Book 22; Continent: Asia, Europe

Mr. Selden’s Map of China by Timothy Brook

  • 182 pages (174 pages without the epilogue, which is worth reading)
  • Contemplate a more interesting fusion of East and West than that plate of noodles from the mall food court.

I admit, I picked this book because it was short. By mid-November, I had already consigned two books to the Reject Pile (watch for that list by year-end), so I was getting pretty desperate to find something I could even finish by Thanksgiving. This slim hardcover book with the esoteric topic (and sale price) fairly jumped into my arms at Barnes & Noble a couple of weeks ago.

So that’s why I read it, but why should anyone else? The map mentioned in the title is actually the jumping off point for a number of related stories and some speculation about the cartographer who made it. If you like maps and have read Ken Jenning’s Maphead, then this book is up your alley. From my perspective, though, the best reason to read it is because it allows one to pin some Asian history to concurrent European history that might be more familiar.

Remember the Stuarts in England? James I picked John Selden’s brain periodically, as he was widely regarded as the brightest legal mind in Britain at the time. In particular, Selden cared about maritime law and whether or not countries could claim regions of the ocean the way explorers claimed lands for their sovereigns. James I wanted to be able to tax the Dutch for fishing off the British coast, but he didn’t have a great legal basis, and he hoped Selden would work that out for him. Selden had a larger problem in mind: how to claim the right to trade in various Asian and Polynesian ports.

You might think that, well, if a European country wanted to trade in the South China Sea that its merchant ships would just sail into whichever ports the Chinese, the Filipinos, the Japanese, etc. deemed open to foreigners. In fact, sixteenth and seventeenth century trade in the region was dominated by the Dutch. The Dutch basically floated into port, strong-armed the local leadership into trading with them (at terms extremely favorable to the “Red Hairs”, as they were known), and then used force to prevent the same leaders from trading with the British or the Spanish. Where were the Chinese in all this? Well, there were some individual traders and boat pilots, but generally the Ming Dynasty, in power at the time, promoted the idea that anything worth having was already in China, so they kept their vision domestic.

Author Timothy Brook speculates that the mapmaker had some contact with the West—at least to see maps from Europe—because this map features a compass rose. The compass rose was not in standard use for Chinese cartography at that time. He details the way Chinese cartographers of the day indicated direction instead. Brook also observes that although the map was made during the Ming Dynasty, when China was treated as the center of the earthly plane, China is not centered in the document. The central part of the map is the South China Sea, with major trade routes indicated and detailed coastlines. Interior China, by contrast, shows less accuracy and more fanciful artwork. In spite of Ming policies about foreign trade, then, this map is a nautical chart.

Interestingly, the Chinese were very reluctant to share maps of China with Europeans—at least, that was the commentary from the British traders in the region at the time. Information only trickled into Europe about Chinese geography. Consequently, representations of China in European sources from the 16th and 17th centuries have glaring inaccuracies. This one is among the best of its time. This particular chart came into the possession of a British captain for the East India Company when he shook down a local merchant to honor debts to the EIC according to legend (Brooks speculates that it was John Saris, who turns up regularly in parts of this book).

Other interesting figures in this map’s history pop up throughout the book. Among them, Michael Shen Fo-Tsung, a Chinese scholar who makes his way to Oxford and becomes quite well-known. Sir Godfrey Kneller painted his portrait, entitled “The Chinese Convert” during his tenure there in 1687. Then too, read about Thomas Hyde, the Library Keeper there who takes an interest in Mandarin. I think he must have been regarded as “eccentric” by his peers at Oxford, based on Brooks’ description. The two men worked together, and their marginalia are visible on the Selden Map. Brooks discusses their notes there in some detail. For example, Shen’s mastery of Western languages surpasses Hyde’s knowledge of Mandarin, so Shen Latinizes some terms for him and spells them phonetically.

Although I do recommend the book, it’s a fairly dense read written by an academic author. Also, I think reading it as an ebook might prove unwieldy, as referring regularly to the figures is essential. If you can find it in your local library or (like me) the bargain table at Barnes & Noble, then go for it. Its insights knit together some history in both East and West, demonstrated in its appearance—singular for the time—as well as its very existence and preservation. Plus, the historical characters who touch the map in one way or another capture the imagination.

Image: “The Chinese Convert”, Sir Godfrey Kneller, from, public domain in the U.S.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s