The Selden Map of China6 min read

How a Ming-era map reveals China’s ancient trade connections – Hannah Theaker

There is a joke among China watchers: what is the best way for a company to market itself in China? Publish a map of it. All you have to do is tint Taiwan a different color to the mainland, or fail to include the nine-dash line that marks territorial China’s claims in the South China Sea. Or else, gift India the disputed land of Aksai Chin, a desolate but strategic pass between Ladakh and Xinjiang. No matter which one you ‘accidentally’ choose, the result will be an instant flamewar that sends your company trending across Chinese social media. The required public apology and resignations might prove too a high price to pay – but your brand recognition in China will be unparalleled.

Maps are inherently political. They demarcate space, and ways of imagining it. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) knows this all too well, which is why the most detailed maps of China are still considered state secrets. Old maps, in turn, have a status akin to holy documents in China. The CCP often defines its claims to disputed territory in terms of historical relationships and patterns of dominion, and draws on historical analogies in its pursuit of modern geopolitical relationships. As such, old maps provide vivid, apparently incontrovertible proof of its historical claims. Or at least, they are supposed to.

The 2018 Spring Festival television gala featured a dramatic unveiling of the ‘return’ to China of a map supposedly from the Ming dynasty, entitled ‘Landscape Map of the Silk Road’ (after a Hong Kong billionaire had bought and donated it to the National Palace Museum). The map was dramatically announced by curator Shan Jixiang as the first Chinese map of the world, demonstrating China’s historic links to Central Asia and beyond. In the symbolic fervour of the gala, the return of the map was intended to highlight the historical continuities of the Belt and Road Initiative, and present a sinocentric vision of the world. Unfortunately for the gala, Chinese internet commentators quickly noted that the map was originally titled the ‘Mongolian Landscape Map’, and almost certainly originated in the Qing dynasty some 200 years later than was claimed.

Old maps have a status akin to holy documents in China”

The Selden Map of China (pictured), however, does have a good claim to be that first Chinese map of the world. A Renaissance-era map of east Asia, it is named for its former owner John Selden – an English scholar – but known as 東西洋航海圖 (‘Navigation Chart of the Eastern and Western Oceans’) in Chinese. Its full tale is told in The Selden Map of China (Bodleian Library, 2019), a new study by Hongping Annie Nie gloriously illustrated with 40 colour plates, and an ideal companion piece to Timothy Brook’s 2013 book Mr Selden’s Map of China. Dr Nie’s work deserves recognition for bringing this complex and significant map to life; it also serves as a careful reminder of just how political maps can be.

The Selden Map has the kind of discovery story every scholar dreams of. In 2008 Robert Batchelor, a visiting scholar to the Bodleian Library in Oxford called up an ambiguous entry in its catalogues, and a librarian carrying a massive furled scroll duly appeared in the reading room. When unrolled, it revealed an old map of rare beauty. Librarian and scholar gasped in astonishment, recognising the map for what it was: a different vision of China, one that would change everything.

Estimated to have been drawn sometime in the early 16th century, the Selden Map is unique in that it is not a map of China’s land but of the east Asian seas, from Siberia in the north to Java in the south. Unlike in other Chinese maps of the period – where China is placed at the centre of the world – the mainland territory of the Ming territory is squished up into the top-left corner. Instead, the centre of the map is devoted to a tracery of black lines across the oceans: the sea routes connecting Quanzhou, a port in Fujian province, to the world. The map is huge (1.58m by 0.96m) and must have been a prestige piece – most probably designed to hang in state in a merchant’s entrance hall as advertisement of his wealth and connections. It was a statement of power, influence and global knowledge. The expansive, connected world of the sea shown in the map is quite different to traditional views of the Ming as a closed, conservative empire.

The map is a vivid reminder of the ways in which China has always been connected to the world”

Yet with its decentering of the land empire, the Selden Map does not fit into prevailing state narratives of China. It is likely that the map was drawn by a Fujianese resident in southeast Asia – perhaps Manila or Aceh, Indonesia – for a private collector whose vision of the world was focused on business pathways beyond the reach of the Ming state. Indeed, the voyages whose routes are inked on the Selden Map would have been made in the face of official Ming suspicion. Although the formal sea ban that had been imposed during the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was lifted in 1567, the Ming continued to impose restrictions on the number of ships legally allowed to trade in southeast Asia. Despite their efforts, trade continued almost unchecked as New World silver flowed into China and a corresponding transformation of Ming society began. The map is a vivid reminder of the ways in which China has always been connected to the world – and also of the Chinese diaspora, who have often existed in uneasy tension with the Chinese state, both then and now.

The Selden Map of China is at its finest when describing the world of the map: the combination of Chinese landscape technique with Western-style scale, latitude and longitude; or the careful drawings of cedar, willow, bamboo, camphor and red chrysanthemum – each drawn to represent the region they grow in. Dr Nie illuminates the details of the map, while the lavish photographs allow the reader to pore over its intricacies for themselves. Latter chapters expand various conjectures of how John Selden, an English jurist and philosopher, first came to acquire the map and introduce Ming society and the export trade.

Although Dr Nie’s fluency on the importance of the map is commendable, she errs in stating that the Zhengde Emperor (r.1505-1521), referred to in the text by his temple name Wuzong, converted to Islam. It’s a common myth that he did, and it is true that a number of his close advisors were Muslim. Throughout his reign, the potteries at Jingdezhen even produced a substantial quantity of porcelain with Arabic inscriptions intended to fit their tastes. Zhengde himself, however, most likely did not convert: he was a noted patron of Tibetan Buddhism. Even so, the myth of Zhengde’s conversion serves as a reminder of the oft-forgotten diversity of the Ming state and populace.

Much like the map it celebrates, the book is a thing of beauty. It should sit proudly on a coffee table, appreciated with a fine cup of tea – and a healthy understanding of the global interconnections of ancient and modern supply chains. ∎

Header: A detail from the Selden Map of China (public domain).