Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy, went to Rome in 1568 to study law, and entered the Society of Jesus in 1571. A volunteer to the missions in Asia, he arrived in Goa, India, in 1578 and two years later was ordained a priest. Alessandro Valignano, the Jesuit superior in Asia, instituted a policy of inculturating Christianity in Asia and assigned Ricci to Macao to study Chinese. In 1583 Ricci and his Jesuit confrere Michele Ruggieri received permission from Chinese officials to settle at Chao-ch'ing (Zhaoqing), west of Canton (Guangzhou). The interest of Chinese visitors in the world map displayed in the Jesuit residence led Ricci to translate the names into Chinese. Although a new governor general ordered him expelled in 1589, Ricci persuaded officials to allow him to move to Shao-chou (Shaozhou).
By translating into Latin the Four Books (the basic works for all Chinese scholars of that day) and developing the first system of romanizing Chinese, Ricci became the founder of Western sinology. In 1596 the first edition of his catechism in Chinese appeared. Two years later he was in Peking (Beijing), but then because of the Japanese invasion of Korea and Chinese suspicion that all foreigners were spies, he returned to Nanking (Nanjing). He amazed scholars by his prodigious memory of Chinese texts and discussions on philosophy and mathematics.
In 1601 Ricci returned to Peking to get imperial permission to preach Christianity. He became acquainted with several leading scholars and statesmen, among them Hsu Kuang-ch'i. Ricci considered the honors to Confucius that the scholars were required to offer to be academic rather than religious acts and that ancestor veneration was perhaps not superstitious. These aspects of his policy led to the Rites Controversy that was not finally settled by the papacy until 1742. Because of Ricci's publications, which ranged from Christian ethics to translations of the first six chapters of Euclid's Elements, scholars from every province going to Peking to take the metropolitan examinations wanted to meet him.
Ricci presented foreign clocks and other items to the Wan-li emperor but not a copy of his world map, since it represented China as only one part of the world, not its center as the Chinese claimed. The emperor's interest in the map led Ricci to present a special edition for use in the palace. Not long before his death in Peking, Ricci completed a historical account of the introduction of Christianity into China, The emperor, whom Ricci had never met, granted him a burial place at Ch'a-la (Zhala), just outside the old western city gate. This recently restored site is known today as the Li Madou mu (Matteo Ricci cemetery), with more than sixty tombstones of Jesuits and other missionaries.