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Matteo Ricci’s World Map (1602) at the Library of Congress

January 22, 2010

Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit scholar who lived in China from 1582 until his death in 1610. Aside from being one of the first Western scholars to master Chinese writing and Classical Chinese,  he also compiled an extensive Portuguese-Chinese dictionary (the first European-Chinese dictionary), developed a way of transcribing Chinese speech with tonal marks (an earlier form of what we recognize as pinyin today) and was the first foreigner to enter the Forbidden City. During his time in China, Ricci composed the first European-style map of the world in Chinese, now called the “Impossible Black Tulip due to its rarity (only six copies were published on rice paper no less). An original copy of this map was purchased last year by the James Ford Bell Trust for $1 million from a Japanese owner and is now on display at the Library of Congress as part of their exhibition on the early Americas (since if is the first eastern map to show the Americas).

The map was meant to be a homage to China as a great nation, but Ricci also drew parallels between Europe and China in his commentary in an effort to persuade the Chinese that there were other great nations besides their own. In addition, the map includes Ricci’s comments on the nations and people who inhabit them, for instance, there is apparently a country of dwarves in Northern Russia  where the inhabitants have to live in caves in order to not be devoured by ravenous cranes (haha – hilarious but it was from a reputable source at the time…).

The NYTimes has a great article about the exhibition here.

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