Several blogs, including the always great The Map Room, and news outlets have reported on the famous 400 year-old Chinese map now showing at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The map is huge measuring twelve feet by five feet (about 4 meters by 1.5 meters) and made with rice paper. The map is the first Chinese map to feature the New World and features a place best transliterated as ‘Kan-na-ta’.
While the map is very interesting and I invite all see it and enjoy it as the cartographic wonder that it is, I also greatly enjoy learning about the story behind the map. The map is a product of a possible China that died almost 300 years ago: a Christian China with open relations with Europe.
The cartographer, Matteo Ricci, was an Italian Jesuit priest who took part in the first global Catholic missionary wave. With the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox leaderships crushed by Islamic Mongol and Turkic forces, the Catholic Church became the sole missionary church (surprisingly for many modern readers, the early Protestants cared little about missionary efforts). With Latin American Indians being Christianized, the Jesuits turned their attention to China. China had two earlier, Nestorian missionary waves but xenophobia and the downfall of Christian-friendly Mongols had foiled these somewhat successful attempts. It was now the Jesuits turn.
The Jesuits were active in China from the late 1500s to early 1700s. Their first leader was Ricci. He lead a dual effort that focused on converting the Chinese peasantry while serving the pagan emperors as scientists, doctors, and advisers. The goal was to gain converts while showing the leaders that Christianity can be a loyal and productive faith. The missionaries adopted the Chinese language, dress, and even took on Chinese names to better become part of the host culture.
The Jesuits engaged in questionable practices that angered the smaller Dominican missionaries. Ricci and other Jesuits tried to integrate ancestor worship and parts of Conformism. The Jesuits saw it as no different than the fusing of American Indians beliefs into Christianity. After a long back and forth political battle Pope Clement XI ruled in 1715 in favor the Dominicans and outlawed the Jesuits practices. Emperor Kangxi saw these as outsiders trying to change the very nature of China and went on to outlaw Christianity. This break not only destroyed Christianity in China but also soured relations between Europe and China.
The Ricci Map is undeniably a Chinese map. It shows the combination of European knowledge with a Chinese worldview. It shows a lost world.