Great Universal Geographic Map


Matteo Ricci was born in Macerata, Italy, in 1552. In 1571, he entered the Society of Jesus and began his novitiate at the College of Rome, where he studied theology and philosophy as well as mathematics, cosmology, and astronomy. In 1577, Ricci asked to be sent as a missionary to Asia. He arrived in Portuguese Goa (present-day India) in September 1578, where he was ordained in July 1580. He worked in Goa and in Cochin (present-day Kochi, India) for four years, until he was summoned to join the fledgling Jesuit mission to China. He arrived in Macao in August 1582 and spent the rest of his life in China, living in Zhaoqing, Shaozhou, Nanjing, and Beijing. He spent his last years, 1601–10, in Beijing, where he and fellow Jesuit Diego Pantoja were the first Westerners permitted to enter the Forbidden City. Ricci’s method of winning Chinese converts to Catholicism was, in part, to impress on scholars and officials the scientific and cultural achievements of Christian Europe. At his house in Zhaoqing, he displayed a large Western map of the world. Chinese visitors were astonished to see the Earth depicted as a sphere and to learn that the Chinese Empire occupied a relatively small part of the world. They asked Ricci to translate the map into Chinese, which then was engraved and printed in 1584. All copies of the 1584 map have been lost, as have all copies of a second version that Ricci made in Nanjing in 1599. The map shown here is one of six known copies of the third version of the map, which Ricci made in 1602 at the request of Li Zhizao, a Chinese friend who was himself a cartographer. The 1602 version is the oldest surviving map in Chinese to depict the Americas and to reflect the geographic knowledge acquired by the European voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries. Shown are the five continents, Europe, Libya (Africa), Asia, America, and the rumored southern continent of Magellanica, and the four oceans, the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic. Ricci filled the map with ingenious annotations in Chinese that reflect the state of Western information (and misinformation) about various countries at the time. He described the Nile as “the longest river in the world. It flows into the sea through seven months. In this country there are no clouds or rain all the year round, hence the inhabitants are skilled in astronomy.” Of Canada he wrote: “The inhabitants are kindly and hospitable to strangers. In general, they make their clothes out of skins, and are fishermen by occupation.” In addition to its notes about particular places, the map contains geographic and astronomical information of great accuracy and sophistication, including a discourse on the size and shape of the Earth, an explanation of the varying lengths of days and nights, a table showing the distances of the planets from the Earth, and inset maps from polar perspectives (both north and south) included to show that the Earth is round.

Date Created

Subject Date

Publication Information

Beijing, China


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Type of Item

Physical Description

1 map on 6 panels ; 167.5 x 371.2 centimeters, sheets 167 x 61.5 centimeters or smaller


  • Relief shown pictorially.
  • Purchased in 2009 by the James Ford Bell Trust for the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.
  • Scale circa 1:12,500,000 at equator. 1⁰ = 250 li; (W 180⁰--E 180⁰/N 90⁰--S 90⁰).


  1. J. F. Baddeley, “Matteo Ricci’s Chinese World-Maps, 1584-1608,” Geographical Journal 50, number 4 (October 1917).
  2. E. Heawood, "The Relationships of the Ricci Maps," Geographical Journal 50, number 4 (October 1917).
  3. Matteo Ricci and Lionel Giles, "Translations from the Chinese World Map of Father Ricci," Geographical Journal  52, number 6 (December 1918).
  4. Matteo Ricci and Lionel Giles, “Translations from the Chinese World Map of Father Ricci (Continued),” Geographical Journal 53, number 1 (January 1919).

Last updated: January 3, 2018