by Kelly O'Brien
"I just gasped!"
That was the reaction of history professor Ann Waltner when she first laid eyes on a Chinese map of the world, recently purchased for the benefit of the James Ford Bell Library at the U. Viewing it at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where it is on display before moving to the U, she was overwhelmed. "It was so big and beautiful."
Known as the 1602 Ricci Map, this six-panel, 5.5 foot tall by 12.5 foot long map was created in China in 1602 by Jesuit missionary Mateo Ricci. It's been called The Impossible Black Tulip thanks to its rarity; although about 1,000 official and 1,000 pirated copies were created in the early 17th century, only seven remain (see sidebar). Block-printed on paper, the map was created in panels that were intended to be displayed on screens. Paper is notoriously vulnerable to sunlight and environmental conditions, so the 2,000 or so maps were essentially designed to self-destruct.
Although purchased by the James Ford Bell Trust to benefit the University Libraries, the map is resonating through the College of Liberal Arts. Waltner is a professor of Chinese history and since 1987 has convened a group of grad students and faculty in a Chinese reading group which meets weekly. As a group, they read and translate Classical Chinese (a written language, the equivalent in English, Waltner says, of "somewhere between Beowulf and Shakespeare") in materials they are working on. Last spring, before the map had even arrived in Minneapolis, the group started a careful reading of digital facsimiles.
Ricci's diaries of the time described his bemusement as woodblock carvers worked simultaneously to create both official and pirate versions of the map. These rogue woodblocks resulted in those 1,000 unofficial, or pirate, copies of the 1602 Ricci map. (The contemporary practice of the Chinese consuming pirated DVDs perhaps reflects a long and honorable tradition of opportunistically propagating knowledge and culture from abroad.) When Wisconsin artist Gaylord Schanilec, a noted wood engraver and print maker, first viewed the Bell's map, his response was, "This was printed in a hurry." Could Minnesota's map be one of the pirate copies? If so, it would be the only known version in the world.
In fact, they started their reading with images from a different copy of the Ricci map, which made their discoveries on the Bell map much more interesting. For example, they could compare the text on the Bell map to other versions, finding that references to the name of God and the Christian abbreviation IHS were literally scratched off the paper. Why would that happen? As Waltner explains, the Jesuits were kicked out of China in 1735; after that, "it became complicated to own a Christian map."
What really interested Waltner and the group were the comments the mapmakers made about other countries. Those include direct observations by Jesuits and some Chinese and European folklore. They were particularly uninformed about Central Asia, Africa and parts of the Americas. Hence, while the area of Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, and Florida are fairly accurate (the Jesuits had already been active there for decades), the area north of Minnesota reads, "No one has ever been there." Tibet is described as a place where "People here, when their parents get old, they kill and eat them as an act of filial loyalty." These myths and stereotypes are a mix of Chinese and European origin, and translating their meanings and origins made the group's work particularly interesting.
The Chinese reading group's work on the map is done for now, so they are back to their regular repertoire of reading each others' work on wide ranging topics such as transformations in the Chinese legal system or gender politics of the early 20th century. The benefits to its members are multiple: they get help translating their work but also are exposed to areas of language that might be new to them. But in their work on the Ricci map, they had the unusual opportunity to provide a service to the public. Some of their translations are on view with the map at the MIA through August 29 and will be featured in an exhibit at the James Ford Bell Library this fall, "Matteo Ricci and the Jesuits in China," which will also feature the 1602 map.
University of Minnesota researchers are employing technology and the discerning eyes of tens of thousands of volunteers around the world to decipher ancient texts. Learn more
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Reach: The College of Liberal Arts Magazine