Matteo Ricci and mnemonics

april 22, 2013

“Actually, the Xiguo jifa was a disappointing book, for it proved useless for the many eager Chinese readers. In essence, this book of Western Mnemonics used spatial imagination for classifying Chinese characters: how these could be broken down according to radicals, sounds, and meanings for easier comprehension. His methods made sense only for students unfamiliar with the non-phonetic nature of Chinese, who needed a visual aid for breaking down and classifying the complex shapes of Chinese characters. Ricci’s Chinese readers, who had learned their characters from a tender age, already recognized these characters; Ricci’s method was useless for them. Take for example Ricci’s explanation in chapter 2, ‘Applying the Method’:

To learn mnemonics, one has to place in sequence the visual images of things and events in specified places; therefore we call this visual mnemonics. Suppose you want to remember the four characters ‘wu’ (military), ‘yao’ (to want), ‘li’ (profit), and ‘hao’ (good), you have to imagine a room with four corners for storage, using the southeastern corner as the first site, the northeastern as the second, the northwestern as the third, and the southwestern as the fourth. You take the character ‘wu’ which looks like a warrior holding a spear ready for battle, and another man restraining him by the wrists, thus forming the image of ‘wu’, [ 武 ] and you place it in the southeastern corner. You take the character ‘yao’ [ 要 ] imagine it as looking like a Muslim girl of Central Asia, forming the character ‘yao’, and you place it in the northeastern corner. You take the character ‘li’, [ 利 ] imagine it to look like a peasant holding a sickle harvesting in the fields, forming the character ‘li’, and you place it in the northwestern corner. You take the character ‘hao’, [ 好 ] imagine it to look like a young girl, playing with a baby she is holding, forming the character ‘hao’, and you place it in the southwestern corner. Once you have placed the four characters in these four sites, if you want to remember them, recall the room and find them in their different corners, and you will recall their images and remember the characters.

This was only the most basic step. In chapters 4 and 5, Ricci introduced far more complicated and elaborate methods of spatial placement, to facilitate remembering whole sentences and paragraphs.

The trouble with Ricci’s method, as one Chinese student observed, was that ‘these precepts are the true rules of memory, but one already needs good memory in order to use them’. Moreover, Ricci’s linguistic excursions into the etymology of Chinese characters struck readers either as naive or absurd, making sense perhaps for foreign students of Chinese, but not to Chinese literati steeped in long tradition of historical phonetics and etymology. Xiguo jifa found little reception: only one edition was printed and few copies disseminated.”

(R. Po-chia Hsia, A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci 1552-1610 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 150-51)


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