Verbiest’s World Map 坤與全圖

David LeffmanAntiques, map, Mesny, Verbiest, William Gill, Woodblock print Leave a Comment

In 2016 I was extraordinarily lucky to come across this woodblock-printed world map at an antiques stall in Beijing. (The poor quality of the photo is because they didn’t want me taking one, and I had to sneak it from a distance with my ancient, low-res ipod touch camera. They wouldn’t sell me the print either.)

Verbiest’s World Map

The original version dates to 1674 and was made for the Qing emperor by the polymath Jesuit priest, Ferdinand Verbiest. Not that this example is so old: it’s either a nineteenth-century edition printed at Guangzhou, or a 1930s version from Korea. It’s printed in twelve separate, vertical strips, and measures around 2m x 4m.

A clue to the original map’s date are that Tasmania and New Guinea are still shown joined to the Australian mainland – here called 新阿蘭地亞, “xin alandiya” or New Holland – and that western Australia is well-defined but the eastern coast is very vague, definitely pre-dating Cook’s voyage of 1770. Interestingly, there are two large lakes shown in Africa – something the British didn’t know about until the mid-nineteenth century.

The map is surrounded by cartouches describing world geography, and blank spaces are filled with ships and animals from around the globe. The bottom of the left panel (Antarctica) has a rhino, based on a sixteenth-century engraving by Durer. You can find much better photos of the map online (here, for instance).

Altogether, only eleven other copies of Verbiest’s map are known. Or is it closer to twenty? Everyone disagrees. Incidentally, Verbiest was also responsible for designing several of the extraordinary bronze instruments on the roof of Beijing’s Astronomical Observatory.

There’s also a connection here to William Mesny. Incredibly enough he and Gill saw a copy of this same map, sea monsters and all, hanging up at Wuhou Ci, a memorial hall outside of Chengdu, in 1877. To quote from Gill’s diaries:

“In this temple hanging against a wall was a large map of the world on which was written that it had been made by a Frenchman. This was one of the early Jesuits about 200 years ago – everything is written in Chinese and it has the quaint pictures of full rigged ships – dolphins spouting and fish swimming in the sea while in the savage countries are representations of all kinds of uncouth monsters, but what is remarkable about it is that there are 2 great lakes shewn in equatorial Africa, and this shows that Burton Speke and Grant instead of being original discoverers only found out what was known to the old Jesuits, though this knowledge appears to have been subsequently lost. I have heard before of rumours of a map of this kind but was somewhat startled to find it on the walls of a temple in Cheng Tu. Mesny tried to buy this map and the old man in charge promised to [let him] buy it tomorrow but I doubt that he will do it.”

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