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Mission To China, By Mary Laven

China's current status as a fountain of wealth probably means that Marco Polo's book will persist as the preferred British reading on early East-West contacts. But while he deserves due credit for his powers of observation, his standpoint remains throughout that of an expat, separated from the locals by communication barriers and concerned with the cultural sphere mainly when it affects his ability to make money. Three centuries later, we do find a man who did learn to speak the language, and to read the difficult literary texts of the cultural heritage, with the much more ambitious aim of changing China's way of thinking.

Anyone contemplating doing likewise today would do well to read Mary Laven's book on this pioneer, the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). He did once have readers here – he is cited in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy – and this is by no means the first English study of him. There is, however, much to commend it, especially the deft way in which its narrative of Ricci's years in China are interspersed with reflections on the issues raised by his remarkable career – on the importance of world maps, of writings on friendship and of astronomy, for example. All this is based on a careful reading of those writings and the letters of Ricci and colleagues, combined with the latest scholarship on China under the Ming dynasty.

Does it matter that Chinese sources themselves are not directly used? One hagiographic work by a predecessor was savaged by a famous Chinese scholar, its author taunted for not knowing that a Chinese contemporary of Ricci found the most notable thing about him his healthy appetite. Laven is explicit on Ricci's failings: coldness towards his family; reluctance to give credit to others; self-regard.

If we look at how Ricci was seen in retrospect, after the Ming fell to Manchu invaders in 1644, we find precisely those aspects of his work highlighted that are covered here: the maps that made the territory of the mighty Ming appear "a mere wrinkle in the palm of the hand"; the superior computation of the calendar; even the baroque splendours and scents of the church Ricci founded in Beijing. It included by this point depictions of the crucifixion, part of the Christian message that earlier he had found it expedient to keep largely to himself.

There are in these sources no reflections on Ricci's awkward situation confronted by Buddhist monks, rival celibates in a society in which the perpetuation of family was of paramount concern, and also by a powerful group of eunuchs, controllers of the fearsome secret police. Since historians only discovered gender in the 1970s, the 17th-century Chinese inevitably neglected this perspective, making the chapter on gender a particularly welcome part.

But religion forms the core of this tale. The last chapter poignantly contrasts the elegantly ineffectual rhetoric of Ricci's polemics against his opponents with the irresistible pull of the reported miracles that swelled his increasing number of lowly converts. The Jesuits had struggled across the world through a welter of alien creeds to find in China an ancient, self-confident and - by Renaissance standards - well-ordered state that was in some areas, such as ceramic technology, patently in advance of Europe.

After delving into the earliest texts of this unsettlingly sophisticated society, which he took to reflect the same antiquity as the opening chapters of the Bible, Ricci surmised that he had unearthed traces of an awareness of the God in whom he believed. Though one biographer still in print in 2000 straightforwardly accepts this as the truth, and though the idea did intrigue some outstanding minds – Leibniz, for one – his surmise unfortunately turns out to have been self-deluding.

His polemics, too, may have convinced himself, but convincing others in China proved harder. One Manchu, castigating a Jesuit tract on the Seven Deadly Sins as inhuman (literally, "homicidal"), concludes: "They attacked Buddhism, but did not understand it". Buddhists were certainly formidable controversialists: what appears as mid-17th-century Confucian criticism of Christianity often emanates from Buddhist laymen, or even a monk using his lay name.

Though conversions did happen, Christianity was generally looked back on as a cultural quirk, like an over-mannered writing style, symptomatic solely of Ming decadence. Venturing beyond material enrichment in China was - and is - a perplexing business.

TH Barrett is research professor of East Asian history at SOAS, London