In a world where digital maps are available within a few clicks and can rely pre-loaded map projection systems to ensure we are mapping in the right location, for me it is always humbling and breathtaking the painstaking efforts and relative accuracy of older maps. One particular example is the Selden map of China (acquired from estate of London lawyer John Selden in 1659), one of the oldest surviving merchant trade maps, and one of the first Chinese maps to reach Europe, roughly dated 1607-1617. In many ways the beauty and craft of this map speaks for itself (see here), but there is more to this map than first thought.
Firstly, though given the title ‘Selden map of China’, it actually displays wider East and Southeast Asia, including Philippines, Borneo and parts of India. Interestingly, although China is the centre of this ‘world’, it is in equal size to other areas of the map, highlighting the map’s purpose in highlighting the importance of trading routes, rather than, an albeit accurate depiction. The shipping routes stemming from Quanzhou, as well as being unique early example of merchant orientated Chinese cartography, highlights the interaction of China with the outside world, once thought to be moreless isolated. Recent work between Nottingham Trent University and Victoria and Albert Museum, has used multispectral imaging (our old friend, image processing) to analyse further details beyond the naked eye (see more here). This revealed how the map was expanded in stages, rather than in one full map, as their knowledge of the map grew over time and also led to alterations of routes. Additionally, the pigments and binders are more Indo-Persian in origin than Chinese.
For me, this really highlights the tough and ongoing work of cartographers previously, especially considering the ’empty’ world/canvas they were trying to interpret which makes their work all the more remarkable. Additionally, it highlights how technological knowledge, innovations, and global interconnections are an ongoing process, not just recent globalised or digital phenomenon.
Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, West Bridgeford Wire