Matteo Ricci: An excursion

by on Wednesday, 26 May 2010 7755 hits Comments
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At one point, a few years ago, I was standing in the front yard of my mother’s house in Texas. She and I were talking, doing our usual different-schedules-same-house-4:00 PM update as she was coming home from and I was going to work. In my family, no one can stay on topic in any conversation and what started as a mundane discussion of odd jobs, bills, and babysitting jobs quickly morphed into me intellectually puttering around, trying to describe to my mother the mental process I use to accomplish goals or resolve conflicts into which I have backed myself.

I adopted the process from the only person in the world I can honestly say I viscerally hate – my ex-mother in law. (I would not slow down a car if I were driving and she was walking across the road in front of me. Such was our relationship.) She said that when she was about 24, she had a vision of herself at age 50. She was wearing a suit, in a boardroom, and she was leading the meeting. Now, when she had this vision in 1966, she didn’t understand its meaning nor how she would bring it to life. What she did understand was that the vision was not so much a goal, but a trajectory. If she acted and worked in accordance with this vision, she would, in some way, end up in a suit, in a boardroom, leading a meeting. By 2004, when I divorced and left Florida, she was a well respected real estate broker worth several million dollars with a real estate portfolio that included Atlantic beach front property and an 80 slip marina. I may have hated the woman, but her techniques worked. So, I adapted them and was telling my mother about them. She smiled then laughed and said “Well that just sounds like prayer.”

I squinted at her, trying to put these things together. I am not a man who prays. My parents however prayed a lot. My father, in the last ten years of his life, daily prayed the Rosary (He loved the meditative value of the Rosary.) My mother was a Franciscan Nun for ten years, until deciding she was actually more suited for the lay life. I however do not pray - not in any structured way that would be recognizable to someone orthodox. So, my ex-nun mother identifying my visualization process as a form of prayer quite amazed me. I was surprised in the interesting ways in which my Catholic background and upbringing always returns.

[inset side="right" title="Ars Morativa"] If you could represent Chinese as a serious of images in a building, a block of buildings and a city of those blocks of buildings of images, then why couldn’t you build a 3D model of it and wonder around in it with Google Maps?[/inset]

After work that evening, I came home and started researching the various schools of thought on visualization techniques, their uses and their overall importance in people’s daily lives. The technique which most fascinated me was the Ars Memorativa a combination of images, architecture and memory. But more on that in a bit….

What do we remember on this 400th anniversary of Matteo Ricci? I am not a Ricci Scholar, by any means. I am familiar with Ricci through having read three sources – Jonathan Spence’s work The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Jean Lacouture’s multibiography on the Jesuits, and Francis Yates’ work on the Ars Memorativa. Ricci’s historical importance is due to three factors. He was the first westerner to truly master Chinese. His Histories was the primary source on information about China for three centuries. His introduction of Western science and technology (including his famous memory palaces) to Ming dynasty China showed the dynasty that perhaps the West had something of value. For centuries, Ricci was the door, the threshold one had to cross to move from West to East.

matteoricci_portraitBut aside from his historical importance what relevance does Ricci have for us today? Among a thousand things, in Ricci, we find a clue to the mastery of such an unfamiliar world as the Chinese language. What made Ricci’s accomplishment so astounding was that he was accepted as a scholar on Chinese terms, not merely as a curiosity (which he clearly was), but as a man who had mastered the Classical Chinese Canon As proof of this, he had written and published works of his own in Chinese. What aided Ricci was his use of the classical mnemonic device of the Ars Memorativa. Francis Yates and Jonathan Spence have written much about this Classical and Renaissance memory aide and I am merely parasitical on their scholarship. The Ars is a fascinating tool used to remember long passages of text or tremendous lists. At its simplest, one creates a mental room and fills that room with images adapted from the target text. At its most complex, one fills a whole city with room and building of mental images. Instead of building a memory palace and filling it with passages of Euclid or Martial, Ricci filled his memory palace with mental images of Chinese characters. Each image was a composite of radicals translated into some striking mental image. In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Jonathan Spence gives us two characters : 武,要 as examples. For 武 , Ricci created the image of two soldiers locked in combat, the one trying to strike a finishing plunge with a lance, the other gripping the shaft, blocking the strike and creating a stand-off. For 要,Ricci conjured up a woman from the Western Frontiers of the Ming Dynasty – today’s Xinjiang and Gansu provinces. (This woman may be a Muslim, which points towards a Chinese perception of the sameness of the Abrahamic Religions, when compared to the Triple Braid of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. ) After forming such images as the Soldiers and the Woman from the West, Ricci would then transform a Chinese sentence into a serious of detailed images. The sentence/image would be grouped together until whole Classical Texts had been transformed into mental cities.

Now, I do not advocate that all of us Chinese Language Learners create full memory palaces, a process I doubt any of us could do anymore. (The truly classically educated individual who could pull this off in 2010 is as rare as a WWI veteran.) What interests me in Ricci’s method is the link between the aural and the visual in language processing and second language acquisition, especially in terms of cognitive maps of the language. I know I’ve learned a word when I hear it fly out of the mouth of a native Chinese speaker humming along at full speed in the middle of a conversation and I can see the word in my mind’s eye, as clear and distinct as the Taipei 101 on a rare sunny Taipei day. I know I’ve mastered a piece of grammar when I can see that piece of grammar flow logically into the other parts of related grammar .“Oh that’s what the double 了 (or 到) (or 得) is for!”

What I advocate, instead of memory palaces, is to update Ricci’s method for the computer age. If you could represent Chinese as a serious of images in a building, a block of buildings and a city of those blocks of buildings of images, then why couldn’t you build a 3D model of it and wonder around in it with Google Maps? What would these Language Cities look like? Would English be a sprawling metropolis? Or something utterly different?

And prayer? If my mom is right and prayer is a visualization process, a dialogue with the divine, what happens when my reading comes full circle and one builds a memory palace of one’s lifetime of prayers? What would a city, filled with buildings of prayers and hopes, look like?

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:35
Jack McNally

I like CogSci, many armed underwater invertebrates, New Orleans, and learning impossible languages

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