A closeup of China in the Selden Map. Image courtesy: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

In September 1659, hundreds of boxes of books and manuscripts arrived at the University of Oxford. They contained the personal library of John Selden (1584-1654), a constitutional lawyer and antiquarian and a pioneer of Oriental studies – a term that, however unfashionable it may have become elsewhere, continues to be honored in the name of Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies.

Selden had died in London five years earlier and bequeathed his voluminous collection, all 8,000 items, to the Bodleian Library. It was then – and remains to this day – the single largest donation in the history of the university. 

John Selden. Image courtesy: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Tucked away amongst the lot was a map of China. Although it was one of Selden’s most precious possessions, its origin is largely a mystery. There is nothing in Selden’s will, nor anywhere else in his papers, that tells us how or from whom he procured it. We do not know the identity of the cartographer, either, and only have circumstantial evidence about the time and place where he completed his work, perhaps in Java, very likely in the late 16th or early 17th century. 

It is, however, a remarkable document, unlike any other that has come down to us. For one thing, writes Hongping Annie Nie in her slim but richly illustrated book, China is squeezed into the upper left corner.

In all other Chinese maps of the time, the Middle Kingdom is a square and bulky presence, the most important visual component of the design. Not here: the South China Sea lies at the center, with East and Southeast Asia given pride of place. It is, Nie adds, “the first Chinese map that correctly shows the geographical relationships in the East Asia region.”

And yet, the pursuit of this accuracy does not appear to have been the cartographer’s main motive, at least not directly.

In 2013, Timothy Brook, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, published a detailed study of the Selden Map. In his book, which is an ideal companion to Nie’s brief account, Brook explained how the map was produced.

The cartographer first plotted sea lanes. To do so, he consulted “rutters” – route guides providing information on distances between ports, compass directions, times and places to tack at sea and so on. These guides embodied hundreds of years of sailing experience, so the information they contained was very reliable.

Selden Map trading routes near China. Image courtesy: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Only after committing that network to paper did the cartographer start sketching land contours, almost as an “afterthought,” in Brook’s words.  It is this technique that gave the map an appearance that is surprisingly accurate to the modern eye.

Scholars have proposed various dates for the creation of the Selden map, all falling between 1566 and 1621. This is probably not a coincidence. The latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) witnessed a period of rapid commercial expansion, which acted as a powerful stimulant to foreign trade. Across Southeast Asia, Chinese merchants were a growing presence.

It had not always been thus. In its early days, the dynasty was more inward-looking. Border security, whether on land or at sea, was a paramount concern. In 1370, only two years into his reign, the first Ming Emperor banned all foreign trade, with the exception of that conducted in the context of diplomatic missions – the tribute trade.

The zeal with which this policy was enforced varied over time, but it was not very successful: trade along the coast never stopped. Worse, the policy tended to encourage smuggling and piracy.

Bowing to the inevitable, Ming authorities withdrew the prohibition in 1567. This probably was not coincidental. Two years earlier, in 1565, the first Spanish galleon had sailed to the Philippines from Acapulco, thereby proving the feasibility of a trade route across the pacific.

Ships laden with silver from Latin American mines soon followed. They docked at Manila, where Chinese merchants awaited, ready to sell silk, damask, porcelain, jewels or any other luxury goods the Spaniards fancied. In the 1540s, Nie notes, silver became China’s main currency. Now the Spaniards were coming with mountains of it. It was a hugely profitable trade for all involved.

For all its nautical accuracy – dozens of compass bearings were inked on its surface – it is unlikely the Selden map was used for navigational purposes. At 1.58m by 0.96m, it is inconveniently large.

Besides, it was decorated with too much care to have been merely utilitarian. Unlike European maps, which were printed, this one was painted by hand – and richly so. The Great Wall is conspicuous, in bright yellow with sparkling red merlons. The China it hems is dotted with craggy hills. Flora were depicted with obvious care and positioned in the regions where they naturally grew.

The map is a beautiful work of art that was most likely commissioned by a rich merchant to decorate his home and show off his commercial acumen as the age of globalization dawned.

Back in Oxford, few could make sense of Selden’s map, to say nothing of the other Chinese manuscripts he legated to the university. In the summer of 1687, Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), the keeper of the Bodleian Library, made a valiant attempt to learn the rudiments of the language and translate some of Selden’s material.

Hyde had the assistance of Shen Fuzong (ca. 1658-1691), a Jesuit convert and the first Chinese to travel to England, who sojourned in Oxford for six weeks. Some of Hyde’s annotations, in Latin, are still visible next to the original inscriptions of the cartographer. 

Soon after, though, people lost interest. After spending some years on a wall in the Anatomy School, the map was put away, in a greatly diminished state, its significance forgotten, until it was rediscovered by an American scholar in 2008.

It has since been splendidly restored in a fitting tribute to Selden, whose passionate pursuit of knowledge had made him one of the greatest scholars of his age.

The Selden Map of China: A New Understanding of the Ming Dynasty (Hongping Annie Nie), published by the Bodleian Library (US$29.30)

Martin Laflamme is a Canadian Foreign Service officer who writes frequently about Asian art, culture and history.  The views presented here are his own.

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