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The Spread of Knowledge

Although Europe and China had contacts via overland routes from the first century CE, records of these interactions are few. Many Europeans learned about China from Marco Polo’s accounts of his time there in the late 1200s.
After ending its journeys of sea exploration in the early 1400s and abandoning trade via the Silk Road, China’s contacts with the West became very limited for almost two centuries, until the early 1600s.

The maps in this exhibition are the product of collaborations between European Jesuit missionaries and Chinese scholars in the 17th century. They combine Chinese knowledge of Asia with European understandings of other parts of the world, which European powers first began to explore through long sea journeys in the 15th century.

Like people everywhere, the Chinese have had a long interest in mapping the lands around them. Although from an early date Chinese mapmakers drew scaled and measured representations of terrain and had an understanding of the spherical Earth, these ideas were not sustained. The idea of the spherical Earth was no longer well known by the 17th century, and Chinese world maps tended to represent the earth as square, China as predominant, and other countries squeezed into the margins. Radical ideas were introduced to Ming-dynasty China with European maps: The world was spherical, had more water than land, and contained five large continents.