The Selden Map of China

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.