01/26/2010, 00.00
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Matteo Ricci maps did not put China at centre of the world

by Annie Lam
Father Ricci drew many maps. Well-known scholar Father Criveller speaks to AsiaNews about the incorrect but widespread belief that the Jesuit put China's at the centre, making it larger to please the Chinese. Cartography as an instrument of mission and to learn about God's creation

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - "It is not correct" to say that the map made by the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci in the late 16th early-17th century puts China at the centre of the world, the noted scholar Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions tells AsiaNews, , an expert on the work of Ricci in China.

"It’s an undying legend – observes the scholar - that Ricci placed China at the centre of his map and also that he represented it as being larger than the rest of the world." In contrast, the centre of the map is the Pacific Ocean and the central meridian falls with Japan to the east, leaving Europe, Africa and Asia to the left (of the observer), and the Americas on the right.

Fr. Criveller stresses that "you only need to look at Ricci’s map to understand that this is not true" and he illustrates the reproduction of various editions of the map, taken from the " Ricciane Sources" of the Jesuit Father Pasquale D'Elia. He refers people to what Father Ricci himself wrote in his diary: "On the entrance in China of the Society of Jesus and Christianity," which notes that some "scholars" were unhappy to see that China was not placed in the centre of the world and that it seemed small”.  

"But we continue to read, even in prestigious publications edited by trained people, that Ricci has put China at the centre of the world, to please the Chinese, as sign of respect to China and compliance with its customs." The priest recalled that, during a symposium held in November 2009 in the Macau Ricci Institute, the cartographer Angelo Cattaneo rejected once and for all this inaccurate view.

Even the Fr. D’ Elia, in his book, expressed the hope that this "tenacious legend will finally die out and he recalled the origin found in the writings of the Jesuit Giovanni Battista Riccioli, who in 1651 wrote that, indeed, Father Ricci put China at the centre of the world and made it larger than other countries, not to offend the Chinese. Riccioli misinterpreted a Latin translation of the story by the same Ricci on his mission in China. Father Criveller insists that in Ricci’s original diary, written in 1609 and 1610, there is no trace of this version.

Also the report written by the Jesuit Daniello Bartoli in the late 17th century appears to confirm this legend, even if Bartoli only wrote that Ricci placed China "towards" the centre of the map. Other scholars, such as Cordier, Gemini-Carelli and Latourette, speak of the "tenacious legend” that father D’Elia has tried unsuccessfully to deny. Certainly none of them could see the current map. "This legend is tenacious, and I do not know if, after these honest explanations, it will now be abandoned permanently" (D'Elia, Fonti Ricciane, I, 211).


The first edition of Ricci’s map of the world, titled Yudi Shanhai quantu (full map of mountains and seas of the world), was published in Zhaoqing, Guangdong, in 1584. Ricci himself supervised the  subsequent revised editions of Nanjing in 1600 and Beijing in 1602, 1603, 1608 and 1609. In all, the map has had 16 editions. Two authentic copies of the 3rd edition (1602) still exist and are the source of the maps reproduced today. This edition was compiled with Li Zhizao, entitled Kunyu Quantu Wangui (full map of the myriad of countries in the world).

Fr. Criveller adds that, according to Ricci, the map was "the best and most useful work that could then be done, to persuade China to give confidence to what we stated in our faith." "Making the maps was not only an instrument of missionary strategy, but it involved a religious worldview." He says that, in general, for the Jesuit cartographer maps are not just a visual representation of geography, but a way to know and understand the work of Creation. Understanding the universe precisely scientifically means to know God and Creation. For the Jesuits astronomy was a science that speaks of heaven, the road that leads to knowledge of God Similarly, knowing the earth and illustrating it on a map, is to participate in the work of Creation. Ricci - concludes the academic – made the maps not for political purposes, but to fulfil a religious experience”.

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See also
Asia, rain and pollution obscure the eclipse of the century
Xu-Ricci Institute of Dialogue opens in Shanghai
Jesuits and education, today and at the time of Matteo Ricci
The exhibit 'Matteo Ricci: Europe at the Ming Court' opens at Rome's Vittoriano Museum Complex
Matteo Ricci exhibit opens in the Vatican


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