Fernando Sales Lopes*

HO SANG WONG 黄豪生. Historical Heritage I. Photograph 1998.


The Atlante della Cina (Atlas of China), produced during the last years of the sixteenth century and the first of the seventeenth and very recently published by Eugenio Lo Sardo, 2 reproduces what is considered to be the first complete European description of China.

According to Lo sardo, this work is "[...] the only Western testimony to the complex structure of the Ming Empire during the reign of Wanli."•3

Only recently, the Atlante della Cina became the subject of a detailed analysis by the organiser of this edition, who, in 1987, drew attention to its importance in an article published in the "Bolletino della Società Geografica Italiana". Lo Sardo's article identifies the author of this cartographic work as the Jesuit Father Michele Ruggieri, a fact uncontested and later confirmed by researchers.

The most interesting section of the publication compiled by Eugenio Lo Sardo are the articles4 which precede the reproduced maps. These constitute, in their own right, not only a valuable contribution towards an understanding of the maps themselves but also a clearer insight into the role played by the Society of Jesus in making the realm of the Middle Kingdom and particularly the personality and sapience of Michele Ruggieri — considered by many to have been the first real Sinologist — known to the 'outside world'. The introductory articles also throw light on Ruggieri's life: his adolescent years in the effervescent atmosphere of Naples, a melting pot of debate on the rising ideas of the Counter Reformation; his doctoral studies in Civil and Canonical Law under the aegis of the Spanish administration; his renunciation of secular life and admittance into the Society of Jesus; his departure for Lisbon, and his vows of priesthood and adherence to the Portuguese ecclesiastic jurisdiction. Also briefly mentioned are his travels to Macao with sojourns in Goa and Cochin. This comprehensive overview of the life of Michele Ruggieri is important for an understanding of the personality and background of the author of the maps of China in the Atlante della Cina.

Right at the beginning of his Introduzione (Introduction), Eugenio Lo Sardo presents a clear and profound insight into the methods used by the Society of Jesus to penetrate China and emphasises the pivotal importance of Macao as a unique and fundamental centre for the achievement of its proposed goals.

Joseph Sebes and Jesús López-Gay5 contribute with a short study on the formidable tasks assumed by Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci in China in the late sixteenth century and give a succinct appraisal of the maritime achievements of the Portuguese and their final arrival on Chinese shores. They also look at the importance of the Portuguese ecclesiastic jurisdiction in relation to the role of the different Catholic religious Orders in the Orient and, most importantly, the mission and achievements of the Society of Jesus in China heralded by Alessandro Valignano, Ruggieri and Ricci.


While the authorship of the Atlante della Cina might be the subject of hypothesis, the dating of the work, courtesy of an autographed annotation in which the year "1606" is mentioned, has been clearly established and unanimously upheld by scholars. In this first printed edition of the manuscript, Eugenio Lo Sardo contrasts the work of Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci, the two most knowledgeable Westerners on China and things Chinese of the time, comparing their references and even their handwriting. It is based on this meticulous analysis that Lo Sardo categorically attributes the authorship of the Atlante della Cina to Michele Ruggieri. Besides other supporting arguments, Eugenio Lo Sardo emphasises the fame enjoyed by Ruggieri as a cartographer. He also notes how Danielle Bartoli, a Jesuit who based his research for the compilation of his outstanding work Della Cina (About China) extensively on the records of the Society of Jesus archives, mentions Ruggieri on several occasions in his written accounts of his years of tribulations in the Orient, giving a detailed description of a collection of maps which, up to a point, closely correspond to those of the Atlante della Cina and its geographical charts. Regarding Ruggieri's knowledge of the Ming Empire, Lo Sardo also mentions Gasparo Balbi's text of Viaggio alle Indie (Voyage to India), published in Venice in 1590, in which the author describes the prestige Ruggieri enjoyed among Macao's learned circles as a "[...] consummate expert of the Chinese language and civilisation."6

Eugenio Lo Sardo goes on to analyse the structural elaboration of the maps and notes that their layout presents a number of similarities with contemporary Chinese charts with the curious detail that certain data is interpreted for a European perspective of the Middle Kingdom. For instance, at the time, China was divided into fifteen provinces under the direct control of the empire's two major cities: the northern imperial capital, Beijing, and the southern 'capital', Nanjing. This administrative system was faithfully reflected in all Chinese maps which Ruggieri might have had access to in the Orient as well as in the famous Guangyu tu7 (Comprehensive Map [of the World]) which, according to Lo Sardo, was certainly known to the missionary. But Ruggieri's maps do not comply with this prescribed division of China's provinces. He opted instead for a very personal formula, ordering the Chinese provinces geographically and sequentially and giving priority to those along the coastal meridian of the Empire. For Eugenio Lo Sardo, Ruggieri's sequentional description of China's provinces corresponds to contemporary Portuguese 'knowledge' of China and, dare we say it, the coastal provinces were indeed the most important regions of China for European overseas merchants, the southern and south-eastern provinces of China being those more easily accessible and open to foreign maritime traders. Geographical details of 'unfathomable' Inner China and the 'mysterious' Great Empire were more prone to satisfy the curiosity and excite the fantasies of the Europeans. Renderings of 'mythical' Cathay were eagerly sought by those who cherished to fulfil the dream of Francis Xavier — the great Catholic missionary who died on China's shores without fulfilling his aspiration of evangelizing the vast Middle Kingdom —, an old objective that the new religious 'cohorts' of the Counter Reformation persevered in their hope of achieving.


Essential to an understanding of the published maps is the article La fonte cinesi delle carte del Ruggieri (The Chinese Sources of Ruggieri's Maps) by Luciano Petech. 8 This article draws attention to a number of production details, such as the fact that the layout of the charts follows the Chinese formula of using a square grid to represent conventional distances. 9 This system of representation was not adopted in contemporary Europe. The author speculates that the Chinese map sources eventually available to Ruggieri might justify such standardisation and also that, as the Jesuit did not travel much in China, he was not fully equipped to draw a 'practical' survey, having to rely heavily on existing sources.

Luciano Petech presents a succinct appreciation of contemporary Chinese cartography at the time of Ruggieri's elaboration of the Atlante della Cina and draws attention to the account Algumas Coisas sabidas da China [...] (Certain Reports on China [...]), written in 1561 by Galeote Perreira following his imprisonment in China in 1549. Petech adds that " [...] the first book exclusively dedicated to China was written by the Portuguese dominican Gaspar da Cruz (°ca 1520-†1570) entitled Tractado em que se contam muito por extenso as cousas da China [...] (Treatise in which things of China are related at great length [...]), published in Lisbon in 1570."10 These two works in Portuguese supplied, for the first time in Western literature, the names of Chinese provinces and certain details about their major cities — although not always correctly. Petech concludes by stating that despite their geographic and cartographic importance these works were practically unknown outside Portugal. 11

Filippo Bencardino's paper12 (published in English in this edition of the "Review of Culture") gives an important overview of the representation of China in European cartography during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


This early Western cartographic corpus on China, which includes the works of Michele Ruggieri, Matteo Ricci and many others, aimed, in its broadest sense, at making the unknown known, in an attempt to satisfy the inquisitiveness of both Westerners and Chinese alike. The increasing number of maps and charts of the Chinese Empire reproduced by European publishers corresponded to the avid interest for this source of knowledge in the West. In China, Matteo Ricci's 'Map of the World', elaborated specifically for the Emperor and Chinese government, shows the Middle Kingdom at the centre of the earth's continents. Through re-asserting the geographic determination of China's ancestral civilisation and, justifiably, affirming the Empire's selected title, it thus emulated the pride of its rulers.

And what about Europe? The West was particularly impressed by the centralised power of China's administration. Michele Ruggieri's Atlante della Cina attempts to provide as much information as possible on this matter. Daniello Bartoli's references to Ruggieri's maps emphasise how they specifically describe the administrative hierarchy of the Ming Empire. Lo Sardo, on this same subject, states: "[...] in effect, what still impresses at present in this published work is the author's attempt to explain, with the utmost precision, the formal perfection of the mighty Chinese administrative machine."13

Michele Ruggieri's Atlante della Cina comprises thirty-seven folia with geographical descriptions and twenty-seven charts. The rendering of the fifteen provinces of China is included in the geographical descriptions, which include information on distances between sites, list agricultural produce, name the most abundantly extracted minerals, define administrative boundaries, and locate military barracks and army sentry posts — outposts of the Empire's defensive forces.

All Ruggieri's provincial charts are carefully introduced by the aforementioned information which is systematically presented as follows: the name of the province (sheng); •the name of the county (fu);• the distance between the county and other counties adjacent to its respective Imperial capital; the names of the cities peripheral to the provincial capital listed according to a canonical hierarchy of "ceu" (zhou)• and "hhien" (xuan).• These are followed by other relevant information, such as the size of provincial harvest yields and the location of military barracks, subdivided into the categories of "wei"• and "suo".

Sometimes Ruggieri adds further complementary data, such as the location of Imperial family residences, special tea-producing regions, sites of schools and institutes of higher learning, and information on medicine and religion. 14

An appraisal of this fundamental work for the West's understanding of China and of Michele Ruggieri as one of the most important cartographers of his time would not be complete without mentioning earlier Portuguese charts, maps and portulanos essential for the elaboration of the Atlante della Cina. Most particularly, Luís Jorge Barbuda's Chinae, olim Sinarum regionis, noua descriptio, which, two decades before Ruggieri's manuscript, was the first map to represent the vast expanse of the Chinese Empire. In common with Ruggieri, Jorge Barbuda's map also shows China divided into fifteen provinces, indicating their most important urban centres and marking them with their Chinese names. It also mentions the efficacy of the Chinese administrative system and the Empire's judicial structure, adding notes based on the close observation of the people, describing their lores and customs, and their physical traits. 15

Translated from the Portuguese by: Isabel Doel

* MA in History from the Faculdade de Letras (Faculty of Arts) of the Universidade Clássica (Classical University), in Lisbon.


1 Archivio di Stato di Roma, Roma (National Archive of Rome, Rome) [ASR]: MS.493 — RUGGIERI, Michele, Atlante della Cina.

2 [RUGGIERI, Michele], SARDO, Eugenio Lo, ed., Atlante della Cina di Michele Ruggieri, S. I., Roma, Archivio di Stato di Roma - Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato - Libreria dello Stato, 1993.

3 Ibidem., p. 11.

4 SEBES Joseph - GAY, Jesús López, History of the Mission in China at the end of the 16th Century and the role of Michele Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci, in SARDO, Eugenio Lo, ed., "Atlante della Cina di Michele Ruggieri, S. I.", Roma, Archivio di Stato di Roma -Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato - Libreria dello Stato, 1993, pp. 35-38; PETECH, Luciano, Le fonte cinese delle carte del Ruggieri, in SARDO, Eugenio Lo, ed., op. cit., pp. (39) 41-44; BENCARDINO, Filippo, La Cina nella cartografia europea dei secoli XV-XVI, in SARDO, Eugenio Lo, ed., op. cit., pp. 45-60.

5 SEBES Joseph - GAY, Jesús López, idem.

6 SARDO, Eugenio Lo, Introduzione, in SARDO, Eugenio Lo, ed., "Atlante della Cina di Michele Ruggieri, S. I.", Roma, Archivio di Stato di Roma -Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato - Libreria dello Stato, 1993, pp. 11-33, p.14.

7 Luo Hongxian· (°1504-†1564) Guangyu tu was first printed in 1555 in four tomes. It comprised forty-eight charts, the first being a map of the entire Chinese Empire. This was followed by another thirteen, each of which corresponded to a province, ending with those directly under the administration of Beijing and Nanjing. See: FOSS, Theodore N., Jesuit Cartography: A Western Interpretation, in "Review of Culture", Macau, 2 (21) October/December 1994, pp. 133-156; PETECH, Luciano, op. cit., pp. 41-44;.

8 Idem.

9 FOSS, Theodore N., op. cit., pp. 133-134 — "The positioning of points on Chinese maps had not been based on astronomical observation but rather on measuring distances from point to point."

10 GODINHO, Vitorino Magalhães, Mito e Mercadoria, Utopia e Prática de Navegar, séculos XIII-XVIII, Lisboa, Difel, 1990, pp. 291-292 — "The author gives a broader understanding of these works: "As regards China, the first detailed description of the country was written by the imprisoned Cristóvão Vieira and Vasco Calvo in their letters of 1524. This was followed by the 1554 narrative in the Enformação de alguas cousas acerca dos costumes e leys do Reyno da China [Information on the Customs and Laws of the Kingdom of China, Information on China sent by a Man to Master Francis], also written by an, anonymous, Portuguese prisoner, jailed in Malacca. Galeote Pereira, who was similarly imprisoned in 1549, also wrote a treatise on southern China, giving particular relevance to its jurisdictional system [...]. The Tractado [Tratado] em que se contam muito por estenço [extenso] as cousas da China, by the Dominican Friar Gaspar da Cruz (after Galeote Pereira) [...], was the first book printed in Europe to solely focus on the Celestial Empire. It describes the habits of the Chinese, talks about tea, mentions the Great Wall, looks at land usage, mechanical labour, clothing, rites and cults (despite his [i. e., the author's] negative attitude towards them), reports on the historical expansion of the Empire [...]. Altogether, it is a perfectly discerning view which was not to be outdated in the next few decades."

11 FOSS, Theodore N., op. cit., p. 134 — "A major first step in the European process of mapping China was the Portuguese cartographer Luís Jorge Barbuda's (°1527-†1598) map of 1584, published in the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of Abraham Ortelius (°1527-†1598). [...] It also set the European stage for the Jesuit cartography of China, for in that same year, 1584, Ricci, who had arrived in China the year before, produced a Chinese version of a European map of the world, which he had brought with him."

12 BENCARDINO, Filippo, op. cit., pp. 45-60.

13 SARDO, Eugenio Lo, Introduzione, op. cit., p. 13.

14 Ibidem., p.33; BENCARDINO, Filippo, op. cit., p.55.

15 LOUREIRO, Rui, A China de Fernão Mendes Pinto, entre a realidade e a imaginação, in "Estudos de História do Relacionamento Luso-Chinês, séculos XVI-XIX", Macau, Instituto Português do Oriente, p. 164 — The author deals with this matter in detail, stating: "Contrary to what has been said in the past, the new description of China represents a radical turning point in the cartographic depiction of China. Besides being the first European map exclusively dedicated to the representation of the Celestial Empire, it is the oldest known Western map to supply detailed information on the Empire's inner regions. [...] it illustrated the approximate contours of the fifteen provinces of China, several dozen toponyms alongside small diagrammatic sketches, a substantial diagram of the hydrographic network and the clear mainland frontiers of [the Empire of] China. Portuguese cartography moved resolutely beyond solely annotating China's shoreline and dared to penetrate inland regions in search of a more conclusive topography of the Middle Kingdom."

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