Celebrating 450 years of Xu Guangqi

by on Friday, 22 June 2012 Comments

Interview first published in Xuhui News (Vol.2, N.9, April 2012), by Guan Xin

What does it mean to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Xu Guangqi? What values should it lead us to promote?

Xu Guangqi was a man of extraordinary stature: a statesman thoroughly familiar with the Chinese philosophical and cultural tradition; a man of practical abilities fascinated by technical and scientific progress; an agriculturist who embarked on this field out of philanthropic concerns; a patriot endowed with military skills… but he was also someone who, in the person of Matteo Ricci and other Jesuit missionaries, discovered Otherness. He was able to challenge himself, to enter into a new understanding of existence, while remaining deeply faithful to the best of his culture and his personality. From the start, he realized a synthesis between different traditions and worldviews. So, when we commemorate his life, we are reminded that a healthy sense of identity goes with a strong capacity to understand and empathize with the other, to put oneself into question, and to creatively invent news ways of thinking and acting.

What has been the contribution of Xu Guangqi in the field of religion?

He is traditionally called “one the three great pillars of the Chinese Catholic Church”, together with the scholars Yang Tingyun and Li Zizhao. These scholars embraced the new faith and were actively promoting the participation of the Western missionaries in fields such as the reform of the Imperial calendar. At the same time, they were deeply anchored into the Confucian tradition, which they wanted to reform and purify, and they found in Catholicism the completion of what they thought was the original moral and theistic Confucian original worldview. Though their relationship with Buddhism was an uneasy and complex one, one can also find elements of Buddhist philosophy in their formation. In that sense, their contribution is also interreligious: in their written works they were offering a new expression of the Chinese religious psyche. Suring the last decade, these works have been republished, and they are object of intense interest for scholars. The complete works of Xu Guangqi have just been published in Shanghai.

The friendship and cooperation between Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci was great and profound. We are now facing a “smaller” planet due to globalization and intense cross culture communication. Doe their ideal and the model they offer keep some significance for us today?

When Xu Guangqi and Ricci were alive, communication among civilizations was minimal. Now, we have sometimes “too much’ of it, in the sense that clichés, superficial communication and conflicts of interests are often perverting our exchanges. Still, Ricci and Xu Guangqi remind us that in-depth communication is always to be grounded into patience, friendship and humility. Patience: it takes time to truly enter into a language and a new system of thought and perception, as there are no shortcuts for being truly “conversant’ with the other; Friendship; empathy and curiosity are the virtues that makes communication among human beings valuable and creative; humility: being able to critically evaluate one’s culture and personality is indispensable for a grateful appreciation of what the cultures and people we encounter may offer to us. In this respect, one can almost say that Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci are still the two pillars on which to build a positive model of globalization!

Photo by Roberto Ribeiro. Xu Guangqi Park, Shanghai.
Bronze statue of Matteo Ricci and Paul Xu Guangxi.
Together, Ricci and Paul Xu Guangxi translated and published some essential works of western science.


Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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