The Essay was on just the right topic at exactly the right time. The late Ming dynasty had seen the rise of debating societies and similar organizations that were based on developing one of the five relations, that between friends. While it would be a mistake to say nothing had been written on this, friendship was often treated as the least of the five, and certainly less explored than the ruler-subject or the parent-child relationship. People were interested in the topic of friendship as they never had been before. At a later point, the powers that be would try to rein in the enthusiasm for discussions of the value of friendship -- too much association with bands of revolutionaries -- but this had not begun yet. Ricci's work was short, thus being in one sense easy to read, and yet challenging, presenting a foreign point of view. The scholars of China seem to have been struck by the strange-yet-fitting turn of several of his aphorisms, weirdly stated paradoxes that somehow captured exactly their experience of friendship, positions very much like the traditional Chinese positions on friendship but with an unexpected twist, stories and comments that they had never heard before clothing points that they knew well.
If Ricci had been deliberately calculating to capture the interest of intellectuals, he could not have done a better job. It certainly did. Everyone wanted a copy; finally, the inevitable happened, and pirated versions (as we would say) began to be printed. It became the first work by a European to be printed in a number of important influential Chinese anthologies and collectanea, and while approval and popularity have waxed and waned multiple times, it can rightly be said to have become one of the modern classics of Chinese literature.
I read the work in Timothy Billings's translation: Matteo Ricci, On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince, Billings, tr., Columbia University Press (New York: 2009). It has a nice introduction that gives some of the biographical and historical context, on which I am drawing, and it seems to do well in tracing down Ricci's original sources.
The Thought and Structure
The work opens with an autobiographical proem about how Ricci has sailed the seas to China out of respect "for the learned virtue of the Son of Heaven of the Great Ming dynasty as well as for the teachings bequeathed by the ancient kings" (p. 87). He visits the Prince of Jian'an Commandery, who asks him about how friendship is understood in the Far West, and for this reason Ricci is writing his book. Billings notes in the introduction that there are a number of reasons not to take this as literal, and to treat it as a literary rather than a historical introduction. It functions in a way as a tactful dedicatory note: Ricci shows respect for the prince and in a way gives him credit for it.
After this follows a hundred maxims -- it was probably originally a shorter list later rounded out to a hundred. One of the aphorisms that seems to have particularly caught the attention of Ming philosophers of friendship is the very first, which Ricci draws from Augustine and Aristotle:
My friend is not an other, but half of myself, and thus a second me -- I must therefore regard my friend as myself. (p. 91)
Another very popular one was the 24th aphorism (also derived from Augustine):
The harm that is done by a friend's excessive praise is greater than the harm that is done by an enemy's excessive calumny.
COMMENTARY: If a friend praises me, I may become self-conceited. If an enemy slanders me, I may become more cautious.
Some of the aphorisms show Ricci taking good advantage of the differences that can arise when translating into another context; he will sometimes find a way to make a wordplay work in Chinese as well as the original, or will draw on the characteristics of Chinese script (like the fact that one way of writing the word for 'friend' looks like a double version of the character for 'another'). He also will draw subtle but undeniable links between the aphorisms he is translating and Chinese ethics. For instance, on one aphorism drawn from Plutarch (the 52nd), he comments:
Since my friends must be virtuous and benevolent, they will know whom to love and whom to hate. This is why I rely upon them. (p. 111)
The word translated here as 'virtuous and benevolent' is ren, which is perhaps the foundational virtue in Confucian ethics.
The aphorisms derive from a wide variety of sources: Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, Augustine, Seneca, Diogenes Laertius, and more. In some cases he pulls together several different sources, and in a few cases (like the popular 95th aphorism, on the sharing of wealth between friends), Ricci seems to be himself the originator of the aphorism, although always on a theme that was common.
The book ends with a colophon which we apparnetly have in two slightly different forms, one in which Ricci calls himself a shanren (a man of the mountains), which has Taoist overtones, and was commonly used among certain independent-minded intellectuals of the day, and another in which he calls himself a xiushi, a moral scholar, which has a more Confucian tone to it. Billings notes (pp. 17-18) that this is probably because the shanren text occurs at the transitional stage between the original Jesuit attempt to describe themselves in Buddhist terms and the later Jesuit attempt to describe themselves in Confucian terms, and that the Taoist word actually goes very well with the proem, in which Ricci describes his choice of residence in China in terms at least evocative of Taoism.