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Master Salon (8) – Imagining the Contours of Asia


The 8th lecture in the “Master Salon” series of Peking University’s Institute of Area Studies (PKUIAS), titled “Imagining the Contours of Asia,” was held on May 25. Prof. Song Nianshen, from the Tsinghua Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences, was invited to share about his new book, Making Asia: A History on the Map. The salon was moderated by Prof. Zan Tao, deputy director of PKUIAS; Zhang Minyu, an assistant professor at PKU’s School of Foreign Languages, and other experts participated.

Prof. Song Nianshen started from publication of the Kunyu wanguo quantu (‘Great Universal Geographic Map’), drawn by Matteo Ricci and Li Zhizao in 1602, which led to dialogue between the East and the West on geography and cartography in the 17th and 18th centuries. To better understand the significance of the Kunyu wanguo quantu, Song Nianshen briefly introduced the two different views of geography and the universe that existed in Europe and China at the time. He pointed out that ever since the ancient Greek period, Europeans have had the idea that the earth is spherical and the concept of the “inhabited world” (ecumene), which is similar to the Chinese word tianxia, referring to the space on the earth where human beings can live.

In the “inhabited world,” the northern continent of the earth consists of Asia, Europa, and Libya (Africa). The most typical geographic concept in East Asia was the “round sky and square earth,” which divided the country into nine states and regulated the area beyond the nine states with the hua-yi order (a concept of the division of the world between the civilized [hua, referring to the people of central China] and the barbarian [yi, all those living outside those boundaries]). As can be seen in the earliest surviving Chinese world maps, such as the Yu ji tu (‘Map of the Tracks of Yu’) and the Hua-yi Map, the world outside of the nine states was very vague to the Chinese people at the time, and many countries were only mentioned in written records. This was the typical Chinese concept of geography, which spread to the whole of East Asia along with Confucianism, and had far-reaching influence on many East Asian countries.

Although many studies have pointed out that Matteo Ricci brought Western scientific and technological knowledge to China, Song Nianshen pointed out that, in fact, his most important purpose was to spread Christianity When introducing the world to Chinese scholars with the help of the most advanced Dutch maps at that time, Matteo Ricci added many Christian elements. His most important model for the Kunyu wanguo quantu was the map drawn by the Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius, in which the concept of Orbis Terrarum was basically the same as that of ecumene. Beyond mapping, the greatest challenge Matteo Ricci faced was how to integrate the European concept of Orbis Terrarum with the Chinese concept of “round sky and square earth.” To solve this problem, he advocated the integration of different resources.

In the preface to the Kunyu wanguo quantu, Matteo Ricci said that the earth and the sea were round, merging into one sphere, with people residing in the sphere. He believed that the Chinese saying of “square earth” referred to the “immovable” nature of the earth rather than its shape. He also used the concept of jiuzhou (‘nine states’) in the Chinese context to explain “Asia” as being a part of the inhabited world in the European cosmology, and explained that there were more than a hundred countries in each state. This was also the first time that the concept of wanguo (‘myriad countries’, referring to all the countries of the world in the general sense) was used in Chinese maps to replace the concept of “hua-yi.”

After Matteo Ricci, Jesuits such as Giulio Aleni and Ferdinand Verbiest continued to transmit European geographical knowledge to the Chinese. At the same time, the Jesuits who returned to Europe, represented by Martino Martini, conveyed geographical information about China to Europe. The Novus Atlas Sinensis, which Martini drew, converted the Chinese measurements into Western latitude and longitude and depicted the map as in the European concept of the Orbis Terrarum, thus realizing the fusion of Chinese and Western cartography; it was in this atlas that China was recognized for the first time as an “empire.”

According to Prof. Song, the cartography of Matteo Ricci and Martino Martini was a typical phenomenon of early globalization: benefiting from the respective beginnings of modernity in Western Europe and East Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Kunyu wanguo quantu, drawn by Europeans for the use of Chinese intellectuals, and the Novus Atlas Sinensis, which was based on Chinese geographical knowledge and presented it for the benefit of European readers, created a systematic exchange of the worldviews and the cosmology at its most fundamental level. In this process, cartographical knowledge in Europe and Asia continued to converge, and this convergence demonstrated that modernity did not originate in Europe and then spread all over the world; rather, it had multiple origins.

Song Nianshen concluded that space may seem natural, but its categorization was also deeply influenced by politics and ideology, and that the term “Asia” was a product of the fusion of different cultures and concepts of space and time, representing a diverse and open intellectual landscape embedded in local cultures, which was also the core idea of his book, Making Asia: A History on the Map. With the advent of capitalist globalization in the 16th century, the notion of “Asia” was increasingly imagined in hierarchical, exclusive, and jigsaw puzzle-like ways, but it was never completely disciplined, but rather challenged, questioned, and rethought monolithic systems of value through multiple practices. By imagining Asia in its diverse and mutually un-exclusive contours, we are able to present a richer and more three-dimensional picture of humanity’s overall spatial consciousness.

In the discussion session, Zan Tao and Zhang Minyu engaged in further in-depth discussions and exchanges around the influence of world maps outside the scholarly class, the power of discourse in the convergence of civilizations, and the dispute between cultural essentialism and post-colonial tendency in Asian studies. Song Nianshen concluded that global history itself had a kind of resistance, and the examination and reflection on the global order, its power structure and its knowledge system were of great significance for area studies in contemporary China.