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When the young Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) left Italy for missionary work in Asia, he traveled an unimaginable distance and faced extraordinary peril. Shipwreck, pirates, and disease were constant threats at sea, and letters from China could take three or four years to reach Rome. Ricci spent nearly thirty years in China, establishing Christian missions on the mainland. Often viewed with suspicion, he and his fellow Jesuits were arrested a number of times and banished from various towns. Yet in 1601, Ricci secured an invitation to enter the Forbidden City and became one of the first Westerners ever admitted.
Ricci’s religious devotion was matched by his intellectual curiosity. A scholar with interests in science, mathematics, and geography, he gained favor with China’s powerful governing class of scholar-officials, or literati. He mastered the Chinese language, studied Confucianism, and adopted the dress of a Chinese intellectual. Ricci introduced his new colleagues to the recent advances of Western science—from precision timepieces to terrestrial globes. In his own words, he “amazed the entire philosophical world of China.”
The world map Ricci created in Beijing in 1602 is exceptional on many counts. In addition to its large size and Chinese-centered perspective, it is the oldest surviving Chinese map to show the Americas. Although Ricci located China at the center, the map revealed the vastness of the globe, giving the inward-facing culture of the late Ming dynasty a wholly new conception of China’s place in the world. According to Ricci’s published diary (also exhibited in this gallery), when the Chinese saw “what an almost unlimited stretch of land and sea lay between Europe and China, that realization seemed to diminish the fear our presence had occasioned.”
To create this map, Ricci resourcefully drew from both Western and Eastern cartographic traditions. He relied on 16th-century Dutch atlases, including the Ortelius map exhibited here, and also consulted Chinese scholars and made use of Chinese maps and land surveys. Thus he was able to add such wonderful details as an accurate charting of the Great Wall. The map’s large scale, Ricci explained, let the viewer “travel about, as it were, while reclining at ease in his own study.” Although the map was printed in great quantities, today only six complete examples are known. After its showing at the MIA, this rare monument of cartography will be permanently on view at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.
[For further translations of Ricci’s map, consult Lionel Giles’s partial translation in English (L. Giles, Geographic Journal, vol. 52, Dec. 1918: 367-385, and vol. 53, Jan. 1919: 19-30) and Kenneth Ch’en’s slightly more extensive translation, also in English (K. Ch’en Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 59, Sept. 1939: 325-359). The entire text of the map was translated into Italian by Pasquale d’Elia (see Il mappamondo cinese del p. Matteo Ricci, Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca apostolica Vaticana, 1938).]