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The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci [Paperback]

Jonathan Spence
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

8 Jan 2008

In 1577 a Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci set out from Italy on a long journey to bring the Christian faith and Western thought to Ming dynasty China. He spent time in India and Macao before entering China in 1583 to undertake mission work. Travelling widely, Ricci learned local languages, mastered Chinese classical script, drew the first-ever map of the world in Chinese and acquired a rich appreciation of the indigenous culture of his hosts. In 1596 Ricci wrote a short book in Chinese on the art of memory for the governor of Jiangxi province, who was preparing his three sons for China's demanding civil service examinations. In it he described a 'memory palace' in which to hold knowledge such as might help the three brothers and their peers in the Ming social elite to pass their exams with flying colours. Ricci must have hoped that, in gratitude to him for instructing them in mnemonic skills, they would use their newly won prestige to further the cause of the Catholic Church in China. To capture the complex emotional and religious drama of Ricci's life, author Jonathan Spence relates the missionary's experiences via a series of images. Four of these images derive from events described in the Bible, the others from Ricci's book on the art of memory that was circulated among members of the Ming dynasty elite. A rich and compelling narrative about a remarkable 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.



Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Quercus (8 Jan 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847243444
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847243447
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 706,645 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

An extraordinarily delicate achievement - The New York Times Book Review

From the Back Cover

“An extraordinary tour de force, a work of literature and at the same time a remarkable wide-ranging use of historical sources” John King Fairbank, Harvard University In 1577 an Italian Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci set out from Italy on a long journey to bring the Christian faith to Ming dynasty China. Travelling widely, Ricci learned local languages, mastered Chinese script, and acquired a rich appreciation of the indigenous culture of his hosts. In 1596 he wrote a short book on the art of memory for the governor of Jiangxi province, who was preparing his sons for China's demanding civil service examinations. Ricci's Treatise on Mnemonic Arts, with its striking metaphor of a “memory palace” for the storing of knowledge, was widely circulated among members of the Ming dynasty elite. To capture the complex emotional and religious drama of Ricci's life, Jonathan Spence relates the missionary's experiences via a series of images. Four of these images derive from events described in the Bible, the others from his Treatise on Mnemonic Arts. A rich and compelling narrative of a remarkable 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.


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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Incredible insights into the art of memory. 26 Mar 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
This book is worth reading for the account of Ricci's memory system alone. The way the Jesuits used the power of the sensory imagination to remember texts or chinese characters is inspirational. Spence explains the secrets of creating such a system, though this ain't no self-help book. But more interesting still was the way that Ricci used his imaginative interpretations of chinese pictograms to convey Christian images and ideas to the Chinese; and the way that he performed memory feats to impress and gain access to high chinese circles for his work.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Graceful, dazzling multicultural history 8 Feb 1999
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Jonathan Spence's approach here is so effortlessly engaging, so like a work of historically informed fiction, that you can easily lose sight of just how responsible and convincing it is at the same time. Framing the book with Ricci's own mnemonic imagery gives Spence a complex but perfectly coherent lens through which to write. Spence deftly allows Ricci's own images to define the scope of the narrative as well, so he isn't burdened with scholarly asides attempting to fill in the gaps with a general history.
This is a book of simple genius. I've reviewed several books on Amazon, and never given a five star rating before. This wonderful book rates a five.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing 11 Oct 2009
Format:Paperback
The title is misleading, and the blurb doesn't provide much accurate information either. This book is neither a treatise on the ancient and medieval systems of memory, nor a biography, but a meandering series of snapshots of Matteo Ricci, whose life in China at the end of the 16th century was fascinating (or might have been in the hands of a different author). The extracts from his letters are vivid and exciting and provide flashes of insight into Chinese customs and the perils of travel by land and sea, but Spence's own writing is loosely organised and somewhat tedious.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Memorable 6 Oct 2010
By reader 451 TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci uses a Chinese-language treatise by Ricci on the mnemonic arts as a guide to the story of his mission to China. Ricci was the first Christian missionary to be able to establish residence in Beijing, in 1601. His story is as remarkable - Ricci was able to learn Chinese well enough to translate books and debate points of theology with local scholars, and his capacity for memorisation appears to have been exceptional - as it is poignant. It also offers rich comment on mutual European and Chinese Renaissance-era prejudices. Indeed, Spence makes a very entertaining job of digging up colourful cultural details from both sides, and in painting the mission's political, economic, and religious context.

The memory palace was a system by which information was placed within the rooms of an imaginary palace, in this case a single room peopled with statues conjured for their association value with Chinese characters. Spence's book uses the palace images as its own guide, and he also analyses four religious prints published, with brief commentaries by Ricci, in a contemporary Chinese collection of graphics. The book is loosely chronological as well as thematic, following its protagonist from Macerata in Italy to Rome, Goa, Macau, and through various provincial cities to Ricci's death in Beijing. This is both an original and an insightful historical work, with wide relevance in spite of its specialised topic.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  34 reviews
103 of 110 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining biography, NOT a tutorial about mnemonics. 1 Feb 2002
By EnglishTeacher - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is an entertaining, well-researched BIOGRAPHY about a Jesuit missionary in China.
If, like me, you were expecting a book detailing Matteo Ricci's method of enhancing his memory, you will be only partially rewarded. That subject IS brought up, with intelligent commentary, but (to use a metaphor) Ricci's mnemonics are only the 'frame' around the main 'painting'.
The main painting is a thoroughly enjoyable, detailed picture of a Catholic missionary sent from Europe to China. Ricci's voyage of discovery as his ethnocentric training meets with China's equally ethnocentric culture makes for good reading.
Readers interested in mnemonics will be partially rewarded. Readers will be thoroughly rewarded, if they are seeking entertaining Middle-Ages history about Catholicism, missionary work, Europe, Rome, Asia, or China.
68 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishingly graceful history 22 Nov 2000
By I. Westray - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Jonathan Spence's approach here is so effortlessly engaging, so like a work of historically informed fiction, that you can easily lose sight of just how responsible and convincing it is at the same time. Framing the book with Ricci's own mnemonic imagery gives Spence a complex but perfectly coherent lens through which to write. Spence deftly allows Ricci's own images to define the scope of the narrative as well, so he isn't burdened with scholarly asides attempting to fill in the gaps with a general history.
This is a book of simple genius. I've reviewed several books on Amazon, and seldom given a five star rating. This wonderful book rates a five.
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Graceful, dazzling multicultural history 8 Feb 1999
By Ian Westray (ianwestray@macol.net - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Jonathan Spence's approach here is so effortlessly engaging, so like a work of historically informed fiction, that you can easily lose sight of just how responsible and convincing it is at the same time. Framing the book with Ricci's own mnemonic imagery gives Spence a complex but perfectly coherent lens through which to write. Spence deftly allows Ricci's own images to define the scope of the narrative as well, so he isn't burdened with scholarly asides attempting to fill in the gaps with a general history.
This is a book of simple genius. I've reviewed several books on Amazon, and never given a five star rating before. This wonderful book rates a five.
54 of 62 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Memory Palace" holds a wealth of information 11 Dec 2003
By Ray Mutchler - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I wrote my BA of Humanities thesis on Matteo Ricci and found Spence's book valuable for its information but mildly frustrating. "Memory Palace" is an excellence source for facts about Ricci's life for those who are not fluent in multiple languages or do not have access to the research material that Spence does. I turned to Spence for his commentary on Ricci's various writings that I did not have access to and for various tidbits of facts. Furthermore, Spence does a good job of illustrating the world that Ricci lived and worked in. For example, I was enlightened on the relationship of the Jesuits to the Portuguese King and how the Portuguese port of Macao in China operated. It was good background information to supplement the primary text I was using.
However, the frustrating part of this book is its organization. While it's an interesting idea to organize it according to the first four Chinese characters in his mnemonic system (or "memory palace"), it makes for a near meaningless train of thought; I ended up skimming the lengthy chapter on "water." I'm still disappointed by the end because Spence offers no real conclusion or summary, just an enigmatic statement. I had previously read Spence's "Death of Woman Wang" and I realize that it is Spence's style to amass historical information with unorthodox organization (I think it's his selling point). It's creative, but not very useful. Fortunately, the book has an excellent index, so it's fairly easy to re-find significant passages.
For those that want to read an actual narrative of Ricci's mission, I highly recommend the English translation of Trigault's transcription of Ricci's mission journals; this was the primary text for my paper. I found it very interesting and suprisingly high in entertainment value, considering its origin.
Trigault, Nicolas S. J. "China in the Sixteenth Century:
The Journals of Mathew Ricci: 1583-1610."
trans. Lous J. Gallagher, S.J. (New York: Random House, Inc. 1953).
Also recommended for his examination of the religious issues involved with Ricci and the other Jesuits preaching Christianity in China is Jaques Gernet's "China and the Christian Impact." To sum up, it answers this question and more, "What happens when you try to insert the Christian God into the ancient writings of a sophisticated society?"
Gernet, Jaques, "China and the Christian Impact." (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating book! 13 Dec 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I loved this book. The mixture of history, mneumonic device, theology, missionary activity, and social and political thought is entrancing. Dr. Spence has displayed the cultural and spiritual ethos, not only of the title character, but of an era, place and time. The breadth of scholarship is impressive, as are the language and imagery used to present it. I cannot speak to the accuracy of the material presented, but am so intrigued, now, by the period, that I soon will be able to. I highly recommend this book.
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