Confucius meets Euclid

by on Monday, 09 October 2006 8402 hits Comments
Rate this item
(0 votes)
Some say, that without a Xu Guangqi, there would be no Matteo Ricci. What follows is the script and video of part 2 of a DVD produced conjointly by Kuangchi Program Studios and Jiangsu TV. The present excerpt deals with an important episode in the spiritual history of China: the encounter between the Confucean Minister Xu Guangqi and the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci...To purchase the full version of the DVD  《Paul Xu Guangqi, China's man for all seasons》 contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit the Kuangchi Program Service of Taipei. Also available are educational documentaries on Matteo Ricci, Fr. Adam Schall vo Bell and Fr. Francis Xavier.

It is a clear morning in Macerata—a small hillside town in Eastern Italy.

In Europe, one sees many villages like this, ancient and peaceful.

Being in Macerata seems like living in another age.

An exhibition is taking place in one of the oldest buildings of the village. The topic is The History of Discovery and Science in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

On this world map, dated 1508, the outlines of the eastern world are still quite vague. 500 years ago, the maker of this map referred to the far-off and mysterious land of China as “Cathay.”

Marco Polo’s discoveries had caused a sensation in Europe. But in order to clarify this still very fuzzy picture of the world, more Marco Polos would be required.

This burial tablet, located on the left side of the exhibition room, commemorates just such a person.

In November 1610, the Chinese Emperor Wanli decreed that the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci would be granted the extraordinary privilege of a true Chinese burial.

Tian Sen Doctoral Student, History of Natural Science, Chinese Academy of Science

Some people asked the scholar Ye Xianggao why Matteo Ricci was being given a Chinese burial. For foreigners, this had never been allowed. Ye Xianggao replied that Ricci’s translation of Euclid’s Elements alone warranted this honor.

At that time, this classic work on mathematics was regarded with the highest esteem. It remains a witness to a remarkable period in the history of East-West cultural exchange.

The heroes of this story are Matteo Ricci and his Chinese student, Xu Guangqi.

In 1601, the year after Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi met for the first time in Nanjing, Ricci received news that created great excitement throughout the entire Jesuit community. The Chinese Emperor had summoned Matteo Ricci to the Forbidden City for an audience.

Zhu Weijing Professor of History, Fudan University

It was through his alarm clock, through his map, through his western paintings—these things had already won the admiration of the Wanli Emperor. When he arrived, Ricci had not foreseen that he would one day use these articles to open the Palace gates. But he was also somewhat constrained by them. When Ricci was in Beijing, although he had unlocked the door to the Imperial Court, he was given a major assignment. He became an Imperial Clockmaker!

We have no way of knowing Ricci’s feelings in accepting this appointment. But fortunately, this monotonous and tedious existence only lasted for three years.

One morning in 1604, a familiar figure pushed open the door of the Nantang Church in Beijing. The arrival of this person marked a happy day for Matteo Ricci . . . and an even happier day for the entire country.

Xu Guangqi, now 43 years old, had finally passed the jinshi Imperial Examination. Although his score was not outstanding, his senior classmate, jinshi Huang Tiren, transferred to Xu his membership in the prestigious Hanlin Academy. This position required that Xu Guangqi remain in Beijing.

Now after a three-year separation, Xu Guangqi finally had frequent opportunities to study with Matteo Ricci.

By this time, Xu Guangqi was already a devout Catholic. He assisted Ricci in publishing several books on religious doctrine.

But these books alone were not enough to satisfy Xu Guangqi. He had an urgent desire to know exactly where China was situated among the earth’s territories. He also wanted to know whether China was ahead of or lagging behind Ricci’s Europe.

Xu Guangqi discussed with Ricci his questions and quandaries. Ricci said to him, “When I came from Europe, I passed by a hundred countries on the way. Compared to all of them, China’s Confucian Rites and Music System is the most brilliant in the entire world.”

Then why is China at the mercy of natural disasters, Xu asked. Why do famines still occur?

Ricci suggested that the main reason was that scientific skills were still not sufficiently developed in China.”

Ricci’s answer opened the eyes of this high ranking official to the Empire’s weakest area.

Xu Guangqi suggested that they publish some books on European science. Matteo Ricci accepted this suggestion. It did not take long for them to decide which book to translate. Ricci made it clear to Xu Guangqi that unless they first translated Euclid’s Elements, translations of other works would be meaningless.

Why was Matteo Ricci so convinced of the importance of the Elements?

St. Ignatius Church in Italy is named after the founder of the Jesuit Order, Ignatius Loyola. For several centuries, the sound of the bell emanating from this church has influenced Jesuit missionaries all around the world. The Roman College, where Matteo Ricci studied, is located behind this church.

On the roof of the church, the stone foundation of an astronomical telescope can still be found today. This moment reminds us of the eminent and sacred position this church college holds in the history of natural science.

400 years ago a new subject just introduced into the college curriculum attracted great interest among the young seminarians. The textbook for this course had been arranged and compiled from Euclid’s Elements by the famous European mathematician, Fr. Christopher Clavius. This work ignited the enthusiasm of many students for science. Among them were Galileo and Kepler, later to become known throughout the world.

Christopher Clavius taught Matteo Ricci mathematics based on this textbook.

In 1577, when the 26-year-old Matteo Ricci left Rome for the East, the textbook was packed in his trunk. But compared to his world map, reproduced so many times from its stone tablet, the Elements did not spark that much interest among the Chinese.

In 1592, a scholar named Qu Taisu had collaborated with Ricci in the translation of the first volume of Euclid’s Elements. Why didn’t their collaboration continue? Some say that it is because at that time Ricci was dealing with certain obstacles to his mission, and had little interest in continuing the translation of this work.

Qu Taisu was only doing the translation to benefit his own studies and to demonstrate his talent and learning. After completing the first volume he made a grand exit.

Later while Ricci was still in Nanjing, a man named Zhang Yangmo tried repeatedly to translate the Elements, but did not receive support from Ricci. Why did Ricci refuse to continue translating the Elements with Zhang? The answer is still uncertain. Ricci, in his diary, confirms Zhang’s intelligence and eagerness to learn and states that he was studying Euclid’s first volume on his own without a teacher. But he also writes that Chang Yangmo refused to discuss with him how to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Ricci was waiting for someone who was both sincerely devoted to Jesus Christ and also naturally gifted.

Going back to the winter of 1606, Xu Guangqi was beginning to increase the frequency of his trips between the Hanlin Academy and Nantang. Several hundred lis from there, war broke out in Liaodong. For a time this development did not affect Xu Guangqi too much. He appeared promptly each afternoon at Nantang. Here, a teacher of wide learning and great talent and a school of broad and profound scholarship awaited him.

For this diligent and studious Eastern pupil, the early stages of the translation went rather smoothly. This is because Xu and Ricci adhered to the original order of the Elements. First they translated definitions, axioms, and formulas, and rarely dealt with logical deduction and proving theorems. Furthermore, they were able to refer to Qu Taisu’s and Zhang Yangmo’s earlier translations of the first volume. But after that, translation became more and more difficult.

Dr. Filippo Mignini – Professor, University of Macerata

Ricci himself said that Xu Guangqi moreless compelled him to translate this book. In the book’s preface, Ricci states that they worked four hours a day for a year and a half without interruption researching Euclid’s Geometry.

Ricci translated the original text into Chinese and simultaneously explained its subject matter to Xu Guangqi who wrote it out in Chinese. Xu Guangqi expended great effort in understanding Euclid’s Geometry, which was actually the logic of the West.

At that time in China, no one understood western logic, making Xu’s task extremely difficult.

Altogether, they translated the work three times. Ricci said that only two Chinese were able to master geometry. One was Xu Guangqi; the other was Li Zhizao. All the rest, although they tried hard, just could not grasp it.

This was a way of thinking very difficult for Chinese of that age to comprehend. Matteo Ricci’s verbal explanations and Xu Guangqi’s written accounts built a bridge of East-West cultural exchange that crossed the language barrier.

But to change from thinking in terms of images to logical thought required a thoroughgoing revolution of the reasoning process.

This revolution was taking place quietly and attracting more and more participants. Besides Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci, Chinese scholars such as Yang Tingyun, Li Zhizao, Ye Xianggao, and Jesuit missionary priests Diego de Pantoja and Sabatino de Ursis were among them.

By spring of 1607, Xu Guangqi and Matteo Ricci finally completed their translation of the first six volumes of the Elements. The final text was already their third version.

In Miscellaneous Discussions on the Elements, Xu Guangqi reveals his overflowing excitement after successfully completing the translation:

He who understands this book can comprehend all books.
He who masters this book can master all learning.
Only through geometry can one fully understand the rest.
Remaining closed to it closes oneself to everything else.

Dr. Filippo Mignini – Professor, University of Macerata

Whenever, I think of the two of them meeting and engaging in research and discussion of Euclid’s Geometry, I am deeply moved. Their problem was not just to achieve a superficial understanding of each other. Their problem was to translate two different systems of logic. That meant going beyond the translation of words, sentences, and equations, and translating the logic they were based on. This was a truly magnificent achievement—one of their most outstanding accomplishments. It was one of the greatest gifts that Matteo Ricci gave to China and also one of the greatest gifts Xu Guangqi gave to Europe. In completing this monumental task, each one’s contribution was equally great. Without either one of them, it could not have been done.

Mao Shuzhi Professor of History in Late Ming, Fudan University

Xu Guangqi, in his preface, states that this book could bring about a method of scientific thinking beyond geometry. He also says that he believes that after a hundred years, the book would be widely used. And that is exactly what happened. Xu opened the eyes of the Chinese to a new world of mathematics.

Ricci was delighted with the successful translation. He was full of praise for Xu Guangqi. But as for Xu Guangqi’s suggestion that they continue translating the remainder, Matteo Ricci then approaching his sixtieth year tactfully declined. It is an historical fact that when Ricci left the Roman College he had only studied the first six volumes. The mathematical horizon of the Chinese people was thereby limited to those six volumes for many years to come.

About this same time, Matteo Ricci’s former classmate Galileo was receiving acclaim for producing the world’s first astronomical telescope.

This had directed the attention of all Europe toward the depths of a much wider universe.

In spring of 1607, knowing that they would not continue translating the remainder of the Elements, Xu Guangqi printed the first six volumes. Shortly after the publication, Xu’s father died. Xu left Beijing and returned to his ancestral home in Shanghai. Xu always regretted being unable to translate the remainder of the Elements. He realized that this was a loss, not only for himself, but for the entire country.

In spring of 1608, when Xu was in Shanghai, he received the final edition of the Elements, approved and authorized by Matteo Ricci. Ricci hoped that he could print another edition of the Elements in the South.

Xu Guangqi also used this time at home to finalize another work that he and Ricci had translated together—Principles of Measurement.

Although one of them was in Beijing and the other in Shanghai, their cooperative translation projects were never interrupted. It seemed as if all this was only the beginning of their collaboration.

But 1610, in the 38th year of the Wanli Emperor’s reign, during the third and last year of the mourning period for his father required by the Imperial Rites, Xu Guangqi received word that Matteo Ricci had died in Beijing.

The dramatic opening movement of their joint symphony had come to an abrupt end and had become instead its final movement.

Matteo Ricci, at age 57, had lived for years in the dry, cold climate of the Imperial Capital. From the day he left his home country at the age of 26, he would never again enjoy the bright Mediterranean sun and its cool breezes. This Jesuit missionary spent the latter half of his life sharing his knowledge of modern western science, technology and thought with Chinese, enabling them to explore new horizons. At the same time, he was the first one to present Chinese moral and religious thought to Europe, laying the foundation for future Chinese studies.

Fr. Thomas Reddy, SJ - Director of Archives – Jesuit Curia, Rome

This is the bone of Matteo Ricci. It was sent to us after the excavation in Beijing where he is buried, as a sense of ‘relic.’ We call it a relic. For the Catholics, it is a symbol of holiness. Matteo Ricci has this thing of holiness for what he did for China and for the Society of Jesus. That is why we have his bones here with us here in the archives.

Matteo Ricci died on May 11th. In December of the same year, Xu Guangqi completed the required three-year mourning period for his father and returned to Beijing. He arrived too late to bid farewell to his old friend.

During summer of the following year, Beijing experienced many days of heavy rain. In his home, Xu once again returned to the Elements. Together with Jesuit missionaries Diego de Pantoja and Sabatino de Ursis they reviewed the translation, made various corrections and additions, and published it again.

At this time, Xu Guangqi knew that, due to Ricci’s death, he would probably never be able to complete the translation of the remaining nine volumes of the Elements. His feelings were far from the elation he experienced at the first publication of the Elements. He wrote a new preface to this edition recalling the entire process of translation and ended it with a lyrical lamentation:

The completion of this great work—
Who knows when it will be done?
Who knows who will do it?
The book lies waiting.

Opening the Qing Dynasty edition of the Elements, in the library where it is now preserved, on the first page of the seventh volume, one finds the signature of the translators—Andrew Wylie from England and Li Shanlan from Haining.

In Chinese history, this took place during the reign of the fourth to last Emperor—Xian Feng.

At that time, since Ricci’s and Xu Guangqi’s translation and publication of the first six volumes of Euclid’s Elements, exactly 250 years had gone by.








Last modified on Wednesday, 26 March 2014 13:00
Jerry Martinson (丁松筠)

Jerry Martinson is "Uncle Jerry" for Taiwan and China's TV watchers who remember him as their belobved virtual English teacher... \nVice President of Kuangchi Program Service, member of the editorial committee of Renlai monthly, he also helps grassroot faith-based communities to learn new communication skills all around East Asia.

Help us!

Help us keep the content of eRenlai free: take five minutes to make a donation


Join our FB Group

Browse by Date

« January 2018 »
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31        

We have 5784 guests and no members online