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Matteo Ricci’ s worldmap

One of the many China exhibitions in the Netherlands, the Ming exposition in the Nieuwe Kerk, shows a map that marked a milestone for the world view of China and Europe: the world map of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci.

Ricci arrived in China in 1582 with the aim of converting China to Christianity. The Jesuits had their own approach for this. They mastered the local culture as much as possible and started from the principle that local religions and rites lay the same basis as in their own faith. They saw sharing knowledge as essential for this. After arriving, Ricci and his fellow Jesuits went to work to learn the language and get to know China.

kerk01.jpg What they had to offer was science. Astronomy was important as the basis of the state in China (the Mandate of Heaven was the basis of the empire), but theoretical knowledge was minimal. This also applies to geography. Chinese maps were quite schematic and depicted the realms of power from the capital rather than the real geography. Merchants did have decent maps (see also the Selden map), but merchants were far below the rank of Confucian scholars and the court. Matteo Ricci founded a church in Nanjing and there he met Chinese scholars such as 徐光启 (Xu Guangqi).

On the other side, there was knowledge of the west. The voyages of discovery would not have been possible without knowledge of cartography and astronomy. Ricci had a lot of knowledge to offer China and the Chinese were very interested in the knowledge of the Westerners. That knowledge was recorded by Ricci in his world map. A large format map measuring approximately one and a half by three meters. The map shows the world in a kind of cylindrical projection. A recent innovation in cartography. The distortion in the surface at the high latitudes is kept limited by curving the meridians outwards. China is, of course, in the center of the map, which means that Europe is sometimes like a distorted land mass in the margin of the map. Australia has not yet been discovered at that time. But Africa shows all the rivers along the coast. Very important information for European navigators. Within China itself, the map also shows the river courses prominently. This is also new for a Chinese map, normally the boundaries of the provinces were indicated and not (or hardly any) rivers.

The map at the Ming exhibition is one of the Chinese colored versions. This version is enlivened with ships, sea monsters and all things worth knowing. A few things stand out with those ships. A chinese junk has been drawn for the coast of Yemen. So roughly at the spot that Zheng He reached under the Yongle Emperor with his diplomatic fleet. In addition, a ship with lowered sails has been drawn with human figures on it. The only ship where you see people. That must be a reference to the fact that Ricci and his fellow priests had boarded there for the trip to China.

All kinds of astronomical information can be found around the map. The poles have been given their own map at the top left and bottom right. Besides the map of the North Pole at the top of the map are a number of diagrams explaining lunar and solar eclipses. At the top right is an almost medieval diagram in which a world of earth and water is drawn (with corresponding Chinese characters of course) surrounded by a shell of fire and beyond that the shells of the different planets, the celestial spheres. At the bottom right is a three-dimensional view of the earth surrounded by the zodiac with chinese constellations, showing the connection between the zodiac (and thus the orbit of the sun) with the tropics. The tropics in that diagram are indicated with the same color as the tropics on the map.

The map is meant to be rolled out and explained. It is a wonderful summary of European science for a Chinese audience. Ricci's map became a huge success in China and was published many times, with or without the knowledge of Ricci and his colleagues. For Ricci, the map opened the way to court because it convinced the Chinese that they could learn something from the Jesuits. Even now you can come across Ricci's map in China.

ricci-kaart.jpg The pictures were taken in different places. First of all, on the left, a modern interpretation of the Ricci map as a mural near Chengdu.

ricci-kaart01.jpg In the 徐光启 (Xu Guangqi) park in Shanghai, the map can be seen in a small exhibition about 徐光启, the Chinese scientist who helped Matteo Ricci in China and introduced Western science in China. His family house was in Shanghai on the spot where the park is now, at the back of the park is the family grave where 徐光启 himself is buried.

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en/kaarten/kaart_ricci.txt · Last modified: 2020/12/23 10:31 by Edwin Wisse