The Impossible Black Tulip

May 14, 2010

I love old maps. The second most expensive map ever was recently sold and has gone on display in the United States. Like something out of “Pirates of the Caribbean” the map’s name is the impossible black tulip. It is a map of the world – but unlike other maps in the era of exploration, this map is in Chinese. The impossible map was created by the missionary Matteo Ricci, at the request of the Ming dynasty emperor, Wanli.

Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy, in 1552, where he studied theology and law. Graduating in 1571 six years later he applied to go on a missionary trip to India. He set out from Lisbon and arrived in Goa in September, 1578. In India he studied Chinese and became an ordained priest, before moving further East, to Macao, in 1582.

One year later, the governor of Zhaoqing (in Guangzhou) invited Ricci to take up residence in his city after hearing of his skill in mathematics and cartography. In taking up the offer Ricci, together with Michele Ruggieri, established the first Jesuit mission in China outside  Macau. A small western Western map of the world on display in the Jesuit mission. At the request of the governor, Ricci translated the European place names into Chinese. In 1584 Ricci created the first ever Chinese map of the world – the rare, important and exotic “impossible black tulip”. No copies of the original 1584 map are still in existence today, only later editions. This map served to open Chinese (and subsequently Japanese eyes) to the world.

Ricci moved from Zhaoqing to Shaozhou, Nanjing and Nanchang. In 1601 he became one of the first Westerners ever to enter the Ming capital, Beijing. Here he sought, and obtained permission to preach Christianity. His atlases of Europe and the West revealed areas of the world that were unknown to the educated Chinese in Beijing. In turn, Chinese scholars had maps of the East unfamiliar to him. Together Ricci and Chinese scholars including Zhong Wentao worked together and created “A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World”.

But maps were not Ricci’s only contribution. Chinese is a difficult language for Europeans, particularly because it had (at the time  of Ricci at least) no Romanicized text, and also has four  different tones. From 1584-1588 Ricci and fellow missionary Michele Ruggieri created the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, complete with a consistent system for transcribing Chinese  words. By 1598 they had completed the reverse, a Chinese-Portuguese dictionary.

Ricci astounded Chinese scholars by mastering the Chinese language, but also knowing their culture and philosophy. There are “four books” of Confucian teaching: Great LearningDoctrine of the Mean, Analects of Confucius, Mencius. These works were considered essential for aspiring Chinese scholars to know. Ricci along with Xu Guangqi translated them, among other classic works, into Latin for the first time. They also translated several classic European works from Latin into Chinese, such as Euclid’s elements.

Matteo Ricci was a missionary but he not a cultural imperialist. He spread knowledge both East and West. Last Tuesday, May 11 was exactly 400 years exactly since this man, Matteo Ricci, died.

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