Is Soft Power - Friendship - the Open Door to China Today?

Nov/Dec 2010, Volume III, No. 1

2010 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, who died in Beijing in 1610. His approach of immersing himself in Chinese language and culture and building friendship opened China's door to Europe at the time. His anniversary may well carry an important legacy to be remembered, not only by Christians, but also by the superpowers of our day.

2010 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci who died in Beijing in 1610.

Who today remembers Matteo Ricci, and how might his memory be helpful for the world in general and for Christians in particular?

Ricci is probably remembered best by the small Christian communities founded by him in China, some of which have endured, in spite of much persecution, to this day. He is also remembered by many in the West. (If you doubt this, try “googling” Matteo Ricci; you will find almost a million listings.)

In China he is remembered formally through his publicly restored grave in Beijing. And a very special grave it is: at Ricci’s death, the Emperor of China gave him the unprecedented honour of being buried in imperial ground. Ricci is also remembered by the millions who visit China’s official exhibitions which are now included among the great museums of the world - and in which Ricci and his fellow Jesuits are given a significant space.

Why is Ricci remembered? In brief, because he is credited with opening the door to China for both Christianity and Europe by becoming Europe’s first unofficial ambassador to China. By the same token, Ricci was one of the first Europeans to interpret China to Europe. His commitment to China began in the late 16th and early 17th century, when ocean travel was beginning to allow the whole world to be visited and mapped. Indeed, Ricci, as a scientist, astronomer and cartologist, provided China with its first map of the world and its first modern calendar, among a host of other things including some ingenious clocks.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Matteo Ricci is his modus operandi - his style, his approach to a chosen work - because without it he could never have succeeded in being welcomed into China by the Ming dynasty at the beginning of the 17th century.

Ricci endured several years of frustrating setbacks to his goal of visiting with Emperor Wan-li and sharing with him his treasure trove of scientific and cultural gifts from Europe. But he did not waste those years. Ricci immersed himself in Chinese language and culture and became a recognized and admired Confucian scholar, openly respected among Chinese intellectuals and lesser political leaders.

His first book published in Chinese was a treatise “On Friendship.” It drew on western maxims arranged in such a way as to resonate with Confucian social thought that listed ‘friendship’ among its cardinal relationships. The book was an immediate success and its appearance hastened the date of his long-sought invitation to meet with the Emperor and be granted permanent residence in Beijing, which finally happened in 1601.

Ricci’s approach to his mission was to search out similarities between Confucian and Christian thought and teachings. He was confident that many ethical principles are available to all through natural revelation, and that these thoughts and teachings are in harmony with those we receive by divine revelation. For example, he identified the Confucian ‘Lord of the heavens’ with the Christian God. He saw the deep devotion that the Chinese had for their ancestors as reverent and filial, rather than idolatrous.

Many of Ricci’s accommodations with Confucian wisdom were later rejected by Rome. But he had succeeded in opening the door of China to Europe and vice versa - even if narrower ‘dogma’ and ‘hard power’ would later close it again and again.

Fittingly, in our own day, after long years when China expelled Jesuits or held them in prisons indefinitely, the Chinese government has now welcomed them back. Among other initiatives, Jesuits have opened a very visible Center for International Business Ethics in Beijing as well as another centre that hosts foreign students from around the world. Casa Ricci Social Services is a network serving people with leprosy or HIV and AIDS. Through these projects, the Jesuits’ quiet and peaceful way of proceeding remains true to Ricci’s legacy.

On the global scene, in 2010, nations are becoming more conscious of the interconnectedness of all things and especially of their own inevitable interdependence. Hence the consequent paradox of power, and more particularly, of The Paradox of American Power - to use the title of Joseph Nye’ book - that shows Why the World’s Superpower Can’t go it Alone. Nye reviews the recent defeats and impasses experienced by the USA in foreign affairs, for example, in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan.

His analysis resounds with the call to non-violence that can be heard today from so many quarters—including the early warning given by Prime Minster Lester B. Pearson in 1955, when he wrote that humans are moving into “an age when different civilizations will have to learn to live in peaceful interchange, learning from each other studying in each other’s history and ideals and art and culture, mutually enriching each others’ lives. The alternative, in this overcrowded little world is misunderstanding, tensions, clash and catastrophe.” (Democracy in World Politics,1955)

Jeffrey Sachs in his Common Wealth – Economics for a Crowded Planet puts it this way: “The defining challenge for the twenty-first century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet. That common fate will require new forms of cooperation, a fundamental point of blinding simplicity that many world leaders have yet to understand or embrace.” (p3)

And Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order comes to the same insight from a different angle, reminding us that culture is today more important than economics, because people are increasingly defining themselves on the basis of ancestry, language, religion and customs.

For him, critical distinctions between people are not primarily ideological or economic nor even national; they are cultural. As he says, “The security of the world requires the acceptance of global multiculturality.” (p318)

It is obvious to all these thinkers that the peaceful division of limited resources which is required for the global common good cannot be based on hard power alone, as was so often attempted in the past.

Soft power of friendship?

As China rapidly emerges economically and politically as a second superpower, the whole world is coming to realize that a positive and trusting relationship on China’s part with the USA (still a superpower, even if in decline) will be crucial for any viable solutions to our present day global problems. Realizing this, Nye would have us look to alternatives of ‘soft power’, and to be resourceful in exploring new models of cooperation.

Without denying absolutely the need of hard power in some difficult cases, Nye and others argue that the soft power of friendship should be tried by the USA and its Western allies in their general approach to China today. This may well prove a more creative approach than nations simply vying with one another for China’s favour.

This is hardly a new insight. Pope Benedict, in his recent social encyclical Caritas in Vertitate, suggests that all human relationships, including those in business enterprises and politics, must include the dimension of friendship if they are to be fully human.

Thus the 400th anniversary of the death of Matteo Ricci in China may well carry an important legacy to be remembered not only by Christians but also by the superpowers of our day. At first sight, many may consider such an approach as Utopian. Nevertheless, the soft power of friendship can have and has had a break-through role in building that degree of trust that is indispensable for arriving at agreements and decisions in troubled, uncharted and confused times and circumstances such as our own.

On a much smaller level, but true to Ricci’s example, our Jesuit Forum considers that one of its most important missions is to help to build up trust and friendship among leaders whose duty it is to make difficult decisions in the multiple dimensions of professional and public life today.

The enormous challenges that are encountered in politics, health, education, social welfare and security can tempt the stoutest individual heart to take refuge in learned helplessness or sophisticated resignation. The solidarity that is experienced when colleagues become friends may be, along with the God Who is love, the first and best antidote to the sickness that threatens all leadership: namely, the loss of hope.

Bill Ryan sj