Matteo Ricci

The First Western Chinese Language Learner?

An excerpt from the introduction to Survival Chinese Lessons.

In 1582 an Italian Jesuit named Matteo Ricci arrived in Macau to begin learning the Chinese language. He would eventually master the language and come to be recognized as a true Chinese scholar by the intellectual elite of the day. He not only spoke the language fluently, he translated the Confucian classics into Latin, and even wrote books in Chinese himself.

After establishing communities in Macau, Guangzhou, Nanchang, and Nanjing, he was granted permission to live in Beijing in 1601, becoming the first westerner to reside there. He died at his home in Beijing in 1610.

In March 2010, to mark the 400th anniversary of his death, the municipal government of his hometown in Italy sponsored a special exhibition on his life and work at the Beijing Capital Museum, titled “Matteo Ricci: An Encounter of Civilizations in Ming China.” The exhibit included many 16th century artifacts, including original Chinese language books written by Ricci.

One section of the exhibit focused on his years of language study in Macau, and was titled “In the Whirlpool of the Chinese Language.” It’s an apt description of what it’s like for foreigners to learn Chinese.

Many people go to China with the hope and/or intention of learning the language, but soon give up. The tones, the unfamiliar sounds, the complexity of the characters quickly form themselves into a whirling mass that overwhelms the motivation and desire to learn. The task seems too big.

Learning Chinese is a big task, but learning how to use the language to accomplish simple, everyday tasks is not. You may never, like Matteo Ricci, translate Chinese classics or write books in Chinese yourself. But even Ricci had to start with the basics, learning the sounds, the tones, and the simple vocabulary to accomplish the stuff of everyday life.

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Jean-Baptiste Du Halde [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons