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Mapping China

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Mapping China

China has been called Zhongguo 中國or “the Middle Kingdom” for almost as long as records exist, but outside China it has been known by many other names for over two millennia. Greek and Roman geographers, including Ptolemy, knew the Chinese as the Seres or “silkpeople” and their home as Regio Serica or “Silk Land.” Ptolemy refers to the Sinae, from which we derive such modern words related to China as Sino-American and Sinology. Europeans arriving in the sixteenth century were introduced to Cina or China, a name probably derived from Qin (pronounced “chin,” 221–206 BCE), the great dynasty under which the First Emperor Qin Shihuang unified China into a single empire. Marco Polo visited during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) and called it Cathay, from the Khitan empire of the Liao dynasty (907–1125) which had ruled northern China recently before his arrival.


Consequently, maps from the period often include both Cathay and China as though they were two different places, along with Polo’s “Cambaluc” (Khanbaliq) and the Jesuits’s “Peking” (Beijing) as different capital cities. Names on maps include these and their variants such as Pekin, Paquin, etc., and Cathayo, Cathaio, Cataium, etc.


Accurate geographical information about China was difficult to acquire in this period, and maps reflected the confusion. The historical map shown above was printed for a 1513 edition of Ptolemy that compared the ancient world with that known in the sixteenth century. Ptolemy’s map illustrates the world as it was known in the second century. The Serica Regio (“Land of the Silkpeople”) lies at the extreme NE corner of the world protected by mountains (no Great Wall yet), especially the Imaus mons which very roughly corresponds to the Himalayas. The Sinarum Situs (“Location of the Chinese”) is confusingly marked as a separate place below.


Maps from the period also contain a variety of depictions of the changcheng 長城or “Long Wall” of China. The Great Wall is actually several walls separated in places by wide gaps of mountains. But accurate maps of those walls did not appear until well into the eighteenth century in Europe or China.  Early European maps often depict the mountainous segments entirely from imagination, but the effect is still one of complete enclosure as if China were one great fortified city. The impressive brick version we see today dates back only to the Ming dynasty (13681644).


In John Seller’s miniature atlas, the Great Wall is shown merely as a sinewy line with bumps for battlements, and the brief text reads: “China hath. . . on the North a wall of 1,000 miles long, to keep them from the Tartars, which yet proved too weak a Fence, for in the fatal year 1644, they were overrun by that barbarous Nation.” In fact, it was not the Wall that failed: General Wu Sangui (1612–78) opened the gates for Manchu troops at Shanhai pass 山海關 in a pact to bolster his own power and to subdue a rebellion led by Li Zicheng (1606–45) 李自成. Once inside the walls, the Manchu troops were unstoppable.


Gerhard Mercator’s atlas (shown at right) depicts the Wall mostly as a natural fortification of mountains with intermittent spans of wall between them. The same mountains extend towards the west and south giving China a natural isolation. A second map of China in Mercator’s atlas show the Wall again stretching intermittently between mountains enclosing the “Part of China” (china pars). But Beijing appears twice: once as the capital city of “Cambalu” (from Marco Polo) in “Cataio” north of the wall, and also as “Xuntien” (Shuntian 順天, the prefecture of Beijing) south of the wall, where it is also confusingly labeled “Quinsay” (Hangzhou).

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