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Spreading of and Reflection to the Theory of Global Earth in China during the End of Ming and the beginning of Qing

Chen Meidong (Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The idea that the earth is flat was the dominant idea in ancient China, while the idea of a global earth, though usually being talked about, was merely a less important idea in ancient China. At the end of Ming, Matteo Ricci introduced the idea that the earth is global into China in 1583, then he wrote the book Qiankun-tiyi to state his idea in 1602. After Matteo Ricci, a series of books such as Jianping-yishuo (1611) and Biaodu-shuo (1614) by Sabbathin de Urises, Tian-wen-lue (1615) by Emmanuel Diaz, Zhifang-waiji (1623) by Jules Aleni and Diego de Pantoja, Huanyou-quan (1628) by Francois Furtado, ChongZhen-lishu cetian-yueshuo (1634) by Xu Guangqi and Nicolaus Longobardi etc. came into being, all of which taking about the idea of global earth. Those books challenged seriously to the traditional flat-earth idea, causing fairly great arguments.

Facing this situation, two groups obviously opposite were formed in the Chinese scholar circle. Those who accepted the idea of a global earth could be divided furtherly into three kinds, the first, agreeing to the idea of a global earth that was introduced by the Jesuits, Hungai-tongxian-tushuo (1607) and Yuanrong-jiaoyi (1608) by Li Zhizao, and Gezhi-cao (1634) by Xiong Mingyu belonging to this kind; the second, stating that the idea of a global earth had been existing in China long before, Liti-lue (1612) by Wang Yingming and Rongcun-yulu (1718) by Li Guangdi all contained this idea; the third, insisting furtherly that the idea of a global earth originated in China, Hungai-tongxian-tushuo-buding (1702) by Mei Wending insisted on this idea. Those who opposited the idea of a global earth could also be divided into two kinds, the first, rejecting it just on the base of traditional idea that the earth is flat, the relative commentary contained in Mingchao-poye-ji (1617) belonged to this kind; second out some questions to the idea of a global earth, Bu-deyi (1665) by Yang Guanxian set out some typical questions of this kind. Those situation makes clear that the introducing of the idea of a global earth shaked the dominant position of the traditional idea of a flat earth to a fairly great extent, and the existing of opposition is a historical necessity.

The five kinds stated above also reflect appropriately five different attitudes facing a new science and knowledge under that special historical situation. The first, rejected old idea and accepted new idea bravely; the second, similar to the first, while looking for conjectures between the theories of China and of the west, which took a tendency of raising Chinese knowledge; the third, maintained some idea same as the second, while making a farfetched commentary, which showed a kind of narrow-minded attitude; the fourth, insisted firmly on old theories, and rejected new idea; the fifth, also insisted on old idea, but its theory was based on the factors of rational thought, which was related to the scientific level of that time, i.e. the theory of a global earth had something to be furtherly tested.

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