John Selden’s Map of East Asia (The Selden Map of China)


It was a cold and slushy day in January of 2008, when I first saw the Selden Map with David Helliwell, the curator of Chinese collections at the Bodeian Library in Oxford.  It was a surprise to us both.  David had largely been focusing on getting the Bodleian’s remarkable collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century Chinese books in order, some of which are extremely rare records of maritime activity like the famous Laud Rutter.  David had been my guide to these since 2006 when I first started looking at the archives.  Selden’s map of China and East Asia was certainly beautiful, and we both marveled at a forgotten treasure.  Once a prized possession then a curio in the eighteenth century, it gathered dust in the nineteenth century.  Most importantly, nobody since Bodley’s librarian Thomas Hyde in the 1680’s had paid attention to the fact that it showed an intricate mesh of shipping routes plied by Chinese traders.  Their work in creating the globalized world we now take for granted had disappeared from view after the opening of the Canton (Guangzhou) trade in the 1690’s.  Great Walls and isolation indeed!  This was the earliest surviving Chinese overseas merchant map, and it told the story of a dynamic group of merchants shaping the birth of the modern world.

The story became even more remarkable after David obtained funding to support the restoration of the map.  On another January, this time in 2011, he took me upstairs in the Clarendon Building where Robert Minte and a team of people had been hard at work restoring the map.  What I saw was even more remarkable–a draft of the routes.  The most obvious conclusion was that the map had been designed around the routes themselves, in particular one running from Nagasaki to Hoi An that I call the “trunk route.”  We were looking at something more akin to a diagram, like those Marshall Islands stick maps of the nineteenth century or even the London Underground map, rather than a graticule and coordinate based map like those of Ptolomey as well as the Chinese maps of Luo Hongxian and the famous Yu ji tu (1137).

If you want to find out more, see my article and book on the map.  I’m also happy to report that a lively debate about the map is emerging.  One of the key problems is the when and the where of the map’s composition.  We know it was definitely in London by 1653, and probably about three decades earlier.   I argue that the map was produced around 1618, right around the time that Zhang Xie (張燮) was writing an account of trade in the region, and that it was possibly made for the Hirado-based merchant Li Dan.  Look for that complex and shadowy story involving Taiwan, Japan, Manila and Fujian to appear in more detail soon.  Early research, as in this important piece by Chen Jiarong (陳佳榮), focused on the mid-1620’s, as Zheng Zhilong was building up a maritime empire that would eventually center on Taiwan (a significant feature on the map), and Tonio Andrade included an image of the Selden Map in his excellent book on the Zhengs, Lost Colony.  The historian Tim Brook, whom David and I told about the map at a very early stage in order to help get grant money for its restoration, believes the map was obtained in Java before 1612 along with another Chinese map by the English sea captain John Saris.  All of which is to say that the map still holds lots of questions for future researchers.  New and unpublished findings about the map are waiting in the wings.  This website will offer tools and educational modules to allow participation in that process of exploration and investigation.  Please feel free to contact me with your thoughts and questions.

One of my big goals for the coming year is to make this important but difficult map more accessible.  We have designed a boardgame so you can ‘play’ the map and learn how to read it, and look for more apps and maps in the coming year.

–Robert Batchelor, January 2014

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