BOOK REVIEW Deciphering Imperial China's regionalism Mr Selden's Map of China by Timothy Brook
Reviewed by Michael Rank
To discover a forgotten gem hidden away in the bowels of an ancient library must be the secret dream of any historian, and this is what happened to Richard Batchelor, an American historian of the British empire, a few years ago as he was rifling through the pages of an old catalogue of holdings in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Batchelor's discovery was a long-lost 17th century Chinese map of China and Southeast Asia. It came to the attention of Timothy Brook, formerly professor of Chinese at Oxford University, and the result was this fascinating book.
The map is unusually large, measuring 160 by 96.5 centimeters. Unlike most such maps it is exquisitely hand painted, making it truly unique. Imperial China is often thought of as introverted and taking little interest in the outside world, but this map depicts the
islands and mainland of Southeast Asia as much as it does China itself, and the routes Chinese ships took to navigate around the region.
The map is so remarkable that one might suspect it of being an extremely skilful forgery, but that possibility can be ruled out immediately. The Bodleian's records show that it was donated to the library in 1659 by the lawyer John Selden - the story of Selden and how he acquired it is almost as interesting as the map itself.
Few non-specialists have heard of Selden, yet he was the greatest English lawyer of his day and helped to develop the modern law of the sea - hence his interest in this map, which he couldn't actually read.
Selden left it to the Bodleian in his will, describing it as "a map of China made there fairly, and done in colors, together with a sea compass of their making and divisions, taken both by an English commander, who being pressed exceedingly to restore it at a great ransom, would not part with it."
Although Selden didn't know Chinese, he was a pioneer of the study of Oriental languages in Europe and, apart from being a lawyer, he read and wrote Hebrew with ease. He also seems to have had a knowledge of Syriac, Arabic, Persian and Turkish. His last great scholarly project was on the political constitution of the ancient Jews, and according to Brook, "He was certain that every manuscript encoding Oriental knowledge had the potential to reveal world-changing knowledge, and should therefore be collected and preserved, even if no one could yet make sense of it."
The book puts the acquisition of the map by the Bodleian in the context of the history of Oriental studies in Britain and highlights the role of Michael Shen Fuzong, a Chinese Christian convert who arrived in Oxford in 1687 and who annotated the map with romanizations and translations.
Perhaps the most striking single feature of the map is the compass rose at the top above the Great Wall directly north of Beijing. "There is nothing strange about the actual compass," Brooks notes, "what really makes the compass strange is that it shouldn't be there".
Chinese maps never include a compass rose, writes the author. "[N]one before the Selden map has one, and none after, until the European style took over in the twentieth century."
Brooks says he is (oxymoronically) "cautiously certain that the compass and a foot ruler beneath the rose are on the map as tell-tale signs that the Selden cartographer had seen European sea charts and realized that he could borrow them to excellent effect."
The discussion of the compass rose is linked to the sea routes shown on the map, and the author discusses in some detail how these are depicted although parts are rather technical and difficult to fully appreciate.
Although the map is probably primarily of interest as evidence of China's rich maritime heritage, another intriguing fact is that it depicts Kubla Khan's capital of Shangdu - better known in the west as Xanadu - in the northeast corner of China, with characters written inside a gourd instead of a circle like other place names.
Shangdu was no mythical city, but the capital of the Jin dynasty some 400 years before the map was created. The city had been abandoned three centuries before the map was drawn, so it's little wonder that while the real Shangdu lay 300 kilometers directly north of Beijing, it is shown on the map about twice that distance to the east.
Despite this wobble, it's striking to find evidence of Coleridge's hallucinatory vision in such an unexpected place.
The author skillfully places the map in the context of both the history of Western and Chinese exploration, and includes an interesting account of a 16th-century text, Dong xi yang kao ("Study of the Eastern and Western Seas"), which Brook says is the only account we have of Chinese maritime endeavors in the South China Sea.
Also crucial in understanding the Selden map is the curiously named Laud rutter, a Chinese work donated to the Bodleian by the 17th century Archbishop Laud which is a sailing handbook based on a record of the routes sailed by the great Ming dynasty eunuch-admiral Zheng He.
The sea routes shown in the Laud rutter are similar to those on the Selden map, not, says Brook, because it was because Zheng's fleets opened these routes for others to follow, but "because everyone used the same sea lanes before, during and after the Ming dynasty. Zheng He simply sailed his treasure ships, as they were called, where merchant seamen sailed their cargo junks."
In contemporary terms, it might be expected that the map could shed light on the bitter dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) and other islands in the South China Sea claimed by China, much to the resentment of other nations in East Asia. But the islands are not clearly depicted on the map and Brook says it "has nothing to say" about who controlled them in the 17th century, still less who has a rightful claim to them in the 21st.
The book is attractively designed with clear illustrations, but the best way to examine the map in any detail is on a website created by the Bodleian. (The website also indicates that the map was not completely forgotten until Robert Batchelor rediscovered it in 2008 as Brook alleges, but its significance does seem to have been overlooked).
The map is still the bone of much scholarly contention, and Brook says that he seems to disagree with Batchelor about a great deal and that the latter "offers hypotheses that may not stand the test of time". So this book is unlikely to be the final word about the Selden map, but it is still an accessible introduction to a remarkable document.
Michael Rank is a London-based journalist and translator who has written extensively on China and North Korea for Asia Times Online. He graduated in Chinese from Cambridge University in 1972 and is a former Reuters correspondent in Beijing.