Matteo Ricci's tombstone

« previous post | next post »

Epigraph on the Tombstone of Matteo Ricci in the Zhalan Cemetery in Beijing:

Inscription on the tomb of Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), black-and-white photograph, unknown photographer; source: with the kind permission of the Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco.

The Chinese inscription reads:

Lì xiānshēng huì Mǎdòu, hào Xītài, dàxīyáng Yìdàlìyǎ guórén. Zì yòu rù huì zhēn xiū, Míng Wànlì rénxīn nián hánghǎi shǒu rù Zhōnghuá yǎn jiào, Wànlì gēng zi niánlái dōu, Wànlì gēng xūnián zú. Zàishì wǔshíjiǔ nián, zài huì sìshí'èr nián.


"Tomb of the Jesuit, the honourable Li. Master Li was called Madou [Matteo] and had the sobriquet Xitai [Wise Man from the West]. He was a native of the country of Italy in the Great Western Ocean. In his youth he entered the Society in order to cultivate perfection [of virtue]. In the renwu year of the Wanli reign the Ming Dynasty (1582) he came to China by sea and was the first to propagate the [holy] teachings [here]. In the gengzi year of the Wanli reign [1600] he went to the capital (Peking) and died in the gengxu year of the Wanli reign (1610) at the age of 59 years, of which 42 in the Society." (Malatesta / Zhiyu, Departed, Yet Present 1995, p. 132.)


Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), in collaboration with his younger colleague, Nicolas Trigault  (1577-1628), is generally credited with being the first person to create a Romanization for Chinese, making him the ultimate progenitor of Pinyin, a contribution that has had monumental consequences for the history of writing in China.

Decades ago, I wandered into the Zhalan Cemetery while it was still in ruins and stumbled upon Matteo Ricci's tomb.  At that moment, and for the next half hour of profound and reverent reverie, I felt as though I had been transported to an ethereal realm of sainted sages.  Bless their holy memory.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Francis Miller]


  1. C C Child said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 9:14 am

    I'm not a specialist on China or Chinese history and historiography, so there are no doubt other books about Ricci I'm not familiar with, but one I have read and re-read with profit and enjoyment is "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci" by Jonathan Spence, originally published in 1984. I can't believe it's been so long since I first read it.

    Here's a link to the NYT review from exactly 37 yrs ago.

    Thanks to LL and VM for reminding me of this fascinating book, which I will now dig out of the shelves and add to my to-be-read stack.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 10:20 am

    I have a special story to tell abut the book that C C Child mentions, but have to go out for the next 12 hours, so can't write it till then.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 11:59 am

    Crikey — 63 hanzi require over 100 English words (not counting the editorial glosses) for their translation. Rather impressive conciseness, it would seem to me.

  4. Denis Mair said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 12:18 pm

    Re: Philip Taylor's comment—
    For texts translated from Modern Chinese to English or visa versa, the average ratio is 1000 Chinese characters per 600-700 English words. Modern Chinese is much less concise, because it has so many bisyllabic compound words.

  5. Denis Mair said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 12:20 pm

    I was told by a fairly high official (lieutenant-governor) that Matteo Ricci's grave was on the grounds of the Central Party Institute of the CCP. I wonder if the "Zhalan Cemetery" was incorporated into the campus of the Central Party Institute? If it really was located on the campus, it's interesting that you were allowed to walk to the grave on your own. Perhaps access to the gravesite is not so open now.
    I wonder if the "Zhalan Cemetery" is located in the district called Muzhalan 木柵欄?

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 6:43 pm

    Excellent point, Denis.

    Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (like the epitaph for Matteo Ricci) is a written / book / unsayable language. Concision is at a high premium; aural intelligibility does not matter.

    Mandarin / Modern Chinese (like the translation of the epitaph) is an oral / spoken / sayable language. Conciseness does not much matter; aural intelligibility comes at a high premium;

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 6:45 pm

    The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci is a big book, 368 pages, which purports to be a comprehensive biography of the title character. Since much of it has to do with the creation, dissemination, organization, and classification of knowledge, I was surprised (more like astonished) after I read it without finding any mention of what I consider to be Ricci's most significent invention, that of Romanization for Chinese.

    A few months after reading the book, together with John De Francis I attended a lecture by Spence about it in Hawaii. In the lecture, Spence didn't allude to Romanization either. Incredulous, during the Q & A period, I asked Spence why he didn't mention Ricci's monumentally important invention of Romanization.

    Spence looked as though he were taken aback, thought for a few moments, then blithely replied, "Because I chose not to".

  8. Shelly Kraicer said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 9:10 pm

    A few years ago, while I still lived in Beijing, I decided to go find Matteo Ricci's tomb. The location was easy enough, in the CPC Beijing Municipal Party Committee Headquarters on Chegongzhuang St, somewhat west of the Chegongzhuang metro station. I cycled there and found a typical door guard fellow, who seemed willing to engage with me. I asked if the tomb was inside, and visitable. He said no, not possible (of course). It was only visitable by tour groups by prior appointment. I sighed and explained that I was very eager to visit, and had specially ridden on my bicycle all the way across town from Dongerhuan. He thought it over, and offered: if I came back in the afternoon (it was about 10:30 am), I could try again. So I spent a few hours in this rather unexciting neighbourhood wandering, sitting, had a lunch, and returned. Whereupon he, evidently seeing that I was committed to this quest, warmly though quietly ushered me in. He went to get some ancient keys and gave them to me, so that I could open a gate and let myself into the inner courtyard where the Jesuit tombs were located. I sat there for a long time, looking around at the tombstones, with the keys. And I remember noticing that Ricci's tomb seemed, well, remarkably well preserved, with neat, decipherable writing and decoration compared to his fellow Jesuits' eroded stones. I wonder if this indicates that his tombstone was, how we say, "renovated" or "renewed" by the relevant authorities, to meet visitor's expectations? Anyway, some people walked by looking at me weirdly, but no one bothered me. After an hour or so, I walked back to the gate and returned the keys to his replacement (who didn't seem at all surprised) and left.

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 24, 2021 @ 11:49 pm

    trivially, that link's "… was the first to propagate…" should be "first entered China to propagate…" — i.e. at issue is Ricci's shengya and not a Jesuit's-eye milestone.

  10. Michael Nash said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 12:42 am

    It's interesting that the Chinese gives him a one syllable surname, Li, despite Ricci having two.

  11. Francis M said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 3:35 am

    I totally forgot about this!!!

    @Denis @Shelly yeah the graveyard is still there and the tombstone is supposedly still there on the campus of the party school. I tried to visit in September of 2020, but was unfortunately closed due to the pandemic. I imagine it is still closed due to the pandemic, even though cases are basically zero in China right now. The Beijing government is taking no chances pre-olympics.

    To be fair though, the cemetery is in the middle of a campus of a party school, so doubtful that any foreigner can just saunter on in today given the combined political/pandemic climate.

    If the tombstone was renovated, I wonder who would offer to re-write the Latin. I wonder what a Chinese revision of that would look like, especially because there are so few people in China who could write something in Latin.

    I guess that leads to a rather eccentric question – what is the Latin equivalent of "Chinglish"?

  12. Andy said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 9:13 am

    Here is the translated Latin version, should anyone want to compare them:

    (Father) Matthaeus Riccius, an Italian from Macera, teacher of the Society of Jesus, in which he lived for 42 years, 28 of which were spent on a sacred mission among the Chinese, where he was the first (since the Christian faith was being introduced already for the third time) to found Jesuit colleges/communities [that is my guess for 'sociorum domicilia']. Finally, much renowned for his learning and virtue, he died in Peking in the year of Christ 1610, on the 11th of May, at 59 years of age.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    November 25, 2021 @ 3:55 pm

    It's interesting that the Chinese gives him a one syllable surname, Li, despite Ricci having two.

    The reason is probably that 利 Lì is an existing surname, and a very common one at that.

  14. Chas Belov said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 1:20 am

    For what it's worth, my adopted Chinese surname is one syllable,白, (Cantonese baahk, Mandarin bái) even though my legal surname, Belov, is two. Both mean "white." I chose to go with a translation rather than transliteration, and it is coincidence that they start with similar phonemes.

  15. Jerry Packard said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 8:36 am

    "The reason is probably that 利 Lì is an existing surname, and a very common one at that."

    If 利 is a surname, it is not very common. The 'Li' that is a common surname is 李.

  16. John Swindle said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 7:31 pm

    @Jerry Packard: Good point about 利 Lì not being a common surname. It's not just Ricci's, though. For another example see the Wikipedia articles on Lee Hysan, the "Opium King." They don't claim any relationship to Matteo Ricci.

  17. John Swindle said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 7:45 pm

    Or, a better English-language source, the Wikipedia article on "Li (surname 利)".

RSS feed for comments on this post