Every Minnesota snowbird will recognize Florida on the first Chinese map to show the American continents. But their home state? Not likely.
Published in Beijing in 1602, the Kunyu wanguo quantu, or Map of the 10,000 Countries of the World, is one of the world's rarest and most valuable antique maps. Only six copies have survived, and the best-preserved is now at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through Aug. 29. The centerpiece of a sparkling little exhibit, it offers an extraordinary snapshot of civilization at the dawn of globalization.
The James Ford Bell Trust recently bought the map for $1 million on behalf of the University of Minnesota's James Ford Bell Library, which has lent it to the museum. It is being shown for the first time since an appearance at the Library of Congress this winter.
"It's going to be the jewel in [the Bell Library's] crown," said Rachel McGarry, assistant curator of prints and drawings at the Minneapolis museum, who organized the display. "It will attract scholars and visitors to the university because there is so much to be learned from this map, and it fits so well into the Bell's collection about trade and exploration."
Written entirely in Chinese, the map is more than 5 feet tall and 12 feet wide and printed on six panels like a folding screen. China takes center stage, with the American continents at the right beyond a vast ocean of stylized waves. Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India are accurately delineated to the left of the Middle Kingdom, as China was then known.
Map aficionados have nicknamed it "the Impossible Black Tulip" because it is as rare as an all-black blossom. The Vatican owns one of the maps, and the other four are in private collections in Japan and France. Long presumed lost or destroyed, the Bell map came from Bernard Shapero, a rare-books dealer in London, who bought it at auction in Hong Kong. Before that it was in a private Japanese collection.
North American muddle
The map was drawn and annotated by Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary who sailed from Italy to China in 1582 and died there in 1610. Adopting Chinese dress and manners, he gained the trust of officials by learning Chinese and introducing European astrolabes, clocks, maps and ideas. As a measure of his acceptance, in 1601 he was allowed to enter the Forbidden City of Beijing, most likely the first European so honored. Made for Emperor Wanli, Ricci's map was the first to combine information from Chinese and Western cartography.
Some coasts of North America are detailed with impressive accuracy, especially the European settlements in Florida and California's Baja peninsula. Cuba, Jamaica, the Caribbean and much of South America are well-defined. But the middle of North America is a muddle. The St. Lawrence River slices deep into the continent like a wide estuary, and decorative mountains run through what is now Chicago.
Ricci must have picked up rumors about the Great Lakes because he drew a large pond, shaped like a cartoon thought-bubble, in the middle of the continent. Perhaps it was supposed to be Lake Michigan because he explained that traveling by boat "one arrives at the Kingdom of the Saginaw."
"The thing I love about this map is the mix of science and fantasy," said McGarry.
The map includes long, often imaginative comments by Ricci about geography, countries and people. Patagonia was a kingdom of giants where people were not more than 10 feet tall, he reported. Mexicans were extraordinarily beautiful and dressed in feathers. In Africa lived a creature with a thick hide, a horse's head and a horn in the middle of its forehead; he speculated that it might be a unicorn.
Ricci also got many things right, including placement of the Japanese islands, the fact that Korea is a peninsula and that the Nile is one of the world's longest rivers.
The one-gallery show includes other early maps, Ming dynasty porcelain, Chinese and European paintings, prints and an early edition of Ricci's diary. The Chinese objected to Ricci's missionary efforts, McGarry said. They liked images of the Madonna and child but were horrified by crucifixes, which they saw as torture.
While preparing the show, the museum discovered in its collection some 17th-century Chinese engravings of biblical scenes that were inspired by an illustrated missal Ricci owned. The engravings and missal are shown for the first time along with a small gilded statue of Quan-yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, holding a child in a Madonna-like pose.
Images of Quan-yin with a baby became more common after Christianity arrived in China, suggesting a hybridization of the religions, said McGarry. Architecture and decor were affected, too, as European aristocrats went gaga over Chinese porcelain and Chinoiserie interiors. Chinese rulers likewise built lavish pavilions in the style of Versailles and other European palaces, as seen in a suite of 18th-century engravings.
Christianity remained a touchy subject, however. McGarry pointed out a few "purposeful erasures" in Ricci's text on this map. The removed words all referred to Christianity, which "must have been deemed offensive to a later ruler," she said.
Such was the Pandora's box opened by Ricci's revolutionary map. "This really was the beginning of globalization," McGarry said. "The world was never the same afterward."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431