The conformation of a continent that the Europeans called Asia was almost unknown to the majority of East-Asian countries until the diffusion of world geography from the West. In China this happened at the end of the 16th century, with the atlas of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, after which some books of geography followed, including Giulio Aleni’s Zhifang waiji (1623) and Ferdinand Verbiest’s Kunyu tushuo (1672). These sources provided the Chinese readers with the first discursive construction of a geographically and culturally defined continent called “Asia”. During the first half of the 19th century, some works by Protestant missionaries integrated the information delivered by the Jesuits.
After a long period of scepticism, in the 19th century this world vision was gradually accepted by some Chinese literati who in their geographical treatises provided new descriptions of Asia by mingling information imported from the West with direct knowledge acquired during centuries of relationships. The somewhat “orientalist” vision introduced from Europe was thus filtered and integrated by such scholars as Xu Jiyu, who in his work provided still another vision of Asia, where geopolitical and cultural issues connected to local dynamics played a role.
By comparing early descriptions contained in some Jesuit and Protestant sources to that proposed in Xu’s treatise Yinghuan zhilüe (1849), this paper aims to asses the role played by the author in shaping a description of Asia where Western and Chinese sights meet, producing a blended vision that would prove very influential in China for decades to come.