Knowledge of the Spherical Earth Centered on the Sun -Gunnar Thompson, Ph.D.
There is a lot of confusion among modern historians regarding when ancient peoples realized that earth is a sphere that orbits the sun. Among many 19th century romantic historians, it was not uncommon to hear them praising Columbus for “proving that the earth was round!” This is added to a host of dubious achievements in an effort to justify calling Columbus the most important person since Jesus Christ. Even as recently as April of 2006, there were some historians who offered the incredibly naïve conjecture that the Chinese didn’t realize that the earth was round until informed so by the Jesuits in the 16th century. This is offered as part of the ridiculous reasoning why it would have been impossible for the Ming Chinese to make a map of the spherical earth in 1418.
Regarding earth’s sphericity: There were many Han Dynasty bronze mirrors that show the world as a circle. In most societies where artists or astronomers portray earth as a circle, it is usually an indication that the astronomers have come to the realization that the world is round. The existence of such artifacts in China confirms the fact that astronomers realized the sphericity of earth by 200 BCE–although such knowledge was probably not very common throughout the rest of society. There’s no need causing farmers who never traveled very far from home to worry about falling off the spherical earth.
On the Han Dynasty mirrors, the land areas or continents are symbolized by a square shape—like the square hole that was commonly found at the center of Chinese coins. It probably had the same meaning. In other words, the coins were a ubiquitous expression of the concept of a spherical (or round) earth that had land areas surrounded by water. At the edge of the water is a ring of pyramids representing mountains or a “ring continent” around the circumference of the earth. This concept of a “ring continent” is also seen in the common Chinese maps from the ancient geography called Shanhai Jing. The maps are typically referred to as Tien Xia Tu in China, Ch’onhado in Korea, and Shanhai Jing in the West. Hendon Harris wrote about these maps in a book called The Asiatic Fathers of America. On these maps, the Old World continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe are portrayed at the center surrounded by a ring of ocean and a second ring of land—the overseas “ring continent” that represented New Lands across the seas. Ancient Babylonian and Arab world maps such as those by Al-Idrisi have a similar portrayal of a round earth surrounded by a ring of mountains. I have suspected for a long time that both the Arabs and the Babylonians got their inspiration from the Chinese Shanhai Jing geography.
Taoist artwork showing the phases of the moon suggests that at least some astronomers appreciated that earth and moon revolved around the sun. While not common knowledge throughout society, there’s really no doubting that astronomers—who were constantly observing the heavens—eventually realized the nature of the solar system. And they passed this knowledge on to their successors at the astronomical institutions. I would expect that as was also the case with ancient Greece where Aristarchus declared by 150 BC that earth revolved around the sun. Probably, some key Chinese astronomers had also reached that conclusion by about 3000 BCE. Also, the Han Chinese and Romans exchanged more than silk during the 2nd century BCE–so there was likely cross-fertilization in the astronomical field as well.
The Western focus on Copernicus and Galileo being the first to appreciate that earth revolved around the sun was simply a result of finding a worthy Catholic to honor with supposedly making the scientific discovery. During the middle ages, when speaking against the scriptural interpretations of Church authorities was met with severe punishment, many intellectuals had knowledge that they didn’t often dare to put in writing. One exception was Geoffrey Chaucer. His book Treatise on the Astrolabe says that proof the earth and moon revolve around the sun can be determined from observing the phases of the moon. This took place in about the year 1460—or about a century ahead of Copernicus and two centuries ahead of Galileo. Chaucer says that if the earth and not the sun were at the center of the universe, with both sun and moon orbiting earth every day, then the phases of the moon would also occur every single day. Alas for the primacy of Chaucer in declaring that earth orbits the sun, England broke away from the Mother Church under Henry VIII—thus making any Englishman unworthy of the honor given to the otherwise loyal Catholic—Copernicus.
During a press conference in Beijing in March of 2006, some reporters and Eurocentric historians claimed that the “dual-hemispheric projection” for maps was invented in Renaissance Europe. According to this Eurocentric doctrine, Mo Yi-tong’s rendition of a 1418 Ming Map would have to be a copy of a European map made in the 16th century. However, the idea that assumption that the dual-hemispheric design of the Chinese map was copied from a European prototype is totally absurd. To begin with, the design of the 1418 Map does not have the kind of adjacent circles that are always shown on European maps of this type; instead, it has overlapping circles or “conjoined circles.” Furthermore, the 1418 Ming Map is not a “projection” of continents into spherical equivalents but is instead more a composite of land areas from otherwise flat maps that have been fitted into a circular shape. It is possible that the original artist distorted the land areas to some extent in order to mimic the effect of curvature of the earth. Even so, the Ming Map does not have the characteristic grid of longitudes and latitudes that are seen on Renaissance maps.
A book on Taoism by Stephen Little, Ed., et al., (Taoism and the Arts of China, Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 344-347) clearly shows that the “conjoined hemispheres” as seen in Mo Yi-tong’s map relates to a Taoist artistic explanation for the phases of the moon or for patterns of daylight and night as the shadows of Yin/Yang pass across the planet. Two illustrations in Little’s book show two overlapped hemispheres (called “conjoined hemispheres”) representing both sides of the moon. The same kind of illustration would have served to explain the patterns of light and dark or daylight and nighttime on the surface of the earth. The writer says that the Qing-era illustrations on a scroll were copies of the same designs that were used on a Southern Song Dynasty scroll (1127-1279). He says that the same text was used in a Ming Dynasty Taoist Canon or book of philosophy. Zhang Boduan (984-1082) is identified as the originator of the spiritual text. This concept of “conjoined hemispheres” was prevalent in Taoist art during the Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties. In other words, the claim on the part of Eurocentric historians that use of such a design on the 1418 Ming Map represents a copy of the Renaissance European maps is totally unfounded.
The Taoist Scroll is called Jinye huandan yinzeng tu or “Sealed Verification of the Golden Elixir of the Reverted Cinnabar.” The present location of the scroll is at the White Cloud Monastery in Beijing. So, we can be certain that this kind of artwork served as an inspiration for the artist Mo Yi-tong working in Beijing. It seems quite possible that Europeans acquired this idea of dual-hemispheric map design from Ming Chinese or Arabian sources.
Eurocentric historians automatically assume that the Chinese got the idea of the round earth and dual-hemispheric map design from Jesuit geographers in the 17th century. This misconception on the part of leading historians in the West is really embarrassing to the profession of history—which is supposed to be based on evidence instead of doctrine or conjecture.