Impossible Black Tulip

The 1602 Chinese World Map is nicknamed Impossible Black Tulip because it is rare like a black tulip, and impossible by the European cartographic knowledge of its time. Not only is the 1602 World Map more accurate than the contemporaneous world maps by Ortelius and Mercator, it has geography not yet explored by Europeans until 200 some years later!

The following key points are incompatible with the notion that the 1602 Map is derived from maps by Ortelius and Mercator: 

  • Pasquale d’Elia translated 1602 Map into Italian. Why didn’t he extract them from the maps of Ortelius and Mercator?
  • 50% of the place names on 1602 Map have no equivalent on maps by Ortelius and Mercator. Where did Ricci get the information?
  • The errors of the Ulpius globe and maps by Ortelius, Mercator, Aleni and many other European cartographers are not reproduced on 1602 Map, showing the 1602 Map is not a copy of the European maps.
  • 1602 Map place names of America are geographically accurate 200 years before European exploration. 

A copy of original maps can never exceed in accuracy and detail of its master blueprint . How could all these happen if 1602 Map was adapted from maps by Ortelius and Mercator?

The 1602 world map labels all the oceans using China as the center of reference.  The ocean off Japan is Small East Ocean, off California is Large East Ocean. Indian Ocean is Small West Ocean and the Atlantic is Large West Ocean.  The nomenclature of Small West Ocean is east of Europe.  But, why did Chinese name Large West Ocean unless they knew it was bigger than the Indian Ocean (Small West Ocean)?  To tell the size of which ocean is larger, Ming Chinese must have cross the Large West Ocean (Atlantic Ocean). The name Large West Ocean persists till today. If indeed Ricci named the oceans with China as the center, the following errors in European cartography do not make sense.

A globe by Euphrosynus Ulpius in 1542 was commissioned by Cardinal Cervinus who later became Pope Marcellus II.  On the west side of a very rough America that is mostly just Mexico is an ocean named Oceanus Oreientalis et Occidentalis, viz. East and West Ocean. How could a geographical name include both east and west? This globe is now in the the museum of New York Historical Society.

Ulpius globe 1542

A similar mistake is made by Giulio Aleni (1582-1649), who was a successor of Matteo Ricci to the Jesuit China mission. In Aleni’s map 萬國全圖 (“Map of Ten Thousand Nations” ) drawn around 1620, the West Ocean is west of Europe on the left hand side of the map, while the East Ocean is east of America on the right hand side of the map. But these two are actually the same ocean now we call Atlantic Ocean.  This map is also attributed to Matteo Ricci.  How could Ricci be correct on the 1602 Map and so erroneous on a much simpler map? 

The Ulpius globe and the Aleni map made the same mistake of confusing east and west because the orientation of Europe is different from China. Apparently the concept of East Ocean and  West Ocean was known to Europe. But how to place them with reference to Europe is a problem.  The 1602 Map is correct because it was actually authored by Chinese using China as the reference.  The error of Ulpius and Aleni could not be resolved with Europe as the center. The frequent explanation of Ricci putting China in the center to please the Chinese. It is not true.

Accurate maps cannot exist before exploration. The 1602 Map is  geographically accurate about western North America, which was not explored until Lewis and Clark (1804-06).  How did Ricci accomplish all these without leaving China? Besides, without aerial survey, no single person could have covered the geography of 2/3 of the United States and most of Canada. It is a job of hundreds of people for many years.

Ricci had the opportunity to visit Nanjing (南京 South Capital) and Beijing (北京 North Capital) of Ming dynasty. Emperor Zhu Di(朱棣, reign era Yongle永樂) constructed the palace in Beijing in 1421, replacing the South Capital established by his father Zhu Yuanzhang(朱元璋). Archives are kept at both palaces.  In addition, Ricci was the first European ever allowed to enter the Forbidden City. By presenting a clock to emperor Wanli, he had the excuse to wind up the clock everyday to keep it working. With this legitimate reason, he could visit the Forbidden City. From the time he arrived in Beijing in early 1601 to the completion of the map in late autumn in 1602, Ricci had more than a year to access the imperial archives. 

Instead of using the full name Kun Yu Wan Guo Quan Tu (坤輿萬國全圖), a long Chinese name which few people understand or remember, I have been calling it the 1602 Map according to the year it was presented to Emperor Wanli.  In fact, the information of the map indicates it was mostly completed around 1430, some 60 years before Christopher Columbus set sail.  The Europe portion of the map is even more outdated, likely before 1342, which further excludes Ricci, Ortelius and Mercator as the immediate source of the 1602 Map.

Such conclusions are drawn from place names on the 1602 Map. Details on dating the map and why Ricci’s authorship was not challenged by the Ming officials is discussed in the following section. 

Siu-Leung Lee, PhD (2013.10.01)

Leave a Reply