In London in December 1598 a group of actors and other theatrical professionals, part of a company called the Chamberlain’s Men, armed themselves with “swords, daggers, bills, axes, and such like.” In the bitter cold they waited for nightfall in the northeastern suburb of Shoreditch, “a disreputable place, frequented by courtesans.” Their target was an abandoned entertainment complex called The Theatre, where they had performed for several years until being barred by their landlord over political and financial disputes. Now, under cover of night, they systematically disassembled the theater and transported its timbers to a warehouse by the Thames. Within months they would use them to build a new theater south of the river.

But what to call it? The group felt the need to rebrand. Competitors had sprung up all over town. The generic name “The Theatre” would no longer distinguish the company. Their creative team, which included the shareholder, playwright, and actor Will Shakespeare, set to work. The name they came up with was “The Globe.” It would be “a wide and universal theatre.”

What made the globe such a compelling brand at the turn of the sixteenth to seventeenth century? For one thing, it was during this period that the world became truly global in the sense that regular trade — of ideas as well as goods — connected all of the inhabited continents. Thanks to the new maritime traffic, adventurers, diplomats, traders, and missionaries spread throughout the world. Among them was a group of Jesuits who gained access to Ming China. The most famous of these was an Italian, Matteo Ricci, who arrived in Macau in 1583, established connections with Chinese literati, and lived in that country until his death in 1610 (when Shakespeare was working on The Tempest).

China had once explored the far reaches of the world in giant ships under the direction of the eunuch Zheng He, but the Chinese had concluded that there was little in distant parts that was up to their standards, and they had officially curtailed such oceanic expeditions. An illicit maritime commerce based in south China was winked at, but it extended mainly from Southeast Asia to Japan, leaving much of the world unmapped by the Chinese. So Ricci and his fellow Jesuits armed themselves with celestial and geographic knowledge derived from the new scientific developments and explorations of the Europeans.

The European astronomical refinements impressed the Chinese, whose emperor derived authority from the “mandate of heaven.” With the long-lived Ming dynasty showing clear signs of decay, it was worth scrutinizing the skies more carefully for augurs of change. Not only that, but the distant world was increasingly knocking on Chinese doors. The Portuguese had been first, but now the Spanish had become involved through their outpost in the Philippines. Even upstart nations like Shakespeare’s Britain were starting to dip their toes in distant waters. Who were these barbarians with their great ships?

Ricci found a keen audience for his geographic knowledge. In 1584—when Shakespeare was twenty and learning his trade—Ricci, with the help of Chinese colleagues, produced a large woodblock-printed Chinese-language map of the entire world. It was an extraordinary achievement that eventually came even to the attention of the dissolute and reclusive Ming monarch, the Wanli emperor. Ricci was called to the capital, where, in 1602—around the time Shakespeare was writing Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cresida, and All’s Well That Ends Well—he created an even grander and substantially updated map. It incorporated Asian knowledge of the world obtained from Ricci’s Chinese colleagues as well as new geographical information that had arrived from Europe.

Ricci map of 1602

A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World, 1602, by Matteo Ricci (Italian, 1552–1610), with Li Zhizao (1565–1630), printed by Zhang Wentao (dates unknown). China; Beijing. Six-panel woodblock print; ink on paper. Owned by the James Ford Bell Trust, Held at the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

The map was printed from its blocks many times, but only six copies remain in existence, of which only two are in good condition. One of these—the only one in the Americas—is now being shown (through May 8) at the Asian Art Museum as part of the exhibition China at the Center: Rare Ricci and Verbiest World Maps. It is accompanied by a copy of Ferdinand Verbiest’s monumental map of 1674, made for the Qing emperor after the fall of the Ming. That map has never before been exhibited. So the exhibition presents a rare opportunity to view some of the most important cartographic works of history.


The long preamble is necessary because the maps’ importance really is mainly historical. Visually, they impress by their large scale (the Ricci map is about 5 x 12 feet, made up of six vertical panels printed on bamboo-fiber paper), their relative accuracy, and their detail. But they are monochromatic works—a colored Japanese version of the Ricci map, made around 1604, is more similar to the kinds of maps most people are familiar with today, but it is not in the show—and they are relatively low contrast at that, so for sheer visual impact they cannot challenge some of the objects in the museum’s other current exhibits.

Yet they fascinate. The Ricci map is the oldest extant Chinese map to display the Americas (which it does pretty well). Viewers might find it slightly disorienting, since it reverses the more familiar positions of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to show China at its center. This is the meaning of the exhibition title, but this aspect of the map is not especially remarkable. Nearly all Chinese maps were political in nature and showed China at the center, so if you want to make inroads there, and if the emperor calls upon you to present him with a map, what are you going to do? In fact, the recently rediscovered Selden Map of China is remarkable precisely because it does not show China at the center (among other reasons).

One source of the Ricci map’s fascination is its abundance of annotations. These of course are written in Chinese but the museum has made many of the annotations on both the Ricci map and the Verbiest map available to English-speaking visitors through 55-inch interactive displays. This is a welcome innovation since the annotations have received surprisingly little discussion. They tell of such matters as the flowered landscape of Florida, the excellent wines of Madeira, and the feathered adornments of Amazonians. Elements of the fantastic appear in mentions or giants, unicorns, mermaids, and other creatures inhabiting the world’s obscure margins. In coming years such imaginative realms would shrink in the face of increasing knowledge of the world. So even as distant lands were being made to seem more present and the world more vast, the globe was in another sense becoming diminished.

Verbiest map

A Complete Map of the World, 1674, by Ferdinand Verbiest (Flemish, 1623–1688). China; Beijing. Eight-panel woodblock print; ink on paper. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., G3200 1674.V4.

At the Asian, the Ricci map is not only paired with the Verbiest map but it is also accompanied by historical books and paintings (though these, unfortunately, are all from the European side). Among the notable supporting objects are a copy of Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terrarium, 1570, which was one of Ricci’s sources; a 1615 account of Ricci’s work; and works such as Athanasius Kircher’s China illustrata (a sort of encyclopedia of China published in 1667), a 1687 book of Verbiest’s explanations of European science and astronomy, and Martino Martini’s Novus Atlas Sinensis and De bello Tartarico historia, both of 1655. Such books would eventually initiate a European craze for things Chinese.

The sprite Puck boasts in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that he could “put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” Visitors to China at the Center can now do much the same in a like amount of time. Maps tell us not just where we are but also who we are. These historic objects present a rare opportunity to experience a newly global world on the verge of modernity.


DISCLOSURE: I was once an employee of the museum, and have done a little bit of free-lance work for them. But I had nothing to do with this exhibition.