Harvard-Yenching Lends Maps to Smithsonian
September 19, 2007 – Two maps from the Harvard-Yenching Library’s Chinese Rare Books Collection spent the summer on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The maps, 1860 reprints of maps by Dutch Jesuit missionary, astronomer, and cartographer Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688), were part of an exhibition titled "Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries," which ran June 24 through September 16.
The exhibit focused on how Portuguese voyages in those centuries—to far-flung destinations like the west coast of Africa, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, and Japan—led to significant cultural interchange and resulted in paintings, manuscripts, maps, and other works of art that, according to the exhibition website, "show the formation of a modern view of the world."
The Verbiest work loaned by Harvard-Yenching, "Kunyu quantu" (A Complete Geographical Map of the Earth), was published around 1674 and consisted of two maps showing two hemispheres. Xiao-He Ma, Librarian for the Chinese Collection at Harvard-Yenching, notes that although Verbiest’s biggest achievement actually lay in six huge bronze astronomical instruments he designed and built, he also contributed significantly to Chinese cartography.
"When European cartography was first introduced into China in the late 16th century, the major difference between European and Chinese cartography was that traditional Chinese mapmakers treated the earth as flat," explains Ma. "Maps by Matteo Ricci and Ferdinand Verbiest were the two greatest representatives of European cartography. Through Ricci and Verbiest's maps, Chinese mapmakers were introduced to the Ptolemaic system of organizing cartographic space."
Harvard-Yenching does not often lend its materials to other institutions for display, says James Cheng, Librarian of the Harvard-Yenching Library. "I am pleased that the special collections in the Harvard-Yenching Library are known to scholars outside of Harvard these days, after we have invested so much time and effort to put the materials in the Rare Books Room in order," says Cheng. "This map, which is not held at other institutions, was identified by the Smithsonian researchers and we are glad that it was included in this national exhibition."