An Italian Jesuit’s Chinese map of the world has captured the imagination of scholars of Chinese culture and history.
‘I just gasped!’
That was the reaction of history professor Ann Waltner when she first laid eyes on a Chinese map of the world, purchased by the James Ford Bell Trust for the benefit of the James Ford Bell Library. Viewing it at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where it was on display before moving to the University Libraries last fall, she was overwhelmed. “It was so big and beautiful.”
Known as Kunyu wanguo quantu, or Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the Earth, this massive world map was created in China in 1602 by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. It’s been called the Impossible Black Tulip thanks to its rarity; although about 1,000 official and 1,000 pirated copies were created in the early 17th century, only six remain (see sidebar below). Created by Ricci and then engraved on wood blocks by Chinese mathematician, astronomer, and geographer Li Zhizao, the map was printed on six paper panels by Zhang Wentao of Hangzhou, believed to be an official printer of the Ming court. Each panel measures 5.5 feet tall by 12.5 feet long and all were intended to be displayed on screens. Paper is notoriously vulnerable to sunlight and environmental conditions, so the 2,000 or so maps were essentially designed to self-destruct.
When the James Ford Bell Trust first unveiled the map at the Library of Congress a little over a year ago, University Librarian Wendy Pradt Lougee remarked that it would be ”a significant addition to the Bell Library collections, a rare resource with rich potential for scholarship.” Professor Waltner has already begun the research to create new scholarship surrounding the map. Waltner, professor of Chinese history and director of the U’s Institute for Advanced Study, has since 1987 convened a group of graduate students and faculty in a weekly Chinese reading group. Together, they read and translate Classical Chinese (a written language, the equivalent in English, Waltner says, of “somewhere between Beowulf and Shakespeare”) in materials they are working on. Last spring, before the map had even arrived in Minneapolis, the group started a careful reading of digital facsimiles of the Ricci map.
In fact, they started their reading with images from a different copy of the Ricci map, which made their discoveries on the Bell map much more interesting. For example, they could compare the text on the Bell map to other versions, finding that references to the name of God and the Christian abbreviation IHS were literally scratched off the paper. Why would that happen? As Waltner explains, the Jesuits were kicked out of China in 1735; after that, “it became complicated to own a Christian map.”
What really interested Waltner and the group were the comments the mapmakers made about other countries. Those include direct observations by Jesuits and some Chinese and European folklore. They were particularly uninformed about Central Asia, Africa, and parts of the Americas. Hence, while the area of Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida are fairly accurate (the Jesuits had already been active there for decades), the area north of Minnesota reads, “No one has ever been there.” An area north of the Great Wall of China is described as a place where “People here, when their parents get old, they kill and eat them as an act of filial loyalty.” These myths and stereotypes are a mix of Chinese and European origin, and translating their meanings made the group’s work particularly interesting. The Chinese reading group’s translations of the map informed the translations featured in the exhibitions of the map at the MIA last spring and summer and at the James Ford Bell Library in the fall.
Waltner has collaborated with other colleagues to produce new work beyond these translations. This winter, Waltner worked with University of Minnesota doctoral student Qin Fang and New York-composer Huang Ruo to design a multi-media program focusing on Matteo Ricci and his map. Using music, images, and text, the group created a layered performance that was premiered at Renmin University in Beijing in December 2010 by ¡Sacabuche!, an early European music ensemble based at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and directed by Linda Pearse. The ensemble is continuing to work on the performance and is planning another Asian tour. Read more about the project, including photos and press coverage.
Waltner is continuing her work on the Ricci map, as are many other scholars. Bell Library curator Marguerite Ragnow reports hundreds of visitors interested in seeing the map, including 83 students enrolled in a “Daily Life in Europe: 1300-1800” course this spring and a group of Ming historians on campus for a conference in honor of retiring Ming history professor Edward Farmer. Members of the general public also are enthralled with the map—its size and scale and the idea that it was printed from hand-carved wood blocks are part of its broader appeal. As one recent visitor exclaimed: “Wow!”
An earlier version of this article was first published online by the University’s College of Liberal Arts.