A religious order, a great man and an intriguing Chinese map on display in Washington

Some called them the Pope's "spiritual commandos." In the 1500s and 1600s, they travelled the world in missionary work and education and left their mark in many unexplored places. Courageous, tenacious and erudite, they followed a form of military disciple. That is not surprising, considering their teacher was himself a former soldier. He became a fighter for the church after he was wounded defending a Spanish citadel. A cannonball broke his leg. He survived, and during his convalescence he studied the great spiritual heroes of Christianity. After a period of study in several European universities, he gathered a growing number of followers. They pledged a bond of poverty and chastity and then presented themselves of service to the Vatican.

We are speaking about the Jesuits and the founder of their order, Ignatius of Loyola.

They certainly left their mark in history. And now the work of one of their own, a large map on display in Washington, is drawing the attention of scholars and the public alike.

The Jesuits travelled widely and converted many people in remote areas of the world, including the Indian sub-continent, North America, South America and also in Japan, where they established a connection with Japanese ruling class, who admired their sense of discipline and hierarchy.

The Jesuit presence in China is remarkable, too, because of the work of one man in particular, Matteo Ricci, who worked in China for 27 years. During that time, the Italian scholar rose to the position of court mathematician in Peking and successfully bridged the cultures of Western Europe with those of the Chinese empire. He adapted completely to Chinese customs in dress and behaviour and wrote extensive scientific works in Chinese.

He is remarkable for another of his many talents: map making. Ricci produced incredibly detailed maps of Asia. His world map of 1602 made a significant contribution in bringing together the political and religious goals of both Rome and the Chinese emperors. It seems odd that a map could do this. But the document was much more than an accurate geographical representation of land masses and geographic features; it was a layered record of subtle and important diplomatic undertones. Henry Kissinger must be an admirer of his work.

What's of notable interest these days is that the Matteo Ricci map of 1602 is now on display at U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. There is much more to learn about this exhaustive work.

The New York Times' presents an interesting perspective. The article is linked here: "A Big Map That Shrank The World."

For more information, see the following:

Matteo Ricci and his contributions to science in china.
History of the Jesuits.

Image of Ricci is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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