Mapping Asia Introduction

Mapping Asia


The faculty and staff of the Harvard Asia Center a few years ago thought it would be a good idea to post a map of Asia at the entrance to this space.  The effort produced more heat than light.  So many contested borders. So many disputed islands.   So many places and seas with more than one name, and so many of them disputed.  To come up with one map that welcomed all and offended none was impossible.  We did, however, produce a map centered on Southeast Asia, displayed here, reflecting our hope to promote great attention to this region.

In this exhibit, we highlight the contemporary dilemma by displaying several present-day maps which illustrate some of the conflicting views of what constitutes Asia and its constituent parts today.  But our deeper aim is to offer insight and provoke thought into the manifold ways in which the region that has come to be called “Asia,” and the regions seen to be part of Asia, have been so diversely, and so richly, viewed and portrayed over many centuries. For historical maps disagree as much as contemporary maps do.

Although a truism, it still deserves to be said that maps do not objectively represent space in the world.  In the first place, it is impossible to accurately project curved, three-dimensional space onto two dimensions.  But of greater interest beyond the technical limits of cartography is that maps convey political and culture messages.  They offer literal and metaphorical views of the world that lie in our heads far more than on the ground.  This is the case often by conscious design, but sometimes it is an unintended result of the mapmaker’s decisions about what to display and how to do it.

Mapping Asia ranges widely across time and space.  The earliest Western production on display is a late 16th century European map with roots in the classical maps and texts of Ptolemy.  The earliest maps produced within Asia date from 17th century China and Korea (the date of the Korean map is not certain).  The center of gravity of the exhibit is the 19th century.   One finds in these maps fascinating evidence of intellectual cross-fertilization, intra-European rivalry, and cross-cultural tensions.  Chinese and Japanese cartographers adopted new techniques of mapping from the West, even as they continued indigenous modes of depiction, incorporating indigenous myths and promoting what they understood to be traditional values.  Western mapmakers incorporated new knowledge of distant places with little obvious anxiety about the threat of the other.  This anxiety gap closes in the twentieth century, as seen in the 1942 map of “total war.”

The maps displayed here are reproductions of items held in the Harvard Map Collection and the Harvard-Yenching Library.   I wish to thank the staffs of those collections for their valuable help, in particular David Weimer and Jonathan Rosenwasser at the Harvard Map Collection, and Ma Xiao-He and Du Yuandong at the Harvard-Yenching Library.   I am grateful to Joseph Garver, formerly of the Harvard Map Collection, for preparing the wall panels describing each map.  I also thank Holly Angell, Associate Director of the Harvard Asia Center, for help in selecting the maps and for much hard work to make the exhibit happen.  We also thank the Provostial Funds Committee, Office of the Dean of Arts and Humanities, for a grant to support this exhibit.


Andrew Gordon, Acting Director, Harvard Asia Center
Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Professor of History