuits -- used a memory palace to learn to read and write Chinese.

Perhaps he had a different type of brain. Perhaps I was hoping for an across-the-centuries How-To book, and my hopes for this book were wrong. Besides, if I understand correctly the short passages I read on Father Ricci's technique's for constructing memory palaces, it seems that building, furnishing, and decorating them, and then remembering all those details, required as much as or even more memory work than the material I hoped to remember!

Maybe there is a how-to guide elsewhere. I will have to check.

But note that I hope to return to this book because, when I glanced ahead, there does seem to be some fascinating information on traveling the world in the 16th century and residing in cultures that, at that time, might as well have been on Mars. Maybe spending some time with Father Ricci on his adventure will be educational and entertaining (which is not a bad thing).
489 reviews36 followers
July 4, 2013
Jonathan Spence's books are unique in their balance of learning and readability. That said, the organizing principle of this book (the Jesuit Ricci's attempt to convert Ming Dynasty Chinese through a Christian mnemonic device for the Confucian examinations), tries patience. Fortunately, Spence more than compensates with his habitual ease with the subject matter. And in this book he is at home not only his usual territory of China but Ricci's youth in Italy, his long ocean voyage to China, and the intricacies of Jesuit history and economics, such the import-export business that financed their missions to the East. In the end, Ricci mastered Chinese but made few converts, despite the occasional curiosity of the rulers. Fortunately, Spence has a keen eye for paradox: not only were the Jesuits dependent on trade, Ricci himself attempted to impress Chinese rulers with opulent Christian books. Ricci attacked Buddhists, despite their superficial similarities to Christianity--fasting, works for the poor at a time when a large portion of the population was evidently starving, even homeless, a gift for theological argument--even siding with Confucians against them.(Converts burned statues of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy because many Chinese confused her with the Virgin). A tireless writer, Ricci made no mention of the large population of the poor. And, with ties to the Portuguese colony of Macao, which depended on slavery, he was active in returning fugitives who had escaped into China. Ricci was not above justifying the sale of Chinese into slavery because it might be one of God's tools for conversion. A brilliant man, no doubt, and a powerful writer, but for all that intellectual rigor, incapable of noticing his own preconceptions and blind spots.
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,337 reviews140 followers
December 11, 2011
Not a traditional biography, this book explores the 16th-century world, both European and Chinese, of Matteo Ricci in a set of themed vignettes drawn from four examples Ricci’s own system of mnemonics and from four Biblical pictures he had printed. His mnemonic for “war,” for example, opens a discussion of the violence Ricci read of and encountered, while his picture of Sodom leads into a discussion of Ricci’s (and Ignatius of Loyola’s) views on sin. The “memory palace” of the title is not Ricci’s invention, but a way of remembering advocated by classical authors such as Pliny and Quintilian. (It’s not a bad idea, making each mnemonic concrete by placing it within a specific context and giving it detailed form.) I must say that the non-chronological and continent-jumping style, while an admirable idea, is sometimes a bit difficult to follow; most themes and segues within themes work, while other passages seem to be simply a series of unrelated (but always fascinating) bits of information about the Eastern and Western century.
Profile Image for Philip.
Author 4 books20 followers
October 5, 2013
This is a splendidly written account of Ricci's missionary voyage to China in the 16th century, but it is so much more. Ricci, a Jesuit priest, spent many years in China, and eventually became the first foreigner to be invited into the Forbidden City Spence, a historian, brings in fascinating information about Ricci's native Italy and China, and the growing trade between East and West during that time. He builds the account around Ricci's use of memory devices that fascinated the Chinese, as did his knowledge of astronomy, navigation and many other fields. Spence weaves all of this into a highly readable narrative. I wish all historians were this interesting.
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 30 books147 followers
December 1, 2011
An elegant, learned introduction to the life, times and theology of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who lived in China during the Ming Dynasty. It requires close attention, but repays it.
Profile Image for John David.
327 reviews287 followers
November 30, 2018
Whether it has been “The Death of Woman Wang” (1978), “God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan” (1996), or his “Mao: A Life” (1999), Jonathan Spence has always done his best work in the form of compelling biography. The life of an almost completely unknown late-sixteenth-century Italian-born Jesuit doesn’t exactly seem like a compelling place to quarry for such a fascinating story. Some lives, like those of Hong Xiuquan and Mao, naturally lend themselves to storytelling. But in “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,” Spence uses the concept of the memory palace as a launching pad to tell Ricci’s story and to build a present the world as he might have experienced it.

The title of the current book led me a bit astray into thinking that this would detail the memory palace (a sometimes tremendously complex, interwoven set mnemonic techniques that were first popularized in the ancient world and then had a fabulous re-birth in the Middle Ages and reached their height of popularity around the time Ricci was working). In most of its incarnations, the memory palace would consist an entire episteme of human knowledge that needed to be dedicated to memory (for example, all of the literature that needed to be memorized to successfully pass the notoriously difficult Ming Dynasty civil servants’ exam). The practitioner would imagine putting each object or idea in one location in the memory palace - on the hat rack in the foyer, under the pillow in the fourth bedroom, et cetera – thereby creating an everlasting link between thing and place that would allow all the details about the idea to come flooding back once it was retrieved from the palace. (For further information about the memory palace, please see the last paragraph of this review.)

Over the course of the book, Spence introduces four Chinese ideographs from Ricci’s Jifa, his Chinese-language treatise on the memory palace, which allow for the exploration of contemporary historical and religious themes. For example, Ricci’s memory palace’s image of wu (martial) gives Spence the opportunity to compare the hyper-militarized region of Ricci’s birthplace of Macerata (a papal state) compared to the more halcyon environs of China. This only serves as a broader tool to open the book up for a cross-cultural consideration of how Ricci’s counter-Reformation “Europeness” affected and diffused through China.

Born and raised in Italy, Ricci headed off to China in 1582 and would remain there until his death 28 years later. Much as the soldiers surrounding Macerata were armed with weapons, Ricci was armed with Catholicism. He was educated by a generation-old branch of the Catholic Church meant to provide a rigorous critique of the Reformation which would then send out thousands of its members to proselytize all over the world – the Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus. While never able to fully escape the ethnocentrism that brought him to China in the first place, Ricci’s attempts to understand the Chinese on their own linguistic, technological, and culture terms were both immense and sincere. In 1596, he wrote his mnemonic treatise in Chinese (a small sign of his dedication and perseverance), and presented it to the Governor of Jiangxi Province.

Ricci died in 1610 without ever having seen much of the missionary progress that he invariably was hoping for. Nevertheless, the intellectual exchanges that he made and the friendships that he established with the elite members of Chinese society, along with the early establishment of the early Chinese Christian missionary work, together make for some fascinating cultural history. Despite being very much being of his century, Ricci’s diplomacy, prudence, and ruthless intellect come together to forecast a very mixed bag of relationships over the next four centuries.
It should be noted that this book only superficially touches on the technical aspects of the memory palace itself, instead choosing to spend most of its time on other material. There is one wonderful book, however, that includes a fairly exhaustive historical consideration of the memory palace – Frances Yates’ “The Art of Memory” (1966), which is still thankfully in print and widely available.

For those interested, Yates is also perhaps one of the most recognizable – and talented – popularizers of Western esoterica (she’s certainly not an apologist for these methods, but is a scrupulous scholar) whose book on the relationship between Giordano Bruno’s intellectual connections with the ancient hermetic traditions (1964) is one of the best I’ve ever read on the topic.
Profile Image for Jeffrey L.
Author 2 books3 followers
April 12, 2022
Having taught at a Jesuit university with an Honors Program named after Matteo Ricci, it seemed only appropriate that I read Spence's narrative of this 16th century priest's sojourn in China. I loved Spence's thematic approach to Ricci's life, using the "memory palace" as point of entrance. For those unfamiliar with the notion, the "palace" is a visual device, a mental structure (entering different rooms) that the learner then populates with objects that will aid memory. For those looking for a biography of Matteo Ricci, the most confusing part of the book is Chapter 1: Building the Palace. Here Spence describes in detail the classical origins of the "memory palace" idea (ancient Greek rhetoric), and how Ricci hopes to utilize the concept in tutoring Chinese bureaucrats for their governmental exams. If successful, Ricci believes he will have access to and influence over (convert?) the emperor himself. Alas, Ricci never accomplishes that goal. However, Ricci's four Chinese palace objects, associated with four Christian pictures, become Spence's entrance to 16th century China and the Jesuits' encounter with that world.
Profile Image for Ben Wand.
Author 1 book8 followers
August 5, 2020
An excellent study. Fascinating exploration of this pre-modern memory system and its cultural context. I'm going to utilize this image-based memory system to aid my memory as well. One of my favorite sections from the first chapter was the discussion about the place and role of magic and magical arts, and how the line between magic and religion was fuzzy in people's minds. The natural, divine world was very much present in pre-modern societies, and the major religions didn't replace that notion, in fact, they thrived by incorporating into that mindset. This is one reason why I love studying the Middle Ages and early modern periods.
August 10, 2019
A uniquely structured biography. Rather than following the events in Ricci's life per the chronological format, Spence focuses each chapter around a loose theme of Ricci's life (water travel, Judaism, the Madonna, etc.) Jumping around from era to era. At first it's difficult to follow, but eventually you get the hang of it. And it becomes rather pleasant. Connecting time separated events by themes makes it easier to remember the elements of Ricci's life, which is likely what the author was going for given the title.
Profile Image for NosNos .
93 reviews9 followers
April 29, 2021
Supremely written account of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci's life and ministry in 16th century to 17th century Ming Dynasty China. Breaking convention, the book is in non-chronological order, but is instead built around four images or scenes from Christian scripture that Matteo Ricci uses to describe his doctrine to the Chinese. Astute historical analysis and compelling portrait of a fascinating man from the already fascinating Jesuits. Must read for anyone who is interested in Counter-Reformation Europe and it's intersections with the world at large.
Profile Image for CJ Wood.
84 reviews5 followers
June 28, 2020
I found parts of this very heavy going, but then the information is dense and the historic period brutal. This is an intriguing and stimulating look at one of the most incredible intellectual feats recorded, and told with a massively academic tone. Light reading it is not, in more ways than one.
752 reviews2 followers
October 3, 2021
"His friend and convert Xu Guanqi was an expert on the miseries of the poor, he could have described for Ricci the warehouses full of straw or animal fur where in winter, for the price of a copper coin, beggars could burrow in at night to avoid freezing to death." (218)
Profile Image for Ivar Dale.
124 reviews
March 3, 2019
Came to this one via “The Memory Chalet” by late historian Tony Judt. Very good.
Profile Image for Dan.
58 reviews
May 19, 2021
Interesting history of the period (1550 - 1610) in Italy, Goa and China, as seen from the perspective of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci
Profile Image for Tim Robinson.
641 reviews54 followers
December 11, 2019
I suppose that using Ricci's memory trick as an organising principle is a clever idea. But I found it an unnecessary distraction from what is already a riveting story.
December 5, 2021
A very readable book. It discusses the mission of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Ricci, living at the court of the Wanli Emperor from 1601 to his death in 1611, enjoyed profound cross-cultural relations with his courtiers thanks to his sensitivities. Ricci, an Italian by birth, had to learn Mandarin in order to teach the natives about Christianity -- and to persuade them that Christianity was harmonious with Confucianism.
The Jesuits soon found adaptation to this cultural frame of Confucianism the best tactic for interaction with it. Initially assuming the garb of Buddhist monks, they soon laid aside the religious aspects of their presentation, and presented as scholars rather than clerics. This was why religion was not as large a role as might be first surmised in the mission of the deeply religious Matteo Ricci. Thus Ricci builds his memory palace to assist with the language gap. Ricci’s method was to construct a memory palace imagined inside the mind, where an item from the list to be memorized was associated with a location in the memory palace. Ricci told his audience his technique had been used by Mithridates VI of Pontus (d. 63 BC), a King who ruled over subjects of many different languages.

ights. By treating both Christianity and Confucianism as equals (rather than the former inherently greater than the latter), Ricci was able to build a bridge between the two, in the form of the networks he made in discourse with the Chinese secular-minded scholar-officials.

The Jesuit plan of cultural adaptation, as introduced by Ricci, differed from the Franciscans, who appeared off the Chinese coast in 1583 and made a nuisance of themselves in their ostentatious zeal. Learning from their example, Ricci more humbly adapted to the exigencies on the ground, balancing his zeal with secular erudition and diplomatic cultural sensitivity. He would take St. Paul’s words to be all things to all people. Syncretism would become the major thrust of Ricci's plan. Much like Ptolemy Soter (King of Egypt, 301-283 B.C.) syncretized his native subjects' worship of Osiris with his Greek worship of Hades and Dionysus in the cult of Serapis, Ricci translated -- and in some cases deliberately mistranslated -- native Confucian texts to argue for a compatibility of Christianity and Confucianism.

In some respects, Ricci's methods were debated both inside and outside the Jesuit Order, and his immediate successor Langobardi brought about the Chinese Rites Controversy which lasted until the Suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clement XIV in 1773.
47 reviews4 followers
September 20, 2009
Jonathan Spence is known as a master of narrative history, so I expected him to tell a well-constructed, straightforward story, one that unfurls without interruption from beginning to end. Instead, Spence created an ingenious puzzle box of a book, with chapters that interlock in unexpected ways and a chronology that continually swirls back upon itself. The Jesuit Matteo Ricci was an expert practitioner of memorization techniques, and Spence has organized his work as a series of reminiscences evoked by particular images, memories unconstrained by location or time. As such, this book isn’t the most convenient source of factual information on its subject’s life, but by the end readers will have learned a great deal about Counter-Reformation missionary endeavors in Asia.

If the book falls short, it’s in the treatment of Chinese society and culture. Spence is a historian of China, so he may have assumed that readers would also be familiar with this context. Still, given Ricci’s many contacts among the Peking literati, it would have been illuminating to see a more extensive comparison of early modern Chinese scholars with their European counterparts. It would be especially interesting to hear how the Jesuit practice of theological disputation overlapped – or didn’t – with Chinese traditions of religious thought. When Ricci advanced doctrinal arguments, was he actually connecting with his audiences, or were the conceptual frameworks simply too far apart? Given that some of Ricci’s friends did convert to Christianity, what convinced them to do so (and did they understand their conversions in the same terms that the missionaries did)? While Ricci is the central figure of this work, who never sundered his attachments to European culture and values, the significance and success of his mission was ultimately determined by his Chinese interlocutors. Including more of their perspectives would have given additional richness and balance to this already finely crafted book.
Profile Image for Gary Bruff.
121 reviews34 followers
January 8, 2021
This is a biography of the Jesuit missionary who tried in the early 17th century to convert the Ming emperor to Christianity and thereby win over millions of souls. Matteo Ricci had won only limited access to the emperor and his court, so he spent a great deal of time attaining literacy in Chinese. The memory palace in the book's title refers to the method Ricci used to learn characters. Ricci envisioned a palace furnished with items which served as mnemonics for individual characters.

Although the Ming emperor was impressed with the elaborate clock which Ricci presented to him (clocks were still rather rare in 1600), and despite the emperor being amused by icons and by the stories of the Bible which Ricci rendered into Chinese, neither the emperor nor the Chinese masses seemed to be much interested in changing. The emperor considered himself to be the center of the universe, ruling the known world through the mandate of heaven. He was baffled at how the Christian god could allow his son to be tortured to death. To the Ming Emperor this was both shameful and a sign of Jesus' weakness.

Ricci dies in Beijing more or less a failure. Spence, as always, takes the implied tack that if only the conversion had been accomplished, China would not have festered in anti-modern denial. I personally feel that China had every right to turn its back on the West, and that just because China got screwed during the Opium Wars, it does not mean that China should have modernized and westernized (and Christianized) sooner.

Students of the Taiping rebellion would appreciate that although China was not converted, a disaster like the Taiping pseudo-Christian uprising also did not swell up during the Ming era.
23 reviews2 followers
July 19, 2007
This is a master class in popular historical writing. The prose is lyrical, clear, and at moments moves into the realm of literature. The book is in essence a biography of Matteo Ricci, the most famous Jesuit missionary who made inroads into China during the Ming dynasty, but it's a brilliant re-working of the biographical genre. Rather than presenting Ricci's life in straight chronological fashion, Spence organizes the narrative around 8 different images that provide a window into Ricci's world. This is "trans-national" history before the concept even existed; Spence brilliantly juxtaposes the different developments in Europe and China, moving through geographical regions with a deft and swift touch.

Despite it's literary brilliance, the book still has a dated feel to it. At time it reads like hagiography, as Spence barely hides his enthusiasm and admiration for Ricci's life. If only he would have been a little bit more critical of Ricci and the Jesuit enterprise, this would have been a much better book. The Chinese side of the story is also strangely static, given that Spence himself is a Chinese historian. The actors in his narrative are obviously Ricci and the West, and the Chinese seem to be merely reacting to the intrusions by the West, with only a few literati seeming to take the initiative and make contact.

In spite of these flaws, this is a wonderful example of historical writing inteneded for a popular audience.
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