This may be an odd thing for a China historian to admit, but I feel uneasy about claiming Matteo Ricci as my ancestor. His name may be unfamiliar to most readers, but as soon as you enter the field of imperial Chinese history Matteo Ricci will be the second European you meet – after the ubiquitous Marco Polo. Ricci was born in Italy in 1552, three centuries after Polo, and the China he entered – ruled by the Ming, a native dynasty intensely protective of its borders at a time when Mongols, Japanese, and Europeans were doing their best to destabilise them – was very different from the expansive Mongol rule of the preceding Yuan dynasty, when foreigners flowed through China in unprecedented numbers.
Polo and Ricci travelled east for different purposes. Yuan China received its missionaries, but Polo was there to make money, trading gems for lucrative trade contracts. Ming China received its merchants, but as it forbade them from entering the country other than to attend the annual Canton trade