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Mathematical Treasure: Matteo Ricci’s World Map and the Zhifang Waiji

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Among the contributions of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) to the Chinese Ming Court was a world map. The Kunyu wanguo quantu, or Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the Earth, is the oldest surviving map in China to depict the Americas. It is a xylograph (wood block print) on six panels of fine native paper (made with bamboo fiber). Ricci was assisted by translator and engraver Zhizao Li (1565–1630) and printer Zhang Wentao. This map was completed in 1602 and represents the world as then known by Europeans but completely unknown by the Chinese. As an honorary concession to his Chinese hosts, Ricci drew China as the central reference point. One of the few surviving copies is owned by the University of Minnesota. In the 1620s, Giulio Aleni (1582–1649) prepared the version of the map shown here (retitled Wanguo Quantu, or Complete Map of the Myriad Countries).

1620s version of the world map created in 1602 by Matteo Ricci and others.

The Ming Emperor then asked other missionaries to prepare an atlas describing and explaining the new countries, which was completed in 1623 by Aleni and Yang Tingyun as the Zhifang Waiji.

Page from the Zhifang Waiji of 1623.

These images are available from Wikimedia Commons (Kunyu wanguo quantu and Zhifang Waiji).

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Matteo Ricci’s World Map and the Zhifang Waiji," Convergence (December 2022)