China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2003/Oct

The Way of Friendship

In his series on Dialogues on Jesus in China, Father Criveller concludes with a discussion on Matteo Ricci’s concept of friendship as a missionary approach.

Many famous people throughout the ages have expressed their thoughts and feelings on friendship. The Chinese sages spoke extensively about friendship and gave it a special value. Confucius (Book XVI – IV) says, “A person stands to benefit who makes friends with three kinds of people… the upright, the trustworthy in word and the well-informed.” His follower, Mencius, also had something to say about friendship, “A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.”

Comments on friendship are not confined to Chinese scholars and philosophers. Rome’s famous orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is quoted as saying, “Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.”

Closer to our time the American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote one of the world’s most famous essays entitled, “Friendship”. One of its oft-quoted lines reads, “I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.” He describes his concept of friendship as, “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him with his friendship.” Life would be empty indeed without friends. An unknown author has expressed it this way, “Life without friendship is like the sky without sun.”

It is left to the Bible to perhaps convey the meaning of friendship at its deepest level. Three examples will suffice. In 1 Samuel, 20:17, we have the touching example of the friendship between David and Jonathan. Jonathan is even willing to reveal to David the evil intent of Saul, his father, toward him. The Scriptures describe the scene: “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.”

The Book of Ruth reveals the unusual friendship between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law. Following the death of her husband and her two sons, Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law to go back to their people and their gods. One leaves but Ruth says, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:15-16). Ruth was willing to give up everything that was familiar to her for the sake of Naomi.

It is in John’s Gospel that we have Jesus’ concept of friendship, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father” (Jn. 15:15).

Every friendship requires self-giving, mutual respect, and willingness to share with one another in openness and in truth. No doubt, given his understanding of friendship as a necessary element of dialogue and the necessity of dialogue to develop friendship, Ricci saw an ideal approach for mission in China.

Friendship as a mission approach

If we attempt to summarise in one word the approach of Ricci, Aleni and other Jesuits to China, that one word would have to be “friendship.” These men appreciated and cherished the humanistic value of friendship. Ricci had a wide circle of friends, both European and Chinese, and he always kept in contact with them, as is seen by his huge correspondence. According to Edward Malatesta, Ricci was a martyr for friendship, since his early death can be attributed to overwork in receiving friends and guests.

Ricci’s first publication

It is noteworthy that the first book Ricci published in Chinese was the treatise On Friendship, a discussion on friendship based on a translation of one hundred famous Western maxims. Ricci and his Chinese friends saw in friendship a first and precious common meeting point between the two worlds: their shared humanistic approach to life. In fact, Ricci wrote the essay in response to a friend’s request. Here I quote from Ricci’s preface to the treatise:

“I came to China from the Far West by sea, out of respect for the good government of the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty and for the teaching of the ancient Chinese rulers… This gave me the opportunity to have an audience with the Prince of Chienan. He did not treat me with scorn but allowed me to pay my respects. When the formalities were over, the Prince offered wine and asked his guests to drink as much as they could. He then moved from his seat and held my hands saying: ‘All gentlemen of virtue and character, when arriving in my land, are requested to become my friends and to accept my respect. The Occident is a country of righteousness and brotherhood. May I have the opportunity of hearing a discussion of yours on friendship?’ On my return, I wrote down what I had heard before (on this topic) and compiled the following treatise, The Way of Friendship.”

Coming in friendship

This book is significant and can be considered a sort of manifesto of Ricci’s programme: the programme of entering China not with violence, as many (including some Jesuits in Macau) wanted to do in the course of history, but through the door of friendship. The treatise, which was very successful among the literati, procured Ricci great fame and allowed him to open that door.

Ricci, Aleni and the other Jesuits appreciated the value of friendship and the important role that it played in Chinese life since friendship is one of the five defined relationships in Confucian social thought.

In late Ming dynasty China, friendship was reappraised as a great social virtue. A 16th century Chinese thinker, He Xinyin (1517-1579), in the waning decades of the Ming dynasty, advocated friendship as a means to foster a sense of unity, which allowed people to recognise their broader responsibilities to all humankind.

The classical Chinese viewed friendship as a voluntary relationship formed because the participants chose each other and not because they were thrust together by common status or occupation. Friendship enabled the individual to supplement relationships formed within the family and the official class.

Genuine approach
According to some critics, the friendly attitude of Ricci, Aleni and other missionaries was not authentic, but only a tool of their religious enterprise. I do not think there is enough evidence to support such criticism. Throughout his life, Ricci showed a basic intellectual honesty and was really fascinated by Chinese life. His best Chinese friends were among the most learned and intelligent men of the time. I think it unjust to maintain that Ricci’s friends and converts were simply deceived by a foreigner. I see no contradiction if the friendship led some of them to embrace the Christian faith. It is perhaps useful to remember here that becoming not only Christian, but even having a close relationship with a foreigner brought no human advantage. It could, on the contrary, constitute a reason for criticism and suspicion.

Meeting of humanistic minds

The Jesuits, educated in a humanist atmosphere, found in China an intellectual and cultural world very similar to that of Europe. The major common elements of this unique historical encounter were: the superiority of men of culture; the love for philosophy and science; the preference for moral and practical discussions over dogma; social relationships based on common intellectual interests and friendship; the prominent role of cultural centres such as cities, schools, academies and associations. Two among the most celebrated cultural wellsprings of all time, the Chinese Ming dynasty and the European Renaissance, met through the bond of friendship thanks to a few humanistic men. In the beginning this may have come as a surprise to the Jesuits, but then they must simply have felt at home, in a world so distant and yet so close to them. Their attitude of accommodation could not simply be labelled as a strategy; it was something deeper, something belonging to the regions of the human spirit.

Friendship still a value today

The story of this friendship continues today. The words of Father Edward Malatesta, founder of the San Francisco-based Ricci Institute who considered Ricci a martyr of friendship, proved prophetic of his own destiny. He died prematurely in Hong Kong five years ago, right in the middle of his untiring efforts to consolidate a friendship network between Chinese intellectuals and international Christian institutes. One of his last and major enterprises concerned the tombs of Ricci and other prominent Jesuits in Beijing. The missionaries’ tombs are respectfully preserved in the garden of the Beijing Communist Party School (now known as Beijing Administrative College) and it is well known, that the Emperor Wan-li himself gave the land for Ricci’s burial site. This was an unprecedented privilege granted to a
foreigner and it was done on the basis of Ricci’s friendship with China.

Father Malatesta was much involved in projects with the Chinese Institute for Matteo Ricci Studies recently established at the Beijing Administrative College where the cemetery is located. Father Malatesta’s aim in establishing the Institute – and of his numerous other initiatives – was to further international cultural exchanges in the spirit of Matteo Ricci. With the collaboration of scholars at the Institute, Father Malatesta published a beautiful book about the cemetery with the significant title Departed, yet Present. These friends of China, men of dialogue, are departed, but yet present: the message of the Gospel that they announced is still very much alive in the Chinese Christian communities that have preserved it throughout the centuries in spite of many and grave difficulties.