Two fascinating stories about China appeared in the press today – both of them, by coincidence, touching on her relationship with the West and her openness to outsiders.
First, a 400 year-old Chinese map went on display yesterday at the Library of Congress in Washington. It’s the first Chinese map to combine both eastern and western cartography, and hence the first to show China in relation to the Americas. Who was it created by? An Italian Jesuit missionary called Matteo Ricci:
One of the first westerners to live in what is now Beijing in the early 1600s, Ricci was famed for introducing western science to China, where he created the map in 1602 at the request of Emperor Wanli.
Shown publicly for the first time in North America, the map provides an impressively detailed vision of the different regions of the world with pictures and annotations.
Africa is noted as having the world’s highest mountain and longest river, while Florida is identified as “the Land of Flowers”. A description of North America mentions “humped oxen” or bison and wild horses, and there is even a reference to the little-known region of “Ka-na-ta”.
Ricci, revered and buried in his adopted home, provided a brief description of the discovery of the Americas. “In olden days, nobody had ever known that there were such places as North and South America or Magellanica,” he wrote, using a label that early mapmakers gave to Australia and Antarctica. “But a hundred years ago, Europeans came sailing in their ships to parts of the sea coast, and so discovered them.”
Ricci went to China with an open mind and an open heart, deeply sensitive to Chinese culture and sensibilities. At the same time, he was unembarrassed to share his own culture with the Chinese – whether scientific, religious, or cartographical… and the Chinese were remarkably open to this.
The second story is about Google’s recent decision to take the gloves off and remove the censorship it previously imposed on its own Chinese search engine. The fear now is that the Chinese authorities will pull the plug:
Google, the world’s leading search engine, has thrown down the gauntlet to China by saying it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service.
The internet giant said the decision followed a cyber attack it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists.
The move follows a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year, which has seen sites and social networking services hosted overseas blocked – including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – and the closure of many sites at home. Chinese authorities criticised Google for supplying “vulgar” content in results.
Google acknowledged that the decision “may well mean” the closure of Google.cn and its offices in China.
That is an understatement, given that it had to agree to censor sensitive material – such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – to launch Google.cn.
“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”
My great-grandfather (my father’s father’s father) was a Chinese cloth merchant who converted to Christianity when he was on his travels round southern China in the late 1800s. So when my grandfather eventually settled with his family in Sheffield in the 1930s he was already a Christian, and had a bridge between his own culture and the largely Anglican culture into which he arrived. I often wonder who converted my great-grandfather, what kind of Christian community he encountered on his travels, and what the historical roots of their own Christian life were.