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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Emperor Taizong

We often think of Christian missionaries as Europeans, having and promoting European culture. The first recorded “Christian” missionary to China was not European, but Persian. His name was Alopen (阿罗本).

In 1623, digging in the ancient Chinese capital Chang-An (near present day Xian) workmen unearthed a monument written almost 1000 years before European missionaries arrived. It recorded Alopen’s journey across the silk road:

When the accomplished Emperor Taizong began his magnificent career in glory and splendour… there was a highly virtuous man name Alopen in the Kingdom on Ta-chin. Auguring from the azure sky he decided to carry the true scriptures with him, and observing the course of the winds, he made his way through difficulties and perils. Thus, in the ninth year of Chen-Kuan [635 AD] he arrived at Chang-An [Xian].

Alopen was not an orthodox Christian, or a European, but a Syriac speaking Nestorian who came from Persia. In his homeland of Sassanid Persia Christians were an often persecuted minority, under the ruling Zoroastrians. However, the Persian empire was fading, allowing Christians more freedom, and was soon to be swallowed by a rampant Islam in 644.

When Alopen arrived in China he was warmly received,

The Emperor dispatched his Minister, Duke Fang Hsuan-ling, with a guard of honour, to the western suburb to meet the visitor and conduct him to the Palace. The sutras were translated in the Imperial Library. [The Emperor] investigated “the way” in his own forbidden apartments, and being deeply convinced of its correctness and truth, gave special orders for its propagation.

The Tang dynasty that welcomed Alopen was itself new. Although the previous Sui dynasty managed to unify China for the first time in 400 years, it had quickly collapsed. When, in 613, Emperor Yang of Sui had chosen to launch a series of unpopular campaigns against Goguryeo, sections of the army deserted and farmers revolted. In 628, seven years before Alopen arrived, China was once again united by Emperor Gaozu and his son Emperor Taizong – the founders of the T’ang dynasty.

This T’ang welcome of Christianity did not last long. In 649, Emperor Taizong died. One of his widowed concubines, beguilingly beautiful Wu Zetian, would normally be expected to spend the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun. Instead this ambitious woman worked her way back into the ruling family. After killing her own baby to frame the existing Empress, the new Emperor Gaozong took her (his own father’s concubine) as his wife. When the Emperor died, she deposed two sons from the throne and in 690 set herself up as the founder of a new dynasty. She remained fanatically pro-Buddhist, even taking a Buddhist monk as a lover, and declared Buddhism the state religion in 691. Persecution of Nestorian Christians began in 698, when mobs sacked the first ever church in the historic capital of Luoyang.

There were many ups and downs, but the first taste that China had of Nestorian Christianity lasted until the fall of the T’ang dynasty in 907. As the Tang empire fell, the ensuing violence was not kind to religious minorities. One traveller (Abu Zeid) reported that as many as 120,000 Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were put to the sword. Eighty years later, the Nestorians were all but gone.

In the year 377 [987 AD], in the Christian quarter [of Baghdad] behind the church, I met a monk from Najran, who seven years before had been sent by the Catholicos to China with five other clergy to set in order the affairs of the Christian church… I asked him for some information about his journey and he told me that Christianity was just extinct in China; the native Christians had perished in one way or another; the church which they used had been destroyed and there not one Christian left in the land. (Abdu’l Faraj)

China’s next taste of Christianity would be another 300 years later, also from a non-European source – this time from the Monguls.

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Massacre at Najran

December 15, 2009

In the year 523, Christianity was not only expanding West into Europe, but also East to Rome’s nemesis Persia and eventually even to China. This was before the rise of Islam. In Arabia Christianity reached present day Yemen, where the Jewish convert and king Dhu Nuwas ruled.

Many of the people living in the town of Najran had become Monophysite Christians around the year 500. Conflict between the Jewish and Christian groups started and quickly intensified: Extortionate taxation was imposed by the Jewish authorities, Christians responded by burning synagogues and Jews burnt churches. The Christian minority even appealed to Christian Aksumite empire for help, who ruled just across the strait in Ethiopia. Despite their successful appeal to their African neighbours the Christians of Najran suffered a series of bloody atrocities.

When Dhu Nuwas invaded the Najran, he demanded the people abandon Christianity. They refused. It is said that the resulting massacre lasted for days. Pits were dug, filled with flammable material, and Christians were thrown into the flames.

The Book of Himyarites reports that one Najran man met the conquering army on the road. When they asked him “Are you a Christian?”, he replied “Yes”. For this offence they cut off his right hand, before asking him again, “Are you a Christian?” Again he replied “Yes” and so they cut off his left hand. “Now, are you still a Christian?” they asked. He replied “Yes, in life and death I am a Christian”. They cut off his feet and left him to die, still a Christian.

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