We think of maps as tools for getting from one place to another, as sources of information about the geography of the world, as political objects for claiming territory and demarcating boundaries. They can represent real or imagined lands: districts to be taxed or cosmological realms to be contemplated in meditation. At their core, maps represent the known world, yet fantasy lurks in their peripheries. Maps, above all, give us a glimpse of how people at a certain time and location envisioned their world and their place in it.
The Riccie and Verbiest maps are the product of the collaboration between European Jesuit missionaries and Chinese scholars in the seventeenth century. They combine Chinese knowledge of Asia with European understandings of other parts of the world, which European powers first began to explore through long sea journeys in the fifteenth century.
Like people everywhere, the Chinese have had a long interest in mapping the lands around them. Although from an early date Chinese mapmakers drew scaled representations of terrain and had an understanding of the spherical earth, these ideas were not sustained throughout their history. Thus while Chinese astronomers in the first century conceived of the heavens like an egg and the earth as its yolk, a parallel notion of a flat earth encompassed by a dome of heaven was more widely accepted. And by the seventeenth century Chinese world maps tended to represent the earth as square, China as predominant, and other countries squeezed into the margins of the map.
Radical ideas were introduced to Ming dynasty China with European maps: the world was spherical; it had more water than land; and it contained five large continents. And although in the maps displayed here China was positioned near the center, it is evident that the “Central Kingdom” was but one small part of a large and wonder-filled world.