Round or Square: China, Christianity and the Shape of the Earth

Above: Portrait of Matteo Ricci, before 1610, unknown artist [Original uncropped picture and copyright information at]


Today, we have lost sight of how counter-intuitive it is to believe the earth isn’t flat.  Its spherical shape has been discovered just once, in Athens in the fourth century BC.  The earliest extant reference to it being a globe is found in Plato’s Phaedo, while Aristotle’s On the Heavens contains the first examination of the evidence.  Everyone who has ever known the earth is round learnt it indirectly from Aristotle.

Initially, the idea wasn’t universally accepted.  The Stoics adopted Aristotle’s cosmology, but the Epicureans rejected it.  After a century or so, however, all educated Greeks would have known the earth is a sphere.  Elite Romans, whose tutors tended to be Greek, agreed.  Most early Christian bishops, who were members of the literate class, concurred as well.  In western Europe, any doubts were dispelled by the writings of the Venerable Bede (ca. 672 – 735), who carefully set out the empirical evidence for the shape of the earth in his books on natural philosophy and the calendar.

China had its own world picture.  As the Huainanzi, a treatise on government prepared under the Han dynasty (202 BC – AD 220), put it: “The Way of the Heaven is called the Round, The Way of the Earth is called the Square.” 1 Correlations in nature confirmed the schema of round above and square below. For example, the Huainanzi assumed the microcosm of the human body resembled the macrocosm of the universe.  It went on to note, the head’s roundness resembles heaven and the feet’s squareness resembles earth.2 Song Yu, a poet writing in the fourth century BC, used another analogy, “The square earth is my chariot and the round heaven my canopy.” 3

This basic world picture undergirded ancient Chinese astronomy.  A foundational set of texts, the Gnomon of the Zhou, compiled under the Han dynasty, affirmed that the sky was a rotating umbrella far above the square earth.  We should not imagine this world picture impeded the Chinese from developing a sophisticated and accurate astronomy.  The calendar was all important and an imperial prerogative.  Likewise, the Emperor needed to be aware of phenomena like eclipses, since these were an early warning system that his rule was attracting heavenly disapproval.  From an early date, monitoring the sky and setting the calendar was the responsibility of the Imperial Astronomical Bureau.

The Jesuit Mission to China

The Chinese retained their traditional world picture despite Buddhist and Muslim immigrants who brought the concept of the spherical earth with them.  Then, in the sixteenth century, Portuguese traders began to enter China.  They were so belligerent that the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) authorities made several efforts to throw them out.  But in 1577, the Chinese leased the foreigners a small piece of land, called Macau, at the mouth of the Pearl River.  This was intended to contain them, while allowing China to benefit from the commerce they brought.  Shortly afterwards, a few Jesuit missionaries slipped into China proper.  Their ambition was to convert the Middle Kingdom to Christianity.

The Jesuits planned to use western science and technology to make themselves useful to the imperial authorities.  In return, they sought permission to evangelize freely.  The strategy was spearheaded by an Italian priest named Matteo Ricci (1562 – 1610), who arrived in China in 1582.  Cultured and gregarious, he mastered the written language and nurtured contacts within the literate elite. His aim was to reach the Emperor and gain official sanction for missionary work.  He succeeded in penetrating the Forbidden City in 1601 and the Jesuits maintained a presence there for much of the next 150 years.

Ricci recognised that if his colleagues were to be allowed to preach openly, the Jesuits needed to be both indispensable and unthreatening.  European astronomy and geography gave him an opportunity to show just how helpful he could be.  In letters he wrote in late 1595, Ricci set out what he had been able to glean about the Chinese world picture.  He noted that they thought the earth is flat and square, while the sky was a round canopy.  He was dismissive of these views in private, but knew he needed to be cautious about how he sought to correct them.  Noting that Chinese visitors to the Jesuits’ residence would gawp at a map of the world hanging on the wall, he decided his first project would be a map for a Chinese audience.

The Chinese had excellent maps of their own country, so Ricci combined these with European charts plotted during the voyages of Portuguese and Spanish explorers.  Diplomatically, he placed the Americas on the right and Europe on the left so China remained near the center.  He filled out the unexplored parts of the world with elements of Chinese and classical fantasy such as the land of the dwarfs and a realm of one-eyed people.  The lower half of the southern hemisphere was filled by an enormous and non-existent continent, the terra australis, that Europeans had convinced themselves was awaiting discovery.  (A colored Japanese copy of the map made about 1610 can be found HERE.)

Ricci improved his map in several stages before it reached its most developed form in 1602, which he called the “Complete Geographical Chart of Ten Thousand Countries.” When printed, it was twelve and half feet long and over five feet high. This was more than just a map of the world. Ricci included diagrams of the whole universe in each corner, as well as lengthy explanatory captions. He broached the subject of the Globe in the map’s general introduction:

“The earth and sea are both spherical.  Together they form a single globe situated at the centre of the celestial spheres, like the yoke in a hen’s egg that is surrounded by the white.  Those who said the earth is square were referring to the earth’s fixed and immobile nature and not its physical form.” 4

This passage is a paradigmatic example of the way Ricci reinterpreted ancient Chinese texts to reflect his agenda.  He knew he had to accommodate traditional Chinese ideas if he was going to be taken seriously.  For instance, the analogy of the egg and yolk to describe heaven and earth came from the work of a Han-era scholar called Zhang Heng (AD 78 – 139).  Zhang had developed a world picture that postulated a spherical universe half filled with water, upon which the earth floated. He did not propose that the earth was a sphere. That didn’t stop Ricci from appropriating the ‘egg and yolk’ metaphor and applying it to his own cosmology. He was helped by the richness of Chinese thought going back two thousand years.  His acquaintances among the mandarins helped him find all sorts of references in Confucian literature that he could use as proof texts for his own purposes.

The Jesuits didn’t make much headway in their efforts to convert mandarins to Christianity, let alone the Emperor.  However, there were a few exceptions, two of whom were called Xu Guangqi (1562 – 1633) and Li Zhizao (1565 – 1630), who both converted to Catholicism under the influence of Ricci.  Xu helped the Jesuits translate European works into Chinese, all the while mastering western methods himself.  Li prepared the Chinese translation of Aristotle’s On the Heavens, published in 1628.  Both Xu and Li urged the imperial authorities to accept the use of western methods to improve the calendar.  Unfortunately, following the death of Matteo Ricci in 1610, the Jesuits began to lose influence.  A change in government in 1616 saw them expelled from the capital and exiled to Macau.  Across the rest of China, they were forced into hiding for several years.

Xu Guangqi and Li Zhizao worked hard to rehabilitate their Jesuit friends, eventually succeeding in convincing a new Emperor that the calendar was in urgent need to reform.  As it happened, in 1629, there was a solar eclipse over the capital.  The incumbent Chinese astronomers and the Jesuits both made predictions of its time and duration. The former’s determination of when it would start erred by an hour, and they said it would last two hours instead of the actual duration of just two minutes.  The Jesuits were correct on both counts.  As a result, the Emperor ordered they participate in the development of a new calendar to mark his reign.  It took until 1642 to complete, by which time China looked very different.  The Mandate of Heaven was slipping away from the Ming dynasty.

Enter the Qing

From 1618, Manchu tribes from the northeast inflicted a series of defeats on the Ming that would culminate in the capture of Peking in 1644.  The Manchu instigated the new Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912), but even then resistance from loyalists of the old regime lasted for decades.  The Jesuits tried to hedge their bets, but once it was clear the Qing had won, they had little hesitation transferring their attention to the new dynasty.  In 1645, a German Jesuit, Adam Schall von Bell, ingratiated himself with the Qing emperor by presenting him with the new calendar, deftly renamed to obscure its Ming origins. In return, Schall was appointed the Head of the Astronomical Bureau, a position that would be held almost exclusively by a Jesuit until 1775.

The Jesuits were now in charge of the calendar, timekeeping and astrological  interpretations.  The latter was especially problematic for them, since it involved determining auspicious dates for Chinese rites that Catholics were supposed to abhor.  The Jesuits claimed these rites were secular in nature, rather than religious.  This meant assisting the Imperial government in ensuring they took place at the right time didn’t condone superstition.  Still, mandarins opposed to the Jesuits could be forgiven for thinking the Europeans did not treat the ceremonies with the seriousness they deserved.

As long as he had the favour of the Emperor, Schall was safe; but he was careless about making enemies.  In 1657, he added to the coalition against him by firing the Muslim staff at the Astronomical Bureau, severing the connection with Islam that had existed since the reign of Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294).  Wu Mingxuan, one of the sacked Muslim astronomers, tried to retaliate against Schall by accusing the Jesuit of making inaccurate predictions.  When the charge was dismissed, Wu was thrown into prison.  On his release, he teamed up with a mandarin named Yang Guangxian (1597-1669), who had previously got himself into trouble by throwing false allegations at senior ministers.  While Wu was a professional astronomer, Yang’s talents were literary.  He wrote series of memoranda attacking the Jesuits for promoting cosmological novelties which were incompatible with the traditional Chinese calendar.

In particular, Yang challenged the concept of the globe.  One of his arguments was that it was absurd that the seas don’t pour away from a spherical earth, or at least gather at its base. “If indeed there are countries existing on the curved edge and the bottom of the globe,” he explained, “then these places are surely immersed in water. Westerners [living on the other side of the world] then must surely belong to the likes of turtles and fishes.”  Instead, he reiterated the traditional model that the earth floats on water inside a spherical universe.  “Since the Earth resides on the water,” he said, “it is evident that all ten thousand countries are located above the horizon… for the horizon is nothing but the level surface of the water of the Four Seas.” 5

Yang’s memoranda were initially knocked back before any senior minister had seen them.  Nonetheless, the Jesuits foolishly rose to Yang’s bait and successfully denounced him as disloyal to the new Qing dynasty.  He struck back by accusing them of choosing an inauspicious time for the burial of an infant prince who had died in 1657.  This was a serious charge.  The dead had to be interred in the right place and at the right time.  Failure to observe these rules would lead to misfortune for members of the family who were still living.  In this case, it appeared that retribution had been swift: the first Qing emperor and his wife had both died of small pox in 1661. Their heir, the Kangxi Emperor (1654 – 1722), was aged just eight so a regency of four mandarins ruled the country until he came of age.

In 1664, Yang forwarded his complaint about the mistimed burial to the Ministry of Rites.  This time, his accusations stuck.  The Jesuits and their Chinese colleagues in the Astronomical Bureau were carted off to prison to await trial.  Their mistreatment while in jail was too much for the ailing Adam Schall von Bell who suffered a stroke.  Then, in April 1665 he was sentenced with his colleagues to death by dismemberment.  It looked like only a miracle could save them.

However, the day after the trial, an earthquake struck northern China and damaged the Forbidden City.  It was axiomatic to the Chinese that natural disasters were warnings from heaven about misgovernment or unjust punishments.  To be on the safe side, the sentences against the Jesuits were commuted to house arrest, where Schall died of ill health shortly afterwards.  Five unfortunate Chinese astronomers who had collaborated with the Europeans were beheaded.

Yang suddenly found himself triumphant.  The government ordered him to take over the running of the Astronomical Bureau, which was the last thing he wanted.  He protested that he didn’t actually know anything about mathematics and wasn’t capable of compiling the calendar.  Compelled to take the post, he installed Wu Mingxuan, his co-conspirator, who was at least a trained astronomer, as deputy director.  Unfortunately, the combination of traditional Chinese methodology with astronomical techniques introduced by Muslim immigrants at the time of the Mongols was unable to match the accuracy the Jesuits had achieved.

The Kangxi Emperor

In 1668, the young Kangxi Emperor started to intervene in affairs of state and judged the calendar fiasco as a good way to test his mettle against the regents.  He summoned Ferdinand Verbiest (1623 – 88), now the senior Jesuit astronomer following Schall’s death, and asked him to review the almanac Yang and Wu had produced for the year.  Predictably, Verbiest found a number of mistakes. The Emperor responded by demanding a contest between the Jesuit and Yang to predict the height of the sun and other astronomical phenomena.  These tests were carried out with instruments specified by Verbiest and according to western concepts of the heavens. It’s likely that the Emperor intended that the Jesuits should win as a way to start wresting power from the regents and taking command of the government himself.  Inevitably, Verbiest was able to convince a committee appointed by the Emperor that his predictions were more accurate than those of the traditionalists.  Yang was sacked as Director of the Astronomical Bureau and sent home in disgrace.  Verbiest replaced him and the Jesuits were back in control.  Wu kept his job for a little longer before he was flogged for incompetence.  In future years, Chinese conservatives would laud Yang as a martyr, applauding his opposition to the foreigners who had sought to subvert tradition and introduce alien rites.

The Jesuit scientific project was supposed to be one of openness.  They translated European scientific works into Chinese and expected that these would quickly supersede the traditional texts like the Gnomon of the Zhou.  By demonstrating the superiority of western civilization, they hoped to clear the way for the conversion of China to Catholicism.  The Kangxi Emperor had his own plans. It suited him to have the Astronomical Bureau run by Jesuits, whose presence in the Forbidden City was entirely at his own pleasure. But he had no intention of publicizing the methods they used.  The calendar, after all, was an imperial prerogative.  He ordered that astronomy should not feature in the civil service examinations that all potential mandarins had to pass, thereby ensuring the subject was kept off the syllabus in Chinese schools.

As a result, the shape of the earth continued to be a matter of debate among Chinese scholars throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the 1770’s, a group of 360 archivists undertook a major project at the imperial library to catalogue every book printed in China. They evaluated and summarised the volumes, excerpting them into a universal account of knowledge.  By this time, there were Chinese books that mentioned the globe, such as a 1648 textbook that includes a diagram of a round earth with a pagoda on one side and a cathedral on the other.  Yet, the concept was entirely excluded from the Imperial Library catalogue, even though manuals on other technical European subjects were incorporated.

The Kangxi Emperor took a further step to deprecate European expertise.  He encouraged a historical theory that European science had, in fact, originated in China after all.  As we’ve seen, Matteo Ricci had humored the idea that ancient Chinese texts supported the spherical earth when he resuscitated the old hypothesis of a spherical heaven by Zhang Heng, albeit ignoring the bits where Zhang had said the earth is, in fact, flat.  Qing-era scholars extended this creative reading of the Confucian classics to claim, “The westerners’ instruments for observing the celestial phenomena, the theory of the five climate zones, the idea that the earth is round… none of these goes beyond the ground covered by the Gnomon of the Zhou.” 6 They suggested that during the Warring States period that preceded the unification of China in the third century BC, astronomers fled China to avoid the ruinous civil wars.  Some found their way to Arabia and Europe, seeding the Muslim and European scientific traditions.  The Chinese origin of western science remained a commonplace among mandarins into the twentieth century, even after the globe itself had finally won widespread acceptance.

The traditional Chinese belief that the earth was square was part of an overall world picture that integrated nature into human affairs. To accept the spherical earth meant reinterpreting the classics so that they supported this novel idea.  However, introducing this knowledge did not earn the Jesuits the dividends that they hoped for.  Their priority had always been to convert the Empire to Christianity and, in this, they failed.  Attempts by Ricci and others to accommodate Catholic doctrine to Confucianism were mocked by some of the mandarins and deemed unacceptable by the Church hierarchy back in Europe.  Ultimately, the spherical earth succeeded in discombobulating the Chinese elite while doing little to convince them of the truth of Christianity.  Scientific prowess is no substitute for evangelization.

[Dr James Hannam is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (2010). His next book will be The Globe: How the World Become Round.]

Suggested further reading

Brockey, Liam Matthew. Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

Cullen, Christopher. Astronomy and Mathematics in Ancient China: The Zhou Bi Suan Jing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Cullen, Christopher. Heavenly Numbers: Astronomy and Authority in Early Imperial China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Elman, Benjamin A. On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Henderson, John B. The Development and Decline of Chinese Cosmology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Liu An. The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China. Translated by John Major. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Needham, Joseph, and Ling Wang. Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth. Science and Civilisation in China, volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Zhang, Qiong. Making the New World Their Own: Chinese Encounters With Jesuit Science in the Age of Discovery. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015.


1.. Liu An, The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han  China. Translated by John Major (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), p. 115

2.. ibid. p.279.

3.. Christopher Cullen, Heavenly Numbers: Astronomy and Authority in Early Imperial China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 203.

4.. Qiong Zhang, Making the New World Their Own : Chinese Encounters with Jesuit Science in the Age of Discovery (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2015) p. 4.

5.. ibid. p. 156.

6.. ibid. p. 200.

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