Witness, for instance, the fact that California is shown to be linked to the mainland of North America – portraying California as an island was a famous error of mapmakers of the seventeenth century and continued to be repeated by eminent cartographers up until the early years of the eighteenth century (for a few examples of these maps see here). Also interesting is the fairly accurate outline of the northern coastline of Australia embedded in an imagined southern landmass (the Terra Australis Incognita or ‘Unknown Southern Land’ of cartographic lore).
Perhaps the most telling difference between this map and its European counterparts is the Sino-centric nature of its orientation: here the Celestial Empire stands at the very center of the world map. If any of my readers happens to have any knowledge of Chinese characters, I’d be very curious to learn what the labels and captions say.
Could the cross-shaped character visible in parts of Africa and Europe be a sign of Christianity? [Edit, September 30.] An anonymous commentator has kindly informed me that this in fact “a regular chinese character pronounced “ya”. It was used as a phonetic here in the name of countries. For example, on northern Africa, you can notice from top to bottom, the three characters “利未亞”. In modern chinese, this is pronounced Li Wei Ya, but at the time, the pronounciation was different and more like Li bi ya (Libya).” Thanks anonymous, whoever you are!
Luckily there is a slightly earlier Chinese world map, known as the Shanhai Yudi Quantu, that a Wikipedia user has generously gone to the trouble of translating.
Below is the original:
And here is the same map with translated captions:
I love the caption floating over Iberia: “More than Thirty Countries.” And I’m curious about the “Land of Dogs” caption, apparently somewhere near the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the nearby “Coral Tree Islands.” I wish more maps of this kind were translated, since they offer such a fascinating glimpse into different cultural modes of understanding space and geography. Its worthwhile to remember from time to time that maps are often as much depictions of a culture and its preoccupations as they are depictions of physical space!
[Edit, September 28]. I just came across an earlier Chinese world map, the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu or “Map of the Myriad Countries of the World,” created by the famed Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in collaboration with Zhong Wentao and Li Zhizao in 1602. The Wikipedia page on it is quite good, and includes a remarkably detailed scan of this fascinating map. The full image seems to be too large to post here, but I’ve cropped a couple interesting details:
|According to Wikipedia: The brief description of North America mentions “humped oxen” or bison (駝峰牛 tuófēngníu), feral horses (野馬, yěmǎ), and a region named Jiānádá (加拿大, Canada). The map identifies Florida as Huādì (花地), the “Land of Flowers.”|
If you’re interested in this stuff, I’ve made a couple earlier posts on Asian perceptions of Europeans (see here and here) and can recommend a few books that deal with similar themes: Jerry H. Bentley’s Old World Encounters (1993) is a pioneering work that got me thinking about this subject in the first place. Stuart Schwartz’s edited volume Implicit Understandings (1994) is also excellent. For those interested in the themes of cross-cultural exchange and travel in Asia before Europe arrived on the scene, I recommend Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony (1991) and K.N. Chaudhuri’s Asia Before Europe (1991).