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The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci Paperback – September 3, 1985

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Matteo Ricci (1552-1616), an Italian Jesuit, entered China in 1583 to spread Catholicism in the largely Confucian country. In order to make a persuasive argument for the educated Chinese to abandon their traditional faith for the new one he was carrying, Ricci realized that he would have to prove the general superiority of Western culture. He did so by teaching young Confucian scholars tricks to increase their memory skills--an important advantage in a nation with countless laws and rituals that had to be learned by heart. Ricci attracted numerous students with this method; more important, Ricci came to have a sympathetic understanding for China that he communicated to Rome, and thence to the European nations at large. Spence's portrait of Ricci is a gem of historical writing. --Gregory MacNamee

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Praise for The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:
 
“An extraordinarily delicate achievement . . . Resembles the portrait of an age.”
The New York Times Book Review
 
“A gripping portrait of late-sixteenth-century cultural history in both the West and the East.”
Natalie Zemon Davis, Princeton University, author of The Return of Martin Guerre
 
“An extraordinary tour de force, a work of literature and at the same time a remarkable wide-ranging use of historical sources. This is the kind of history that most people in the profession cannot even begin to write.”
John King Fairbank, Harvard University
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (September 3, 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140080988
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140080988
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #101,638 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

108 of 116 people found the following review helpful By EnglishTeacher on February 1, 2002
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.
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70 of 75 people found the following review helpful By I. Westray on November 22, 2000
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.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Ian Westray (ianwestray@macol.net on February 8, 1999
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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56 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Ray Mutchler on December 10, 2003
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.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 13, 1999
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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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 26, 1998
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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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Kevin S. Kennedy on September 12, 2002
Format: Paperback
Jonathan D. Spence has written a book which can fall into a number of categories. On one level, it is a biography of a Jesuit who worked as a missionary in China during the Post-Reformation period. On another, it is an examination of his remarkable memory. On yet another, it vividly describes the China of this era and the efforts to bring Christianity to this closed society. The structure of the book is unusual for the genre, but is surprisingly successful. Ultimately, the book becomes a sort of psycho-historical account of a most remarkable man in a most remarkable place in a most remarkable time. Images from this book will linger in your mind for some time to come. Recommended for those interested in religious history, missions, the Jesuits, China, or artificial memory. A more technical companion piece is Francis Yates' _The Art of Memory_.
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