Orienting the map of the world

The History of Cartography, Volume Two, Book One - The History of Cartography, Volume Two, Book Two
October 6, 1995

Seven maps dating from the third century bc were found in a tomb at Fangmatan in China in 1986. They had perhaps belonged to an officer in the Qin army and depict in great detail parts of a single administrative district in the Wei river valley. In ad 738 an order was given by the central government in Japan to prepare surveyed maps of all the provinces. A diagrammatic world map was prepared in Tibet before the 9th century, and a more realistic one in the court of the Islamic caliph al-Ma'mun in the 9th century. In 1101 in Korea a unit of currency was issued in the form of a silver "vase" whose shape resembled the territorial outline of the country, and in the following century the department of revenue was known as the directorate of registers and maps.

These are just a few samples from the amazing story of the history of cartography in Asia that has now appeared in print in two large tomes. How these books developed is an interesting story in itself, and reflects the wider discussion that is taking place in academic circles about the nature of maps, their place in society, and what constitutes a map. When this series was first planned more than a decade ago, it was thought that five volumes would be sufficient. Asian maps were to be included as part of archaic mapping in general. Since this was largely a neglected area of study and there were few books in English covering even regional cartography, scholars set to work, both in their own country and travelling in search of artefacts in their specialised fields. Gradually the story began to build up, and it was decided that cartography in traditional Asian societies should form a separate volume. Once the search was on, however, the resulting burgeoning of material meant that no single volume could contain it and Volume 2 was split into two books. This coverage still omitted pre-modern mapping in other parts of the world, such as Africa, America, the Arctic, Australia and the Pacific, which will now be covered in a third book of Volume 2. With the publication of so much newly discovered material, and material that is only now being recognised as cartographic and not purely pictorial, it is likely that even more will turn up, as these volumes encourage Asians themselves to value their cartographic heritage, and find it a worthwhile object of study.

Let no one assume, however, that these volumes provide a complete story. Every contributor emphasises that further research is needed, and indicates where such study is likely to be rewarding. Many of the early maps are known only from literary reference, since the originals have perished. There is confusion in many languages about the exact word used for a map, how it was distinguished from a pictorial representation, whether reference to a "survey" necessarily indicated a map, or a listing of areas, crops, roads, rivers and so on. On the other hand, later surviving artefacts are sometimes so well developed, it might safely be presumed that they are the result of a long tradition of mapmaking.

Another problem is our present limited knowledge of the cartographic links between the various countries of Asia. Despite the false division between Islamic and South Asian societies in one book, and East and Southeast Asian in the second, there was continuous interaction between most of the countries for trade, travel, religious yearning and conquest that went on apart from the relationships with the West that have been the usual measure of interrelational contact. This is reflected in the maps, not only where it might be expected, as between Korea and Japan, or Thailand and China, but also between Arabic and Chinese cartographers. Nor was the influence always one way; it ebbed and flowed over the centuries, as separate cultures became more or less powerful. Further, as Gari Ledyard writes about Korea, "Cartography is a particularly useful medium for the great variety within the broader East Asian civilisation."

Once maps are understood, they can teach us, often better than written texts, how people viewed the world around them, even what they thought of their neighbours and rulers. Writing about the aims of Chinese mapmakers Cordell Yee states that "The function of maps extended beyond the representation of nature knowledge to the transmission of cultural values and the preservation of political power." This already takes the definition of a map beyond that stated in the first volume of this series: "Maps are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world." The series of lectures now in its fourth year at the Warburg Institute in London, "Maps and Society", has brought a range of views on maps and their purposes and possibilities that could not have been imagined a few years ago. These studies of mapping in Asia have added further dimensions to what can be expressed through a spatial representation.

A large part of both books concerns cosmographical mapping. Whereas celestial mapping, also extensively dealt with here, has received wide attention in previous studies, cosmographies were usually regarded as quaint, primitive examples of overripe imagination. Joseph Schwartzberg (who has contributed nearly half of each book, covering south as well as South east Asian cartography) comments on the complexity of cosmographical conceptions in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. He concludes his study of Indian cosmographies with a short discussion on the place of "mental maps", and the possibility that the paucity of early Indian terrestrial examples might be due to the "pre-existence of culturally conditioned and richly detailed mental maps". In the Islamic world less evidence has survived, in part because the Koran does not contain a systematic cosmology, yet the few extant examples suggest that cosmological worries occupied the minds of both secular and religious scholars. Another interesting fact that emerges is the continuance of traditional mapping long after western styles had been adopted for practical and administrative purposes. The 19th-century Korean mapmaker Kim Chingho used geodetic coordinates in his work, but "the visual appearance of his late traditional maps stayed completely within the evolutionary lines of native cartographic practice". On the other hand, in 1861, when the British navy began to survey the coasts of Japan, they settled for amending a copy of existing Japanese survey sheets, rather than prepare their own surveys.

There is so much new material in these two books that it is not possible to give even a brief outline of the discoveries that were waiting to be uncovered. Even in areas that were studied earlier, such as Arabic and Chinese mapping, the modern approach to cartography has led to very different conclusions. Some schools of cartography, such as the Ottoman maps, have previously received little attention in the West. Many of the studies of Japanese maps remained in Japanese, but in his masterly review here Kazutaka Unno has made this rich source accessible to the English reader. Yet many areas are still to be represented. Extant maps from Japan are almost too numerous to be listed, yet there are very few (all comparatively late in date) from Vietnam, and none from Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines. Cartography in Thailand receives more attention than cartography in Burma, mainly because the country is accessible and more material has been found. It is also possible that artefacts have survived more easily in the cooler northern climates than in the hot, damp countries of the monsoon.

A recent exhibition at the British Library, "The earth and the heavens: the art of the mapmaker" is described in the programme as "tracing the response of the West to the oldest intellectual challenge facing the human mind: what is the shape and the extent of the earth and of the cosmos which contains it?" In fact, it starts with a section of Asian exhibits, probably an immediate reaction to the wealth of material provided in these two books. It is unlikely that Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmologies, a Buddhist map of Jambudvipa from Japan, or a Chinese star map would have been included in such an exhibition even five years ago. The contributors to these two books have ordered their very diverse material that is sometimes overwhelmingly rich and at others tantalisingly scanty so skilfully that they entice one to read on, even though the text, with appendices, bibliographies and indexes, covers more than 1600 pages. The illustrations, often from difficult originals, are adequate, though one wishes it had been possible to illustrate every map described. The richness of the coloured plates with their intricacy of design bears easy comparision with European decorative maps of the 17th century.

It would be a pity if these books are used for consultation to supplement existing knowledge instead of being read for their own story. Yet they certainly warrant reading as a whole to compare and contrast the different purposes for which maps were made within the continent of Asia, their styles and the underlying ideas of the world around us. The editors, David Woodward and the late Brian Harley, deserve the thanks of all those interested in not only the development of cartography but also the concepts that can be expressed through maps.

Susan Gole is chairman, International Map Collectors' Society.

The History of Cartography, Volume Two, Book One: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies

Editor - J.B. Harley and David Woodward
ISBN - 0 226 31637 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £99.95
Pages - 604

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