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The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by…

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1984)

by Jonathan D. Spence

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759818,828 (3.64)14
From the renowned historian and author of The Death of Woman Wang, a vivid and gripping account of the 16th-century missionary's remarkable sojourn to Ming China   In 1577, the Jesuit Priest Matteo Ricci set out from Italy to bring Christian faith and Western thought to Ming dynasty China. To capture the complex emotional and religious drama of Ricci's extraordinary life, Jonathan Spence relates his subject's experiences with several images that Ricci himself created--four images derived from the events in the Bible and others from a book on the art of memory that Ricci wrote in Chinese and circulated among members of the Ming dynasty elite. A rich and compelling narrative about a fascinating life, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci is also a significant work of global history, juxtaposing the world of Counter-Reformation Europe with that of Ming China.… (more)
  1. 10
    The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates (vy0123)
    vy0123: A better read on the topic of memory tricks.
  2. 00
    The Examination (Sunburst Book) by Malcolm Bosse (infiniteletters)
    infiniteletters: Different styles, but they're both about China and education, particularly memory.

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Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit missionary in China in the late 16th/early 17th century. Ricci had trained in the “memory palace” technique, whereby the user imagines a room, building, or even a “palace”, filled with various items and objects that trigger memories. I was unaware of this memory trick; it turns out to be well known since Roman times, is called “the method of loci” in the literature, and was adopted by no less than Dr. Hannibal Lector. (An example of the method given by author Jonathan Spence: you are asked a question on an anatomy exam. In your mind, you enter your memory palace, which is shaped like a human body. Taking the elevator to the top floor, you enter a bedroom. The bed has a red-white-and-blue bedspread; sprawled out on it is a woman. She has slutty, heavy makeup but is otherwise naked. She languorously eats a bon-bon and smiles temptingly. What are you remembering?

However, despite the title, the book is only peripherally about memory but is instead sort of a speculative biography of Ricci coupled with a social history of the China of his age (plus a little about Goa, where Ricci stayed for a while before progressing on to China). One of the problems with European relations with China at the time is that the Chinese had a lot of things Europeans wanted – silk, porcelain, tea – but the Europeans had very little that interested the Chinese. The balance of trade was thus heavily in China’s favor. Ricci, like other missionaries, had to give gifts to Chinese officials to get anywhere, but didn’t have much to offer – some European paintings and clocks – except his memory system. This turned out to fascinate the Chinese, especially students trying to pass the Confucian literary exams. Ricci was able to dumbfound his hosts by memorizing pages of Chinese writing – even random characters – then flawlessly reproducing them – then doing it again, backwards this time.

Spence, perhaps deliberately invoking the “memory palace”, moves his narration through various episodes of Ricci’s life; youth in a medium-sized Italian town; sea voyage to Goa; encounters with Indian Christians; on to Macao; travels around China (mostly by boat). But these are done in flashback and flashforward. This is a little unsettling at first but eventually works out well; I don’t quite know why but I found the presentation relaxing. Oddly, the only thing that doesn’t quite work is when Spence returns to Ricci’s “memory palace”; particularly four European paintings illustrating episodes from the Bible and four Chinese characters that Ricci chose to decorate his “palace”. These divide the book into sections, but the discussions of the images and paintings don’t relate very closely to the narration of Ricci’s life experiences in the rest of the section.

Could use (as usual) some more maps. References are adequate. Worth a read for the Chinese history and the biography of an interesting man. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 26, 2017 |
Jonathan Spence has made a name for himself as the author of books on various aspects of Chinese history which aspire to be more than informative works of scholarship or historiography, works which aim at the status of literature. He does this by eschewing a conventional exposition in which narrative is balanced by analysis, and looks for a more thematic, artistic, human approach. In this way he reveals new insights into the culture he is writing about, and has created a new kind of genre, one that sits between literature and history, and shares the best of both. It helps that Spence can also write really vividly.

Here he casts his eye on the story of Matteo Ricci’s interaction with the Ming Dynasty, using as his basis...

Read the full review on The Lectern ( )
4 vote tomcatMurr | Mar 3, 2014 |
An interesting book which is something more than an ordinary biography. Matteo Ricci is an interesting character, and the Palace of Memory is a framework and a link between topics, but there is also an excellent glimpse of Ming China and the vast currents of religion and peoples and thought in that vibrant civilization.

It's very interesting to see the interactions between Ricci, who is a Christian Italian Jesuit who is trained in the classical Roman tradition, learn Chinese, interact with the mandarins, learn the Chinese language, and explain his customs to a Confucian/Taoist/Buddhist audience and not get confused with the Muslims. Also bear in mind the Chinese isolationist tendencies. It's a fun book. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Interesting life, but overelaborate structure causes some confusion and boredom. Also, I think assumes too much tacit knowledge of China and Chinese. Possibly also of early modern Europe and its expansion. ( )
  SimonDagut | Jan 27, 2013 |
Reviewing this biography is rather a complicated business. At first when reading the description on the dust jacket you might be inclined to think that this is a description of a 16th century missionary's life with many pieces of background information on the construction of memory palaces. In reality it is an unstructured narrative about an early Renaissance traveler to China. Granted, the usage of Mateo Ricci's writings about memory palaces as the guiding means to talk about the Far East and it's exploration is quite a clever one and would have worked extremely well if the mechanism was actually used by the author as a meta-structure of the book. Ironically the structure of the book completely defeats the basic goals of a memory palace and it is one of the most chaotic and unstructured pieces of writing ever seen.

The author freely jumps between events in the Far East and Italy or anywhere else in Europe. Some of it is related to Ricci and some of it consists of curious facts about the period. Some of the events are described in chronological order but most of them are grabbed at random and thrown together to create some kind of related text. Reading this book takes a lot of mental effort since it is up to the reader to glue all the facts and descriptions together.

From the contents of the book you start to wonder if perhaps it would be more interesting to read Ricci's own Historie in translation. ( )
2 vote TheCriticalTimes | Jan 27, 2012 |
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