THE MEMORY PALACE OF MATTEO RICCI by Jonathan Spence
Kirkus Star

THE MEMORY PALACE OF MATTEO RICCI

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

For his latest depature from conventional literary forms, Yale historian-of-China Spence (The Death of Woman Wang, The Gate of Heavenly Peace) follows the example of his subject, 16th-century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci--who not only introduced Christianity into China, but ""taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace"": a mental construct of myriad images, used from ancient times through the Middle Ages, Spence tells us, as a mnemonic device. To the illustrious Chinese who flocked to him for instruction, it was akin to alchemy or other arcane knowledge: ""We must remember if at one level Ricci's career makes sense only in the context of an aggressive Counter-Reformation Catholicism, as part of an 'expansion in Europe' in the late sixteenth century. . . it also makes sense only in a far older context. . . reaching back through the Middle Ages to a world where the priests of the Christian religion shared the tasks of consoling mankind with the 'cunning men' who dealt in magic, alchemy, cosmography, and astrology."" Thus, the scope, the diversity and fludity of Spence's remarkable text: from the four memory images that Ricci devised for his Chinese pupils (in Chinese ideograph form), and the four religious pictures he left them, Spence ranges through Ricci's childhood and youth and travels, the vagaries of his life in China (from which, by Chinese edict, no Westerner could depart), the conditions of his time--and beyond, within. The picture of ""the Apostle of the Waves,"" Peter floundering in the Sea of Galilee, invokes the hazards of 16th-century seafaring, the contemporary views of pilots (in travel writings, in Cervantes' Don Quixote and Shakespeare's Macbeth), Ricci's initial voyage from Lisbon to Goa (""the ship was a microcosm of the life ahead, with its mixture of dangers, hitherto unexperienced social relations, physical discomforts, and opportunities for austere or public devotion""), the teeming life of China's waterways, the near-loss of Ricci's precious Plantin Bible in a flood, the drowning of his cherished young novice and friend. ""The Road to Emmaeus"" brings discourse on Christian and Chinese concepts, the methodology of conversion, and the pressures on Ricci; it ends in his delirium and death. The final image and picture are a pair: a Chinese servant girl holding a child in her arms, and a Virgin and Child. Spence takes his leave of Ricci in their presence. Exceptional.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0140080988
Publisher: Viking