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Installation view, 'China at the Center' at the Asian Art Museum (photo by Noah Berger) (click to enlarge)

Installation view, ‘China at the Center’ at the Asian Art Museum, showing Matteo Ricci’s “A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World” (1602) in the background (photo by Noah Berger, all images courtesy the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco) (click to enlarge)

Mounted on remnants of the old Ming Dynasty city wall, which once surrounded Beijing, are Western clocks and astronomical instruments for observing celestial bodies. Some of them were gifts from Jesuit visitors to their Chinese hosts hundreds of years ago. In the 1600s, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, European Jesuit missionaries arrived in China and brought their scientific, mathematical, and geographical knowledge, as well as their mapmaking skills, in tow. Cartography and geography, along with the movements of the stars and calendar reform, were of great importance to the Chinese emperor, who needed knowledge derived from these disciplines not only to govern his vast empire, but also to establish himself as a legitimate ruler according to the “Mandate of Heaven.” Like their fellow explorers and voyagers throughout the Age of Discovery, then, European Jesuits in the 17th century recognized the power of the map: it was a seductive avenue for engaging the Chinese elite. And as they sought new lands and peoples to Christianize, these missionaries traced lines, carved out borders, and charted courses over spaces that before had been — for their intents and purposes — blank.

Right now, on a burgundy wall in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, hangs the seminal third edition of the Italian Jesuit scholar Matteo Ricci’s Chinese map: “A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World.” Printed in Beijing in 1602, the majestic map comprises six panels that, when assembled, measure approximately 5 by 12 feet. It’s one of six extant copies — all owned and held in different locations — and one of two colossal woodblock-printed maps on view in the exhibition China at the Center, which, in conjunction with a series of other shows, marks the museum’s 50th anniversary.

The edges of the map’s panels are clearly visible, delineating where each part of the world starts and the next begins. The overall view is unlike that which has been impressed upon our minds by contemporary maps: Here, the New World appears to the right, Africa and Europe figure to the left, and Asia is positioned closest to the center. In its monochromatic splendor, Ricci’s map immediately challenges our visual habits, commanding pause as we find our bearings in this alternate view of the globe.

Matteo Ricci, “A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World” (1602), engraved by Li Zhizao, printed by Zhang Wentao; China, Beijing; ink on paper; owned by the James Ford Bell Trust, held at the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota (click to enlarge)

A map of the world is a visual statement, a rhetorical demonstration of knowledge of far-flung peoples and places. For Ricci, it was also a device for securing a foothold in the Chinese empire. Before converting the empire, he had to convert the emperor — and before that, Ricci needed to prove to the Chinese that he wasn’t a barbarian from the West. In 1583, he established residence in Zhaoqing, a city in the southern province of Guangdong. There, he mounted a copy of Abraham Ortelius’s world map on the wall of the mission room. “This proved to have beguiling visual appeal,” Theodore N. Foss writes in China at the Center exhibition catalogue. “Soon Ricci’s Chinese acquaintances asked that the map ‘speak Chinese’ — that is, be translated and interpreted.”

Ricci complied. In his journal he wrote that “the more learned among the Chinese admired it very much and, when they were told it was both a view and a description of the entire world, they became greatly interested in seeing the same thing done in Chinese.” This isn’t to say that the Chinese didn’t have world maps of their own; they did, but theirs weren’t quite so vast in scope. As Foss notes, “The rest of the world blossomed on Ricci’s map as it never had on a Chinese one.” For centuries, Chinese world maps had presented China as accurate but enlarged and predominant — other countries and continents appeared schematically on its peripheries, without much information beyond the imperial empire’s geographic and cultural purviews. Within the next year, Ricci drew and printed a new version of the Ortelius, giving birth to the first edition of his Chinese world maps: the “Complete Geographic Map of the Mountains and Streams (yudi shanhai quantu).” This edition was, unsurprisingly, far from perfect, but its erroneous depictions of the Ming empire and the Asian continent were corrected in subsequent, improved editions. The next came in 1600, and in 1602, Ricci created the third, this one much larger than the previous two.

Orienting the map with north at the top, Ricci defined geographic space by using a graticule, which traces longitudes, latitudes, and meridians onto the chart. He spun the globe, adjusting the projected image so that the Pacific Ocean appeared in the middle of the map, and China near the center. This, he writes, was a concession to the Chinese, who “firmly believe[d] that their empire is right in the middle of it” and objected to “the idea of our geographies pushing their China into one corner of the Orient.”

As a result, Ricci’s map looks decidedly different than the Ortelius on which his first edition was based. On the latter, the 0-degree meridian (known as the prime meridian in Mercator’s projection) passes through the center, whereas it’s the 180-degree meridian that passes through the center of Ricci’s 1602 version.

Matteo Ricci, detail of “A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World” (1602), engraved by Li Zhizao, printed by Zhang Wentao; China, Beijing; ink on paper; owned by the James Ford Bell Trust, held at the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota (click to enlarge)

The map is densely annotated with ideograms contained within descriptive boxes known as cartouches. The heavy textual supplementation aligns with traditional Chinese mapmaking; Ricci must’ve recognized its prominence. It conveys place names and descriptions of varied cultures, climates, wildlife, and peoples to be found in all corners of the world — though some of his captions seem bizarre and potentially offensive to us today. Consider, for instance, the so-called “Land of the Spirits,” located in the northernmost part of the Asian continent, somewhere in present-day Siberia. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this was still a region largely unexplored by both the Chinese and Europeans, and so the people were described as almost vampiric: They “are nocturnal, concealing themselves during the day while they are active at night. They cover their bodies in deer hide. They have the same ears, eyes, and noses as humans do, but their mouths are on the top of their heads. They consume deer and snakes.” (It’s worth noting that an encyclopedia compiled by Chinese historian Ma Duanlin served as Ricci’s main source for this particular piece of explanatory material, as it did for his descriptions of other places that were similarly located near China.)

In other parts of the world, inveterate gourmandizers of human flesh thrive. People in Brazil, we are informed, “do not build houses but live in caves dug in the ground”; they “like to eat human flesh, but they only consume men.” Other anthropophagites can be found in Scythia: “When parents grow old here, their children kill themselves and their parents consume their flesh. They do this in order to compensate their parents for their toil, preferring to bury themselves in their parents’ stomachs rather than on the mountainside.” In China at the Center, visitors can read these annotations in translation via multitouch interactive screens installed next to the physical map.

Installation view, ‘China at the Center’ at the Asian Art Museum, featuring Ferdinand Verbiest, “A Complete Map of the World” (1674); China, Beijing; ink on paper; Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC (click to enlarge)

In an adjacent room at the museum, another monumental map is on display: the Flemish Jesuit scholar and polymath Ferdinand Verbiest’s “A Complete Map of the World,” printed in 1674. The map is a xylograph print that spans eight scrolls, each of which measures roughly 196 by 52 centimeters. When all the scrolls are assembled, the entire map measures about 14–15 feet wide and 6.5 feet long. Each scroll is housed in its own translucent case.

Unlike Ricci’s map, Verbiest’s makes use of strict spherical projections. The world is seen in two hemispheres — each 1.5 square meters in diameter — that take up the six inner six scrolls. In the exhibition catalogue, Mark Stephen Mir, the archivist of the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History, explains, “Verbiest’s map is drafted as a stereographic projection, a technique for projecting a spherical object (the Earth) onto a flat plane (a map).” The Chinese title of the map, kunyu quantu, is diffusely printed on it, with two characters appearing in bold font above each hemisphere.

Like the 1602 Ricci map, Verbiest’s presents a world in which China is near the center. It, too, is densely annotated with text, though most of that is contained in 14 cartouches, eight of which lie in the outermost scrolls. Each cartouche is devoted to a different category, with one “On Humankind” and another on “The Spherical Form of the Earth.”

Ferdinand Verbiest, detail of “A Complete Map of the World” (1674); China, Beijing; ink on paper; Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC (click to enlarge)

Decorating the map is a menagerie of figures depicting animals found in various parts of the world. Descriptive notes accompany the creatures, which include a unicorn, a rhinocerous, and a spouting nautical beast — the latter “copied directly from Abraham Ortelius’s map of Iceland,” according to Mir. While Verbiest also lifted a number of textual descriptions directly from Ricci’s map, he clearly furnished his creation with a lot more information. His textual supplementations range from discourses on ambergris — that valuable commodity derived from the inglorious bowels of the whale — to elaborate stories of mermen and merwomen, to geological data on rivers and climates around the world. His map is far more replete with findings, possibly suggesting the Jesuits’ burgeoning knowledge of other cultures and places, however far-fetched or inaccurate some descriptions may be. Alternatively, it could be that Verbiest was just more meticulous and sought to inscribe his map with as much detail as possible.

His descriptions, like the ones found on Ricci’s maps, convey images of lands, watery masses, and curious inhabitants of disparate regions extending far beyond China’s physical peripheries. The country appears as part of a much larger — and rounder — planet than portrayed in traditional Chinese maps. At the very least, the introduction of European cartography must have expanded the geographical horizons of some Chinese, particularly among the intellectual elite, who were the ones with access to these maps and foreign scholars.

Ferdinand Verbiest, detail of “A Complete Map of the World” (1674); China, Beijing; ink on paper; Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC (click to enlarge)

It would be remiss, however, to suggest that European cartography swiftly supplanted the traditional Chinese approach. The Jesuits introduced Ptolemaic cartography to the imperial court, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century — or, some say, the early 20th — that Chinese maps began to bear resemblance to those produced in the West. For a significant period of time, Chinese cosmographical thought determined that the world was flat, with a beginning and an end, and Chinese mapmakers relied upon a square grid.

Meanwhile, this idea of “China at the Center” could be misleading if taken literally. The Chinese name for China is zhongguo, which translates to “Middle Kingdom.” But this does not necessarily connote geographic centrality — at least until the end of the imperial period, it implied cultural and political importance instead. The phrase “China at the Center” may lead one to think that sinocentrism was what led Ricci and Verbiest to place the empire near the center of their maps, but it was as much for practical reasons: such an arrangement would enable the Jesuits’ Chinese viewers to better understand and visualize — as all maps are meant to encourage — where they were located in relation to the rest of the world.

Installation view, ‘China at the Center’ at the Asian Art Museum (click to enlarge)

China at the Center: Rare Ricci and Verbiest World Maps continues at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin Street, San Francisco) through May 8.

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Rebecca Cheong

Rebecca Cheong is a writer and artist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Complex, and Narratively. When not reading or writing, she...