Illia Zheng: the Matteo Ricci Map

I’m getting into the second stage of my research, crossing from premodern sources to roughly early modern ones. The 1602 Matteo Ricci map, a source I am particularly interested in, contains a fusion of cultural and scientific knowledge from both China and Europe. Due to its complexity, it’s not really possible to read every part of the map, but I’ve spent some time just zooming in on different sections. Here are some of the interesting things I discovered:

At first glance this world map looks not too different from the one we use today, but on a closer look there are all kinds of oddities. This biggest of these is orientation– this map cuts down the Atlantic to completely reverse the Asia/East and Americas/West placement. I think this arrangement really reflects the fact that the way we view geography is very subjective and relative to our own positions.

Matteo Ricci map

Whereas China is most heavily loaded with geographical labels, the rest of the map records interesting features of foreign lands. What is roughly England is labeled to have “no venomous snakes”, and that “any  brought into the land lose their venom”. Although untrue, this label coincides with some early Celtic myths I know about saints banishing snakes. This brings in the questions: how did people map places they’ve never been? How do they trust that their information is accurate?

Section of the map on Northern Europe

This source is potentially confusing on a translational level. Not only are many location names no longer in use, they all go through several layers of translations. Given Matteo Ricci’s providence, most abroad location names were probably provided in Italian or Latin, which are then phonetically translated into Chinese as closely as possible. For me, that means sounding out the Chinese characters and trying to reverse-engineer it to something that sounds reasonably like the Romance languages, and then try to match it up with location names I actually know. Since my writing is in English, I anticipate running into this problem again in my essay. I am planning to look up contemporary maps made in Europe to see if that would help be resolve the issue.

Leave a Reply