Event Recap – Picturing the World: Asia Maps after Mercator

March 27, 2017
Tim Brook

When Professor Arthur Kleinman, former Director of the Harvard Asia Center, tried, about two years ago, to produce a map centered around Southeast Asia, he ran into an intractable problem of what is an accurate visual representation of Southeast Asia and the world around it. A multitude of debates and compromises with many experts in producing this map illustrate a crucial point that there is no one-to-one correspondence between a map and the geographical reality it’s supposed to represent. Even what the modern GPS offers is merely one decent approximation of our visual world.  

Treating maps as cultural objects, Professor Timothy Brook, of the University of British Columbia and author of the book Mr. Selden’s Map of China, examined the culture that produced them and that consumed them, and delineated how Asia has been cartographed over the centuries. His talk was given in conjunction with the Asia Center exhibit “Mapping Asia,” displayed in the Asian Centers’ Lounge through April 14 and available to view online.  

Under the headings of depicting the world as a square, as a cylinder, as a circle, as coastline, and as a common shape, Brook gave a number of examples of Asian and European maps of the period from the 16th century to the early 20th century and highlighting maps from the exhibit. A few examples are especially noteworthy.  

One of the earlier maps that brought Asia into cognitive realm of Europeans was made at age 62 by Gerardus Mercator (1512 – 1594), a German-Netherlandish cartographer. He brought Asian objects into his map and played an important role in Europeans’ awareness of Asia. Mercator’s work represents a milestone also in the evolution of navigation maps. He merged two mapping traditions together: maps from previous cartographers before him and the tradition of sailors who had produced sailing directions with charts and descriptions of harbors and coasts. His world map benchmarked the effort of reducing a three-dimensional sphere earth onto a two-dimensional flat surface. He mapped constant bearing sailing courses on the sphere (rhumb lines) to straight lines on the plane map. This Mercator Projection proved to be one of the most significant advances in the history of cartography.
Another example that shows Brook’s deep interest in culture is the Selden map, one of the first Chinese maps to reach Europe. It came into the Oxford Library in 1659 from the estate of a London lawyer, John Selden, who had acquired it earlier,possibly from an East India Company trader who had been to the South China Sea.

This map has three distinguishing features. The first is that it is a Chinese map since Chinese sources were used for the place-names and the shipping routes, but not China-centric. It centered on the South China Sea, with China occupying less than one half of the map area, and the rest depicting Southeast Asia, whereas earlier and most later Chinese maps depicted China not only as the center of the known world, but as occupying almost all the map area, reflecting a Sino-centric view of the world. Furthermore, the China part of the map was copied from a standard printed map of the period. So we can infer that the purpose of the map was not to depict China itself, and more importantly, it was not a product of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. The compiler was probably based in Southeast Asia, and his depiction of Southeast Asia remained the most accurate for the next two centuries.

The second feature is the presence of shipping routes with compass bearings radiating from the port of Quanzhou on the coast of Fujian Province to all the areas covered by the map, which charted the commercial world as no map–Chinese nor European–had done before. Thus we can infer that it is probably a Chinese merchant's cartography; and the merchant was probably very rich both to be able to afford making such a map and to enjoy the elaborate decorations of landscapes and plants on the map. The extensive shipping routes indicate the extent of China’s intercourse with the rest of the world in the early 17th century.

The third feature was discovered during the course of the conservation work. When the old backing was removed, the main sea routes, identically drawn, were found on the reverse, showing not only that this was a first draft, but that the map was being drawn by systematic geometric techniques. It is the first Chinese map to be produced in this way.

Maps are not only cultural objects but can intentionally “lie” by distorting shapes and coding some names, depending on the purpose of the cartographer or his sponsor. Brook attempted to interpret what maps were intended to show by their cartographers. “All maps try to persuade the viewer to their view of the world,” he explained. No map illustrates this point better than a 1906 promotional map of the Pacific Ocean by the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, which ostentatiously cut down the distance on the map between the coastline of Washington State and that of Asia.

Listen to Professor Brook’s talk.

View the Mapping Asia exhibit online.