The Most Influential
People in History
Matteo Ricci; Li–Ma-Tou (Wade-Giles); Li Madou (Pinyin)
Italian Jesuit Missionary
Mathematics Ranking 35th of 46
Matteo Ricci with an astrolabe; 400th anniversary of his arrival in China. Republic of China (Taiwan) stamp from 1983.
Matteo Ricci introduced Western science and the Christian religion to the Chinese Empire during his nearly thirty years (1582–1610) in the country. Specifically, Ricci translated into Chinese the first six books of Euclid’s Elements (1607) with the help of one of his pupils, Xu Guangqi.(1) Euclid’s book is of fundamental importance in mathematics. With the help of Li Zhizao, Ricci translated Christopher Clavius’s Geometrica Practica, Trigonometrica and Astrolabium. Astrolabium was the first work to set out the foundations of western astronomy in Chinese, making the point that the Earth is round and in motion.(2) In 1613, a translation with Li Zhizao showed how to perform written arithmetic operations–addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division–and in 1625 they introduced to the Chinese classical logic.
In 1584 and 1600, he published the first maps of China ever available to the West. For the first time, the Chinese had an idea of the distribution of oceans and land masses. Probably no European name of past centuries is so well known in China as that of Li-ma-tou (Ricci Matteo).(3) Ricci’s successors, Verbiest and Schall von Bell, used the geometric and trigonometric concepts that Ricci had introduced to bring about a revolution in the sciences of astronomy, the design of astronomical instruments, mapmaking, and the intricate art of making accurate calendars. From about 1600 until the suppression in 1773, Jesuits were practically the sole source of Chinese knowledge about Western astronomy, geometry, and trigonometry.
(1) Victor J. Katz, A History of Mathematics, 3rd Edition (Boston, 2009), p. 226.
(2) Website – www.faculty.fairfield.edu/jmac/sj/scientist/ricci.htm, p. 1.
(3) Ibid. p. 1.