Chinese World Map

One of Only Eleven Surviving Examples of Ferdinand Verbiest’s Chinese Map of the World

Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688)
Kun-yü ch’üan-t’u
Twelve-sheet map, with vertical sections joined to form six larger sheets
Overall size: 6 feet 1 1/4 inches high x 11 feet 6 inches wide; Each sheet 6 feet 1 1/4 inches high x 2 feet wide
Korea, Seoul, ca 1860
Literature: Exhib. Cat. Chinese and Japanese Maps (British Library, 1974) C11;
Hartmut Walravens, “Father Verbiest’s Chinese World Map (1674),” Imago Mundi 43: 31-47

In 1647 Ferdinand Verbiest produced one of the largest double-hemisphere maps of the world to date. It was made for the second Qing Emperor of China, K’ang-hsi (1662-1722) and was part of a larger geographical work called K’un-yü t’u-shuo [Illustrated Discussion of the Geography of the World]. Approximately eight copies survive of the original map and this particular example is thought to be one of only two 1856 reprints. Another version was printed in Seoul in 1860, by order of the King of Korea, and only one example of this exists. 

Verbiest’s unique map was primarily made for Chinese use and designed to open China’s eyes to the rest of the world. It incorporates Chinese text with European cartographic knowledge of the globe at that time. In keeping with Chinese tastes and their belief that Peking was the cultural and political center of the world, China is placed at the center of the map with the rest of the world flanking it. The map is drawn using Mercator’s projection and each hemisphere is surrounded by two circles: the inner one giving the latitudes; the outer one giving the duration of the longest days for 18 different zones, from the equator to the pole. Descriptive cartouches explain geographic details and peculiarities of countries and oceans, as well as describing natural phenomena such as eclipses and earthquakes. Columbus’ discovery of America is also discussed.

In total 23 different animals, believed to be unknown or little-known in China, decorate the margins. Among these can be seen the bird of paradise, the unicorn, the rhinoceros, the chameleon, the tarantula and the giraffe. The illustrations were derived from Konrad Gessner’s Historia animalium (1551) and this part of the map became most influential - the illustrations and their descriptions were copied into the imperial encyclopedia T’u-shu chi-ch’eng of 1723 and the transliterated names included in Chinese and Manchu dictionaries.

The likely source for Verbiest’s map was Joan Blaeu’s monumental world map of 1648, Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula. Although the delineation of China differs, the maps are similar in size and a comparison and a concordance of geographical names shows clearly the relationship between the two maps. It is known that the first edition, with Dutch text, was taken to East Asia by Father Giovanni Battista Sidotti (1668-1715) and had some influence on the development of Japanese cartography. It is likely that another copy found its way to the Jesuit priests at the Chinese court. 

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The Flemish Jesuit, Ferdinand Verbiest, was one of the leading representatives of the Christian mission to China, a farsighted missionary and scholar of wide interests and remarkable ability. While Father Matteo Ricci is considered the founding father of modern Christianity in China, bringing with him the geographical learning of renaissance Europe, Verbiest along with Father Schall von Bell brought western mathematics and astronomy. 

In 1659, Father Verbiest arrived in China and became head of the China Mission after the death of Schall in 1666. When the young Emperor K’ang-hsi assumed power, the Jesuits, who had been banished to Canton, were allowed to return to Peking. A favorite of the Emperor, he was appointed “Summus Praefectus Academiae Astronomiae”, a position he retained until 1685. K’ang-hsi’s reign was a period of great geographical activity and the Emperor actively sought the assistance of the Jesuits in the mapping of China, a collaboration which culminated in the great Jesuit surveys finished in 1718. In 1674, Father Verbiest supervised the refitting of the Peking observatory. Verbiest died in 1688, a year after he was appointed Superior of all Jesuit Missions in China.