Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How the Selden Map rewrote History

From WSJ

For centuries, the vaults of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford held a map of the South China Sea that both fascinated and confounded sinologists.

Note: this image was made after the conservation work.

Unusually ornate, it was long considered a curiosity, but only recently has its significance come to light.

Interest in the map was ignited in 2008, when a historian from the U.S. visited the Bodleian during a conference trip.
Dr. Robert Batchelor, a researcher in early Sino-European relations at Georgia Southern University, was immediately struck by the map's details, particularly the fine lines that crisscrossed it.

He recognized the document for what it was: a maritime trade chart from the Ming Dynasty.
Today, the map represents a shift in our understanding of the roots of global trade.
"This map will become world famous," Dr. Batchelor recalls telling the Bodleian's librarian after examining it. "It will appear in all history textbooks."

The Selden Map, as it is known, is the oldest surviving merchant map of its kind.
Donated to the Bodleian in 1659 by London collector John Selden, it has been the subject of several conferences, at least two books (including one by Dr. Batchelor), and nearly 50 scholarly papers in the West and in China since its rediscovery.

Earlier this year, the map made its first foray out of the Bodleian in 350 years, traveling to Hong Kong where it is currently the star attraction of an exhibition at the city's maritime museum.
"This is the most crucial discovery on the Ming Dynasty in a century," said Dr. Jiao Tianlong, the museum's chief curator and one of the world's leading experts on Ming trade history.
Scholars from China have already made the trip to see it, with many more expected to attend a conference in Hong Kong on the map in early June.

The 17th century Selden Map of China was once described as 'A very odd mapp of China. Very large, & taken from Mr. Selden's'. Today the map is one of the treasures of the Bodleian Library in the University of Oxford, and this film explores how the map is interpreted today by scholars from a range of different disciplines. 

The map's illustrations provide evidence of Ming China's strong seaborne economic and cultural ties with Southeast Asia and the Arab world.
They also show the trade routes that connected China to Europe and the Americas.
"This map tells the story of early globalization," noted Dr. Jiao.
According to historian Timothy Brook, author of the international bestseller "Vermeer's Hat" and now of "Mr. Selden's Map of China," its existence rewrites "the textbook story" of how trade developed between Europe and China.

The old story, Prof. Brook said, assumes that "the Europeans arrived and took things back; the Chinese are passive figures in this exchange."
The map, however, suggests that "the Chinese were actively going out and carrying out the trade, doing the wholesaling."

Merchant navigation charts are today a rarity.
Imperial libraries considered commercial maps unworthy of scholarship, so few have been preserved. Yet these documents contain a trove of knowledge, especially about private business.
"We are very keen for as many people—scholars and the general public—as possible to see the map," says Richard Ovenden, the Bodleian's librarian, on the decision to allow the item to leave Oxford.
The hope is "for its visit to spark avenues of inquiry, questions and observations that have not emerged so far."

Research on the map is just beginning, but it is believed to have been made sometime between 1566 and 1620, after the Emperor lifted a ban on trade with foreigners.
An Arab or Arab-influenced cartographer likely made it for an influential Chinese trader based in or around Quanzhou, since most of the map's sailing routes originate from the port, a thriving international commercial center during the Ming Dynasty.

The Selden Map is odd for its time because China occupies only a section, while the South China Sea takes up more than half of the intricate 158 cm by 96 cm surface.
It accurately portrays Southeast Asia's geography, an area the cartographer had sophisticated knowledge of.
Handpainted on paper in several colors, the map's borders place Siberia on top, Java and the "Spice Islands" in what is now Indonesia to the bottom, Burma and India to the west, and Japan and the Philippines to the east.

Along the way, more than 60 trading ports are named in Chinese characters, dotted by a variety of botanical and topographical features rendered in classic Chinese landscape-painting style.
Sailing directions to the Persian Gulf are in a corner.
Shortly after the map became part of the Bodleian's collection, Latin and Chinese notations were added in ink by the then-librarian and a visiting Chinese scholar.

Prof. Brook, who teaches at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has had rare access to the nautical chart, which is not usually on display at Oxford due to its delicate condition.
Though the map has its own website featuring an interactive scan, he made several trips to the Bodleian to study it in person while writing his book.

"I had a lot of questions. It is a fairly detailed map, with annotations. You need to look closely," Prof. Brook said.
"There are details that you cannot see even with a high-resolution picture. Also you need to see what the plants and mountains look like. You need to soak it up, to feel it."

Links :
  • GeoGarage blog : Restored map reveals early Arabian trade links with China

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