'Mapping Asia' Invites Different Viewpoints of Asia

February 21, 2017
Mapping Asia article image

When Harvard Asia Center Acting Director Andrew Gordon proposed an exhibit on maps of Asia in the Asian Centers' Lounge in CGIS South, he knew it might stir up some healthy debate. He also knew it would showcase different perspectives of Asia throughout history and through various designs using maps as the common medium.

“Maps are not just innocent depictions of the world,” he said. “They’re somebody’s intentional depiction of the world in a certain way. That’s true of the contemporary world, but it’s also true historically.”

These depictions, curated in Mapping Asia: An exhibition of selected maps from the Harvard University collections, highlight two goals Professor Gordon has for the exhibit: To raise the issue of the politics of maps and to provoke thinking about how Asia has been understood and depicted historically and presently.

Professor Gordon and Asia Center Associate Director Holly Angell invited retired Harvard Map Collection Librarian Joseph Garver to help select the roster of maps that would be displayed.

“The maps in the exhibit represent a broad range of cartographic perspectives–spatially and temporally,” Garver noted. “Each one can give us insights into the cultural preconceptions, attitudes, and aspirations of the mapmakers and their audience.”

The resulting exhibit spans about 500 years of cartography with as much disagreement in the historical maps as in the contemporary ones. The oldest map, from Magini’s 1598 edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, relies mainly on early tales by Marco Polo describing his travels in China in the 13th century, though it includes some “inexplicable distortions” in geography. The most recent map, commissioned in 2014 by former Asia Center Director Arthur Kleinman, depicts a Southeast Asia-centric view of Asia–a portrayal that invited criticism from Asia-focused colleagues over boundary disputes between nations and names of bodies of water.

These different perspectives offer as much interest as the geographical depictions themselves. In another example, a 17th-century Chinese map, Tian xia jiu bian wan guoren ji lu cheng quan tu, portrays China as a dominant presence, with Europe, Africa, and the Americas depicted in the margins at a fraction of the size of China–a backlash from the Chinese cartographer’s perception of the West’s attempt to displace China’s central position in the world. In a contemporary mapping example, Total War Battle Map (1942) depicts Asia from the viewpoint of a Western cartographer during World War II, with American adversaries boldly marked on the map.

Stylistically, the maps on display offer variety in design also, from a 19th century scroll format map of coastal China to a Korean historical round map that depicts regions, both true and imaginary, in rings. Some maps include detailed images and decorations in the margins to portray culture, people, politics, flags, or geographical features.

According to Garver, “Comparing maps from different traditions, we can see that travel can be measured in time as well as space; north, south, east, or west can be placed at the head of a map; the physical size of a territory on a map can reflect its physical dimensions or its importance in a cultural or political universe. And we can begin to look at our assumption that maps are ‘objective.’ Every map, after all, embodies a universe of overt intentions and hidden agenda.”

The 17 historical and contemporary maps of the Mapping Asia exhibit are on display in the Asian Centers’ Lounge, 1st floor of CGIS South, through Friday, April 14.

In conjunction with the Mapping Asia exhibit, Professor Timothy Brook of the University of British Columbia and author of Mr. Selden’s Map of China, will present an Asia Center Seminar Series talk, Picturing the World: Asian Maps After Mercator, on Wednesday, March 1 at 4:15 p.m. A reception among the Mapping Asia exhibit will take place after the seminar in the Asian Centers’ Lounge.