Historian Timothy Brook offered a new way of looking at the relationship between Europe and Asia in the 1600s by examining a surprisingly accurate 17th-century Chinese map.
When map specialists at the Bodleian Library lifted the Selden Map off of its cloth backing, they found subtle lines depicting Asian maritime routes.
by Jacob Goldberg
UCLA International Institute, May 29, 2014 — At an event organized by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies on April 22, historian Timothy Brook offered an overview of his new book, Mr. Selden's Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer. His previous book, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, analyzed the clothing depicted in the paintings of 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer to construct a portrait of global trade at that time.
Brook, who holds the Republic of China Chair in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia, analyzed the details of the Selden Map to explore the historical relationship between China and Britain, revealing how these empires may have viewed themselves, each other and the rest of the world in the 17th century.
The global migration of a map
The Selden Map depicts the eastern coast of China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Indochina and Borneo with a high degree of accuracy. This accuracy is highly uncharacteristic of Chinese maps produced in the 17th century, an anomaly that spurred Brook to investigate the map’s history.
Brook first saw the Selden Map in 2008, when a curator at the Bodleian Library (University of Oxford) invited him to examine it. The map had previously been rediscovered after over a century of storage by another historian named Robert Batchelor (who received his Ph.D. from UCLA).
The Bodleian Library record showed that the map was promised to the University of Oxford by the will of a London legal scholar named John Selden, who died in 1654. Selden wrote prolifically about religion, political morality and law; his extensive personal library served as a rich source of citable materials. However, other than a mention of the map in Selden’s will, the writings and records of the author make no mention of it, begging the question as to how Selden acquired a map from a place he had never visited.
In order to piece together the history of the map, Brook was forced to complement his historical research with a great deal of intuition and imagination. The speaker argued that Selden must have bought the map from the estate of Samuel Purchas, a British cleric who is known today for collecting and publishing accounts of travelers who visited distant lands. Purchas died in 1626 — the year after the publication of his four-volume Purchas, His Pilgrimes.
It is known that Selden acquired several artifacts from the Purchas estate, and Purchas’ writings mention that he owned a map of China. It therefore seems probable that Selden acquired the map from the cleric’s estate.
Purchas’ writings mention that he acquired the map in 1616 from the estate of another Englishman named Richard Hakluyt, who served as British ambassador to Paris and published his travel memoirs. Hakluyt, in turn, acquired the map from a commander working for the British East India Company.
The history of the map’s ownership, said Brook, highlights the distance that it had traveled in the 17th century. Most likely, it would not exist today if Selden had not decided to bequeath his library to the Bodleian Library.
Chinese cartography in the 17th century
To illustrate the novelty of the Selden Map, Brook provided a brief overview of Chinese cartographic methods in the 17th century. Rather than depicting realistic proportions of space, Chinese maps of this period sought to depict China’s relationships with other states. This was generally by achieved placing China prominently in the center of a map and using shrunken representations of other countries in the margins to illustrate the directions in which they were situated.
European maps before the advent of European exploration (known as the “Age of Exploration,” a period that runs roughly from the 15th to the 17th centuries) were similarly inaccurate, placing Jerusalem at the center and representing other lands only symbolically.
Accuracy only became a feature of European maps when there became a need for it at the dawn of the Age of Exploration. When European navigators began veering further away from home in the 15th century, they began to create maps that contained information necessary for navigation. These early nautical maps, known as portolan charts, were drawn by naval pilots at sea looking out onto coastal areas.
The Selden Map, Brooks pointed out, bears a striking resemblance to early European portolan charts. Toward the end of the 16th century, the Ming Dynasty had lifted its ban on sea travel and began sending merchants and emissaries out from Fujian throughout East and Southeast Asia. It seems likely, therefore, that the accuracy of the Selden Map emerged out of the same nautical necessity that produced the European portolan charts.
Exploring the map’s details
When map specialists at the Bodleian Library lifted the Selden Map off of its cloth backing, they found subtle lines depicting Asian maritime routes. Brook argues that these lines indicated that the land forms on the map were added after the routes were drawn, which accounts for the map’s accuracy. This sets the Selden Map apart from European portolan charts, which depicted land forms first.
Unlike earlier Chinese cartographers who placed China at the center of their maps, moreover, the cartographer placed the South China Sea at the center of the map. Thus, its clear purpose was to depict trade routes. However, there is still debate among historians as to whether the map was actually used on a ship or was simply decorative.
Brook noted that the cartographer also represented the flora and fauna of each geographical location on the map. The terrain drawn over Japan, for example, is different from the terrain drawn over Southeast Asia. Thus, the map informs us that in addition to the trade that flowed between China and the rest of Asia, the nautical routes that connected various Asian geographies on the map were also routes along which scientific and cultural knowledge flowed from one society to another.
The similarities between the Selden Map and European maps from the same period, as well as the fact that China in the 17th century was a major regional power, said Brook, raise the question of why Europe came to dominate global affairs from roughly the Age of Exploration until the end of the Second World War. This question is even more poignant when we consider the fact that the Selden Map survives today as a result of a robust 17th-century relationship between China and Europe.
Brook stressed that the Selden Map offers modern historians great insight into the importance of maps and their role in conveying knowledge about historic international relationships. The maps that modern cartographers create today will, he argued, be essential to later scholars who seek to understand such geopolitical relationships as contemporary South China Sea disputes and the rise of the Asia-Pacific region as the center of global commerce.