Illustrated Explanation of the Sphere and the Astrolabe


Hun gai tong xian tu shuo (Illustrated explanation of the sphere and the astrolabe) is a translation of selections from Xing pan (Astrolabium), a work written by Christoph Clavius (1538−1612), a German Jesuit and teacher of Jesuit missionary to China Li Madou (Matteo Ricci, 1552−1610). It has two juan and an introductory juan containing a description of the celestial globe with illustrations. It was included in Si ku quan shu (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries). It opens with a preface by Li Zhizao (1565‒1630) written in 1605. Juan 1 discusses the methods of mapping various coordinate nets on the surface of the astrolabe, including the equatorial, the ecliptic, and the horizontal coordinate systems and stereographic projections for the astrolabe. Juan 2 introduces the structure and use of the astrolabe, methods of mapping stars with it, and applying European measurements. This is the first work in China that introduced the equatorial coordinate system, providing the strict definition of dawn in the morning and evening twilight, the sizes and distances of the sun, the moon, and the five constellations, and the principle of defining the longitude of lunar eclipses. Matteo Ricci, courtesy name Xitai, born in Italy, joined the Jesuits in 1571 and arrived in Macao in 1582. Together with fellow Jesuit Luo Mingjian (Michele Ruggieri, 1543−1607), Ricci reached Zhaoqing, Guangdong, in 1583, signaling the beginning of the Jesuit mission to the interior of China. While in Zhaoqing, Ricci created his famous world map, the significance of which was recognized by Chinese scholars. He continued his mission in Shaozhou in 1595 and in 1596 became the head of the mission. In 1601 he was called to Beijing, where he presented gifts to the court. Highly appreciated by Ming emperor Wanli (temple name Shenzong, reigned 1572−1620), he was permitted to remain in Beijing. Among Ricci’s other works are Tian zhu shi yi (The true notion of the Lord of Heaven), Jiao you lun (Treatise on friendship), Ji ren shi pian (Ten paradoxes), Ji he yuan ben (Euclid’s Elements), Tong wen suan zhi (Treatise on arithmetic), Ce liang fa yi (Work on trigonometry), Gou gu yi (Principle of right-angle triangles), Yuan rong jiao yi (Treatise on geometry), Wan guo yu tu (Map of 10,000 countries), and Qian kun ti yi (Structure and meanings of heaven and earth). Li Zhizao, courtesy names Zhenzhi and Wocun, and style names Chunan Jushi and Chunyuansou, was a native of Renhe (present-day Hangzhou, Zhejiang). In 1598 he received his jin shi degree and took up various posts, among them vice director of the Bureau of Works in Nanjing, director of the Bureau of Waterways, and vice director of the Court of the Imperial Stud. He participated in the compilation of the almanac; he also assisted Ricci in compiling the world map. In addition to this work, he recorded from Ricci’s dictation some of the latter’s works, including Tong wen suan zhi, Yuan rong jiao yi, Huan you quan (Explanation of heaven and earth), and Ming li tan (An exploration of the patterns of names).

Last updated: November 9, 2017