China at centre of rare map

2010-01-12 22:35

Washington -A rarely seen 400-year-old map that identified Florida as "the Land of Flowers" and put China at the centre of the world went on display on Tuesday at the Library of Congress.

The map created by Matteo Ricci was the first in Chinese to show the Americas. Ricci, a Jesuit missionary from Italy, was the first Westerner to visit what is now Beijing in the late 1500s. Known for introducing Western science to China, Ricci created the map in 1602 at the request of Emperor Wanli.

The map includes pictures and annotations describing different regions of the world. Africa was noted to have the world's highest mountain and longest river. The description of North America is brief with mentions of "humped oxen" or bison, wild horses and a region named "Ka-na-ta."

Several South American places are named, including "Wa-ti-ma-la" (Guatemala), "Yu-ho-t'ang" (Yucatan) and "Chih-Li" (Chile).

Ricci gave a brief description of the discovery of the Americas.

"In olden days, nobody had ever known that there were such places as North and South America or Magellanica. But a hundred years ago, Europeans came sailing in their ships to parts of the sea coast, and so discovered them."

Black tulip

The Ricci map gained the nickname the "Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography" because it was so hard to find.

This map - one of only two in good condition - was purchased by the James Ford Bell Trust in October for $1m, making it the second most expensive rare map ever sold. It had been held for years by a private collector in Japan and will eventually be housed at the Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.

"I don't want to take away from Ricci's other accomplishments, but we think this is pretty spectacular," said Ford W Bell, co-trustee of the fund started by his grandfather James Ford Bell, founder of General Mills.

Bell, who's also president of the American Association of Museums, said the map symbolizes the first connection between Eastern and Western thinking and commerce.

The Bell Library's focus "is on the development of trade and how that drove civilisation - how that constant desire to find new markets to sell new products led to exchanges of knowledge, science, technology and really drove civilisation," Bell said. "So (the map) fits in beautifully".

The map was being shown publicly for the first time in North America. It measures 3.6m by 1.5m, printed on six rolls of rice paper.

The Library of Congress rarely exhibits artefacts it does not own because its holdings are so vast, but curators made an exception for the Ricci map. It will be on view in Washington through April alongside another of the world's rarest maps, the Waldseemuller world map, which was the first to name "America." Later, it will be shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Most important

Associate Librarian Deanna Marcum said the Ricci was one of the most important maps ever produced. It's extraordinary, she said, "for us to now be able to look back and see what was going on in China at a time when different parts of the world really knew so little about each other".

The library also will create a digital image of the map to be posted online for researchers and students to study later this year. The map also was the first to incorporate both Eastern and Western maps.

In a statement, Ti Bin Zhang, first secretary for cultural affairs at the Chinese Embassy, said the map represents "the momentous first meeting of East and West" and was the "catalyst for commerce."

No examples of the map are known to exist in China, where Ricci was revered and buried. Only a few original copies are known to exist, held by the Vatican's libraries and collectors in France and Japan.