Ricci was a member or the Society of Jesus? also called the Jesuits? founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola specifically to convert the heathen overseas. They conceived their mission as conquering the world for Christ. They placed great stress on education? and it was not by accident that Ricci was a deeply learned man with knowledge of a wide variety of subjects.
Matteo Ricci was not the first Catholic missionary to enter China? that honor probably going to John of Montecorvino? a Franciscan? who went to the east in the first years of fourteenth century. He reports making many converts and staying at the court of the great Khan. But by the end of the fourteenth century? the Black Death devestated Europe and interest dissolved? while the eventual end of the Mongol empire and rise of the native Ming Dynasty rendered Central Asia impassible and China? having just expelled a foreign dynasty? inhospitable to further outside influences. Although John wrote in letters to Rome that he converted over six thousand? and built a church to minister to them? no trace remained by the time Matteo Ricci came to China at the turn of the 17th Century.
When Ricci and his companions first entered China to preach in 1583 after rigorous study of the language while residing in Macao the year prior? they elected to dress in the same robes as a Buddhist priest? so that the people would understand they are people of religion. However? they soon realized that Buddhist priests had little social status in China? and in fact were considered to be lecherous drunks of ill repute. By 1594 Ricci decided to discard his grey robes and replace them with a scholar's robe. The transition was an immediate success with the literary class? who accepted him as an equal and thought highly of his knowledge? his friendliness? and his books? which he wrote in Chinese.
All the while Ricci moved closer and closer to Peking? and to the Emperor whom he hoped to influence? and if possible? convert. In 1601 he at last entered the capitol? where he stayed until his death in 1610. He became well established in the highest circles? and given the utmost respect. But in regards to the Emperor himself he met disappointment? as the Ming dynasty was in drastic decline under the lack of rulership of Emperor Wanli? who stopped holding court audiences or reading state papers? while court eunuchs? who controlled access to the Emperor? consolidated their control. Still? even without seeing the Emperor? Ricci was able to ingratiate himself to the court and convert several eunuchs? officials? and scholars.
Ricci hoped his work would establish the permanent presence and acceptance of Catholicism in China? in this? he failed. A brilliant and respectable man himself? he made three decisions that were perhaps too smart for his own good? and these choice proved the eventual undoing of the Jesuits work. Ricci was not alone in his convictions? ...