The Emperor’s Friend


Likely the only painting of Matteo Ricci while in China.

The following is an account of the first foreigner to create a meaningful and harmonious relationship with the Chinese people.  Matteo Ricci’s aim was to reach out to the entire nation, and his influence had even reached the Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1572 – 1620) whom he had befriended.  His story should be studied by any individual interested in doing business in China.  In fact, his method for creating a healthy relationship with his counterpart is relevant for working with any foreign nation.  Many businesses have had success implementing the Cultural Accommodation policy of Alessandro Valignano and Matteo Ricci, such as Starbucks and KFC.  The idea is to warmly reach out to the counterpart rather than being forceful.  Westerners today trying to do business in China may naturally be inclined to use coercive methods to be persuasive; however, Chinese people tend to take things slower and are more delicate in their ways of communicating.  Let’s read to understand how Matteo Ricci overcame this cultural difference.

The Journey East

At the age of 24, on May 18, 1557, Matteo Ricci received his blessings from Pope Gregory XIII in Rome before departing on his long journey for Asia.  After one perilous month on sea, he reached the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of Africa.  Another month-leg on his boat, and he was already in the vicinity of the Indian Ocean.  Ricci’s journey to the East was made easy due to the fact that many European establishments and colonies had already peppers the coasts of Africa, India, and Southeast Asia in the mid to late 1500s.  His ship stopped multiple times to load slaves, supplies, and goods for consumption and selling.  Upon arriving to the eastern coast of India on September 13, 1578, he decided to stay to study theology at the Jesuit College of Saint Paul and to teach younger pupils.

After three years of observing fellow Jesuits’ missionary work in India, Ricci had developed a disdain for their forceful means of converting the locals.  The people where he resided were also required to adopt Western clothing and customs.  The coercion he saw the Portuguese soldiers using against the locals to subjugate markets and make conversions, he noted, had caused panic, distrust, and hatred.  The success of the colonizers was contributed to villainous acts.  Ricci understood human psychology and was a learned individual that could perceive how others would be more receptive to his message if the benefits were mutual.  Persuasion, he thought, would arise from warm-hearted acts of servitude and mutual understanding.

Cultural Accommodation

Another missionary, Alessandro Valignano, with more experience in the region and possessing a similar contempt for assertive methods, became the mentor of Ricci.  Valignano was the creator of the “Cultural Accommodation” policy, an idea that meant missionaries should become “Indian in India, Chinese in China.”  To win the hearts of the locals, Ricci was taught that he must enjoy local foods, clothing, and social customs as if it were his own culture.  Additionally, he would pack gifts such a mechanical clocks and learn Mandarin Chinese to prepare for his mission to China.

On August 7, 1582, Matteo Ricci arrived to the Portuguese colony of Macao, located on the  southern coast of China.  He began to intensely study the language and culture, a method truly far advanced for his time.  Finally, one year later, Ricci gained permission from the governor to enter and build housing near modern day Guangzhou.  He was the first foreigner to reside in the southern province of Guangdong.  This great privilege to obtain permission to move into China can be directly contributed to his efforts to understand the Chinese people, his sign of kindness through gift-giving, and his possession of the knowledge of the West.

Ricci and the Emperor

After Ricci’s house was built, many officials and locals would visit.  During these visits, Ricci would have the opportunity to mingle with the Chinese, showing them personal items from Europe that would amaze them.  The missionary’s social life soon became very active; many dignitaries from afar would come to see this amazing figure.  Despite many setbacks, as any strong-willed person with business to conduct, Ricci moved about China when possible.  He was able to establish a reputation among the Chinese as being a man who never told lies and well-versed in classical texts.  Ricci was especially skilled at exchanging gifts.  Wherever he went, he developed friendships and therefore was able to expand his work.  Although these victories pleased the missionary, his aim was always for Beijing, the home of the Emperor.

Following his governor friend with him along the Grand Canal to  celebrate Emperor Wanli’s 35th birthday, Matteo Ricci was finally on his way to Beijing.  In late 1598, Ricci would write a first-ever account by a foreigner of the Imperial Canal and much of China’s countryside.  Upon arrival to Beijing, he had discovered that the “Cathay” described in Marco Polo’s account was indeed the same country of China that he was in (Up to this point, geographical knowledge was too limited to know where the country “Cathay” was.).  The ceremony ended, and Ricci was unsuccessful at requesting permission to personally visit the Emperor.  Some gifts did get received by the Emperor, however he dismissed them as being of no particular interest.  His crew left back for the south of China, but he began to seek other opportunities to return to Beijing.


Emperor Wanli, friend of Matteo Ricci

Upon his return to the south, a bitter official, Ma Tang, stopped Mateo Ricci’s junk, imprisoning his crew and confiscating his belongings.  Ricci explained to Ma Tang that many of the items were to be gifts to the Emperor.  The official–wrongfully assuming the Emperor would banish them for presenting these barbarian objects–had the items sent to Beijing.  Historians of the Ming Dynasty had accounted how the Emperor perceived Ricci: as a man with “bells that rang by themselves (clocks), stones that produced all the colors of a rainbow (prism), and extraordinary maps of the world.”  Emperor Wanli immediately had him released and sent to Beijing at his own expense.  Soon after his arrival, the Emperor had ordered to permit Ricci to make residence. Many scholars and members of the the Imperial Court became students and acquaintances of the missionary.

Upon his death, Emperor Wanli permitted Matteo Ricci to be buried in Beijing, in honor of his friend.  Under normal circumstances, the body of foreigners would be shipped back to Macao for their final resting place.  The scholar-missionary lived a glorious life, and his being stands a testament to the application of the Cultural Accommodation theory.  With China’s extreme inwardness, no other non-Chinese ever successfully approached a Chinese emperor and become such a close acquaintance with one.  Besides the accomplishments of this man mentioned, Ricci wrote texts in Chinese, translated content, converted dozens of individuals, and drew enlightening maps, among other achievements.

The Takeaway


All the world powers joining to divide China up as it crumbled.

The takeaway from this story is that Matteo Ricci was immensely successful in dealing with the Chinese.  His “business” with the Chinese was missionary work.  While the actual details of his work are irrelevant here,  what is necessary to study about this story are the elements about how he became triumphant.  Many complain these days that doing business with China is too difficult.  The fact is that doing business, in all capacities, with China has always been a challenge since Western societies first clashed with China.  The problem may be the government as many say, or maybe it is the approach that has been the fault.  For hundreds of years, from the early 1500s to the early 1800s, China was afraid of foreigners.  They were especially worried they would attack and disrupt their peace.  As time went on, the previous generations were right, and as soon as Westerners had the opportunity, they completely obliterated China with a series of wars starting in the early 1800s.  For one hundred years, China was subjugated to more than 100 unequal treaties that actually split China into partially colonized pieces.  You bet your bottom dollar that Chinese still learn about this today in school and are all a little resentful about this part of history.

What Matteo Ricci did is still relevant and practical today.  A foreigner that can speak even a little bit of Mandarin Chinese or knows something about Chinese culture can immediately build lasting rapport with Chinese people.  They won’t soon forget how you sacrificed your time to understand their perspective on the world.  You don’t have to love it, but you can learn to appreciate it.  Many large companies in China are looking for experienced foreign managers, and they are willing to pay attractive salaries.  Chinese companies would like to hire foreigners for other positions in all industries, actually.  The problem is that Chinese still possess that protective nature that their ancestors had about foreigners.  They want to be sure the foreigner is trustworthy and is somebody that they can connect with, and it takes a person like Ricci, an individual that reaches out first to make that connection happen. 

Will you study Ricci’s life to understand how to deal with difficult regions like China?



One thought on “The Emperor’s Friend

  1. It is impressive that Matteo had more understanding about how to deal with new business partners from other regions than many have these days…
    I will never understand how so many business people think that they can just march into a new country and force their way of doing things.


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