In 2009, the historian Robert Batchelor called up a mysterious item at the Bodleian library in Oxford, a large map of China that had nestled in the stacks since 1659, but had not been looked at in more than a century. Soon afterward, Timothy Brook, then professor of Chinese at Oxford and specialist on the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), examined the map in detail.
What he saw made little sense to his expert eye. It was a depiction of East Asia by a Chinese cartographer, but it looked like no other map from the era. The Chinese mapping convention was to place China at the centre, with other locations squashed in around the edges. This map shows the Middle Kingdom as a large land mass, but the focus of the map is in the South China Sea, with the Philippines, Borneo and Vietnam all marked. No other such map from the Ming dynasty is known to exist. Where did it come from and why was it made? How did it end up in Britain, in the collection bequeathed to the Bodleian by the 17th-century English lawyer John Selden? And what does it tell us about China, then and now?
Those questions are at the heart of Timothy Brook’s journey to understand “Mr Selden’s Map of China”. The quest is fascinating and picaresque, a sort of cartographical Tristram Shandy with a sure-handed narrator steering us from Ming dynasty China to pre-Civil War Oxford to the Spice Islands of South-East Asia. Much of the book is in the first person, a daring trick for a work of serious history, but one that works very effectively. The reader feels as if he or she were looking over Brook’s shoulder as he muses on the page about what he can know about the map, as well as what he cannot. And the journey is a complex one.
Much of the book explores why John Selden might have acquired the map. While we don’t know the answer (Selden’s papers don’t make any direct reference to his acquisition), we know that the early 17th century marked the last wave of an early modern English interest in “Oriental” (as opposed to classical) scholarship, which was held to be the key to a greater understanding of the world. Much of that “Orientalism” concentrated on Hebrew and Arabic, but a Chinese chart may have been an extra-special prize, marking the outer limits of what European scholarship could hope to understand about the wider world, since nobody in Oxford at the time could actually read the language it was written in. (One Jesuit of the era assured readers that “the Chinese language has no analogy with any other language in use throughout the world”.)
It took two people working together after Selden’s death, the scholar Thomas Hyde and the first Chinese visitor to the university, Shen Fuzong, to unlock the map’s secrets. Yet the appeal of the Oriental to the English mind faded; by the late 17th century, Chinese texts like the Selden map were regarded as curiosities, not the key to a wider world.
But if the map remained little more than a curiosity in the history of Restoration England, it has been recognised in the last few years as one of the most important documents for our understanding of China’s role in the early modern world. For decades, even centuries, it was assumed by westerners and Chinese alike that imperial China had little interest in the outside world and particularly in ocean-going travel.
That view has changed as people came to know of the voyages of Zheng He, the great Chinese Muslim, eunuch and admiral, who led large and impressive convoys of Chinese ships on diplomatic journeys to South-East Asia and even eastern Africa in the early 15th century. Brook shows the links between Zheng He and the map, going on to give us an insight into the mind of Zhang Xie, the author of the only major chronicle of China’s maritime activities during that period. “Once you are through the harbour entrance,” wrote Zhang, “the spray from the whitecaps fills the air and the surging waves leap as high as the Milky Way.” This is not the voice of a man – or a culture – afraid of taking to the seas.
The Selden map leaves us in no doubt that, in the Ming dynasty, China was a power on the seas as well as by land, not in terms of imperial conquest, but rather through its active community of traders who were a constant presence on the commercial routes to South-East Asia that are marked on the map. This was not a map that sought to demonstrate imperial power, or to make the case for China as an empire at the centre of the civilised world. It was a route map, an entirely practical guide to get merchant sailors from China’s ports to their trading partners in the region.
Brook touches only lightly on the significance of the map for the present day. Yet its practicality and lack of pretension to political significance should give present-day China pause for thought. The South China Sea remains a highly contested stretch of water, as China makes claims for sovereignty over large swathes of it, claims that are vigorously contested by its neighbours. The Selden map reminds those who see it today of China not as an anxious and unpredictable regional power, but as a skilled partner making connections through trade. Perhaps greater knowledge of the map, encouraged by Brook’s elegant, engaging study, may help that same side of China to emerge more clearly once again.