Matteo Ricci’s map and the centre around China

An unattributed version of the 1602 Kunyu Wanguo Quantu of Matteo Ricci

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was a Jesuit, an omniscient one: author, translator, theologian and mathematician. He was the first Westerner to translate Confucius into a European language and, most likely, the first Westerner to be admitted into the Forbidden City. His conversation and intellectual dialogues with Chinese intelligentsia are documented and well known.

An unattributed version of the 1602 Kunyu Wanguo Quantu of Matteo Ricci


Ricci was also a great cartographer whose work is still influencing mapping and map making today. But, maybe, the most interesting aspect of Ricci’s cartography is the Globe centred on the seas off China, and not on Western Europe. In this regard Ricci’s maps are almost unique.

A famous world map by Giulio Aleni, based on Ricci’s map, from the archives of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome. Thanks to the Centro Giulio Aleni for pointing out to the distinction between this map and Ricci’s

First of all, Ricci was a real savant: he tried to understand, to respect and to live according to the Chinese culture. In Chinese, the endonyme of the country is Zhongguo, “The Middle Kingdom”. China is, to her inhabitants and for the surroundings, the “central country” and the central culture of the world. It was difficult to convince the Chinese that the Axis Mundi passes in Europe. After all the centre of the world is where we want it to be, and for the Middle Kingdom it is there, in China.


Another intersting aspect would be the knowledge of relativity: Ricci knew that the centre is a construction: the maps are but viewpoints after all.

An ultimate question can be deduced: where is the centre of the world? The answer can be easy: it is where we want it to be. It is clear that centrality, in this regard, is a construction. We construct our centre where we want ourselves to be.

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