Emperor Qianlong of Qing, the Jesuit missionaries, and land surveying

Chapter One) Ancient Maps and the Imperial Rule 

Emperor Qianlong of Qing, the Jesuit missionaries, and land surveying

Maps are a visual recording of a nation's borders, cities, major waterways and mountains. Throughout history, they have played a crucial role in confirming a nation's territory and sovereignty. "The definition of a nation's boundaries is known as 'registering and mapping'. The household registry provides information about the nation's people, whereas the map reveals information about the land." (Draft History of Qing, “Biography of He Guozong"). Therefore, the production of maps and the study of cartology have been consistently valued from one Chinese dynasty to another.

In 1761, 16 years after arriving in China, the French Jesuit missionary Michel Benoist (1715-1774) was entrusted with a mission of great importance by Emperor Qianlong of Qing: to integrate the results of land surveys in Xinjiang Province with the maps in Emperor Kangxi's Overview Maps of Imperial Territories in order to create the all-new Atlas of the Imperial Court of Qianlong.

Image 1: French missionary Michel Benoist

If Emperor Qianlong trusted Michel Benoist with such a monumental task, it is largely because of Benoist's prior accomplishments within the fields of architecture, astronomy and geography. In 1747, Benoist was appointed by Emperor Qianlong to a team of specialists responsible for constructing the Western Mansions (Xiyang Lou) of the Garden of Eternal Spring (Changchun Yuan), one of the three gardens of the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan). For this project, Benoist designed and guided the construction of the first European-style fountains in China, which the Chinese called Dashuifa — literally, "great water mastery". After the first fountain in front of the Pavilion of "Harmonious Surprise and Delight" (Xieqiqu) was completed in 1747, Benoist designed and oversaw the construction of a number of water features in other parts of the palace grounds, such as the reservoir, the aviary, the labyrinth, the "Hall of Calm Seas", and the "Observatory of Distant Oceans". Located on the western side of Weiming Lake in Peking University, the stone sculpture of a fish flapping its tailfin pictured in Image 2 was originally an ornamental sculpture in Benoist's first fountain.

Similarly, the bronze sculptures representing the heads of the twelve zodiac animals shown in Image 3 — which have, in recent years, garnered significant attention both in China and abroad due to their repatriation — were originally part of a fountain constructed under Michel Benoist's supervision. In the center of a pond was one large fountain. This large fountain was flanked by twelve bronze sculptures (six on each side) depicting the faces of Chinese zodiacs. The smaller fountains take turns spraying water, rotating once every two hours. At noon, all of them spray simultaneously. This fusion of Chinese and European aesthetics was, at the time, completely unprecedented and earned the fervent praise of Emperor Qianlong.

Image 2: Stone fish flapping its tailfin on Weiming Lake, on Peking University campus

Image 3: Dragon and tiger heads

In addition to being a talented architect, Michel Benoist is also well known for his accomplishments in astronomy and geography. In 1760, as a gift to Emperor Qianlong on his 50th birthday, Benoist made a stunningly intricate map of the world measuring 1.84m high and 3.66 m wide, entitled Kunyu Wanguo Quantu, or "A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World". The next year, the emperor appointed him to produce the Atlas of the Imperial Court.

The Atlas of the Imperial Court is a revised and improved version of Emperor Kangxi's Overview Maps of Imperial Territories. These maps were produced during Kangxi's reign, with the collaboration of the European missionaries Jean-Baptiste Régis, Matteo Ripa, Joachim Bouvet and Petrus Jartoux, as well as Chinese experts such as He Guodong, Suo Zhu and Ming Antu. They were primarily based on on-site surveys, but also made use of trapezoidal projection, triangulation and astronomical observations. One of the maps produced and compiled in this collection was the Complete Map of Hami, a prefecture in eastern Xinjiang Province.

In 1755, Emperor Qianlong's army defeated the Dzungar Khanate and occupied northern Xinjiang. Four years later, when the Qing army successfully suppressed the Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas (in modern-day southwest Xinjiang), northern and southern Xinjiang were finally unified under Qing rule. Afterwards, Emperor Qianlong issued the following edict: "The military strategists of the western territories have emerged victorious; their great army has arrived in the Prefecture of Ili. All Dzungar territories are to be incorporated into the maps and registry… Their mountains, waterways and roads should be meticulously surveyed and included in the Atlas of the Imperial Court so as the reflect the expansion of the Qing Empire." (Veritable Records of the Gaozong Reign of Qing.) 

At this time, in addition to Michel Benoist, there were also several other Western Jesuit missionaries working in the Imperial Observatory, a body of the court tasked with observing astronomical and meteorological phenomena; composing almanacs; and conducting geographical surveys in newly occupied Qing territories. Following Emperor Qianlong's edict, the court selected experts for two surveying and mapping expeditions (in 1755 and 1759) throughout Xinjiang. While Michel Benoist did not take part in these expeditions, two Portuguese missionaries did.

Image 4: Portrait of Emperor Qianlong toward the end of his reign, wearing imperial robes

In June 1755, in the midst of the Dzungar-Qing wars, the Qing court sent He Guozong, Ming Antu and Fu De, as well as the Portuguese missionaries Félix da Rocha and José de Espinha, to complete a series of surveys in the Dzungar-occupied territories of northern Xinjiang. He Guozong and Ming Antu were the leaders of this expedition. He Guozong was a native of Daxing County in Shuntian Prefecture (modern-day Beijing) who worked for the Ministry of Rites. Ming Antu was a member of the Mongolian division of the Plain White Banner (one of the Qing Empire's "Eight Banner" armies) who had a talent for astronomical predictions and mathematics.

Félix da Rocha once acted as Director of the Imperial Observatory: the observatory's most prestigious position. During the Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas, da Rocha was sent to the frontline by the imperial court to supervise the manufacturing of cannons. On his tombstone, which is located in Maweigou Church on North Beiyingfang St (in Xicheng District, Beijing), one can read the following inscription: "On multiple occasions — for instance, during the Pacification of the Muslim Territories and the two Campaigns Against Jinchuan, [da Rocha] was sent on westward expeditions to complete surveys and draw maps in Xinjiang." In Qing documents, "Muslim territories" was a common way of referring to southern Xinjiang. José de Espinha also once held the position of Director of the Imperial Observatory; his tombstone can be found in the same place as da Rocha's. The rubbing of the bilingual (Latin and Chinese) inscription on his tombstone is featured in Image 5. It notes that, "during the 20th and 24th years of Qianlong's reign, [de Espinha] was sent to the Prefecture of Ili on two mapping expeditions" (underlined in red on Image 5).

The first surveying expedition in Xinjiang mainly focused on Dzungar-controlled areas to the north of the Tianshan mountain ranges, such as Ili and Bortala, but also included more southern areas, such as the city of Turpan and the surrounds of the Kaidu River. The mapping experts then explored the reaches of the Chui and Talas Rivers to the west of Lake Balkhash, heading as far as Bukhara (today known as the third-largest city in Uzbekistan).

In 1759, the Dzungar territories of southern Xinjiang were incorporated into the Qing court's registry and maps. Emperor Qianlong issued an edict: "Surveys are to be carried out in all former Dzungar territories, beginning with Karasahr in the East and extending westwards as far as Yarkand and Hotan." This region more or less corresponds to modern-day southern Xinjiang. In the fifth lunar month of that year, Ming Antu and Félix da Rocha left on another surveying expedition that would only come to an end almost a year later, in the third lunar month of 1760. Upon their return to Beijing, they hurried to complete maps of the Qing empire's newly occupied territories based on their extensive surveys. In the sixth lunar month of 1761, they completed their map of Xinjiang: the first in China to have been produced with the aid of modern mapping techniques.

Image 5: Rubbing of José de Espinha's gravestone

Image 6: Atlas of the Imperial Court of Qianlong

In 1761, Michel Benoist was tasked with integrating the results of these two surveys into Emperor Kangxi of Qing's Overview Maps of Imperial Territories in order to create the all-new Atlas of the Imperial Court of Qianlong (pictured in Image 6). As this map divides Asia into thirteen rows measuring 5 degrees of latitude each, it is also known as the Thirteen-Row Map of Qianlong. The region depicted in the map extends to the Arctic Ocean in the north, the East China Sea to the east, the South China Sea to the south, the Indian Ocean to the southwest; and the Baltic, Mediterranean and Red Seas to the west, making it the oldest and most extensive map of the Asian continent in China's history. Renowned sinologist Joseph Needham said of the map: "Once again, China surpassed the rest of the world in the field of cartography." (Science and Civilization in China)

After Emperor Qianlong suppressed the Dzungar Khanate and the Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas, Jesuit missionaries collaborated with the Qing court to produce maps of its newly acquired territories and incorporate them into the court registry as a means of "reflecting the expansion of the Qing Empire". As indispensable tools of governance that "reveal information about the land", the maps produced during Emperor Qianlong's reign contributed immeasurably to Chinese civilization.

Main references:

Ah Yin-na: The Qing Court's mapping expeditions in the Tianshan ranges. Ethnohistory Studies, 2012.

Wang Qianjin: Quantitative analysis of Emperor Qianlong's "Thirteen-Row Map". A Collection of Ancient Maps of China (Qing Dynasty), Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1997.

Ju Deyuan: Michel Benoist's "Map of the Myriad Countries of the World". A Collection of Ancient Maps of China (Qing Dynasty), Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1997.