Study of unique map illuminates past

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May 5, 2014

 Mr. Selden’s Map of China

By Timothy Brook

House of Anansi Press

211 pages; $29.95

Reviewed by Margaret Thompson

The key word in the subtitle of Timothy Brook’s work of historical detection, Mr Selden’s Map of China, is “decoding.” Even at the most superficial level the map is fascinating; for an expert on the history of China, like the author, it posed many intriguing questions. Bequeathed to the Bodleian library in 1654 by John Selden, an English lawyer and pioneer Oriental scholar, it was largely ignored for three and a half centuries until quite recently, when a curious reader asked to see it, and Brook was called in to inspect the hidden treasure. “The more I examined the map,” he says, “the more it troubled me.”

The map is one of a kind. It was drawn at a time when China had little contact with the world outside its borders, and actively discouraged the export of maps. This practice was maintained well into the twentieth century, as Brook can personally attest. The cartographer is unknown, but the principles by which he worked were original and sophisticated, and seem to reflect acquaintance with European maps of the area. Where most ancient Chinese maps focus on China itself, to the exclusion of surrounding countries and geographical features, and conform to traditional concepts of the country as a square, this map has the giant hole of the South China Sea at its heart, and features the other countries of South East Asia as well as the clusters of tiny islands in the sea. A further mystery is the intricate network of lines crisscrossing the map, as well as the inclusion of a compass and what appears to be a scale of some sort. As a final flourish, the map is full of place names, drawings of trees, mountains and animals, including two butterflies in the Gobi desert.

The expertise Brook uses to decode the map is probably available to very few people. His book, then, must explain a great deal that is not common knowledge in terms that are engaging and accessible. This he achieves. Mr Selden’s Map of China may be a meticulously scholarly argument, but it will also appeal to anybody who enjoys teasing deductions from enigmatic clues, or persuading the long-dead to speak and give up their secrets. In addition, the book contains a wealth of esoteric detail, little informational nuggets at every turn to enlighten and amuse as the reader follows the author along his winding path. Chapter 3, for instance, starts with the King’s Evil, and leads to a breakfast for James II in the Bodleian, a pair of globes, a food fight after the king left, a Jesuit translation of Confuscius, a conversation about the “little blinking fellow”—Michael Shen—his journey from China to Oxford, his translations, his portrait and its iconography, study of Oriental languages, the annotations on the map—and that takes us only halfway through.

This attention to detail, and the step-by-step construction of his thesis, makes Brook’s conclusions about the map, its construction, and its purpose all the more persuasive. He seems to agree with Zhang Huang that the duty of the scholar is “to amass the best knowledge and to make it available to those faced with real-world problems.” No surprise, then, when he concludes that the map reveals that China’s obsession about ownership of the islands off its coast, which is a significant source of tension in the area today, was already a concern in the seventeenth century. Like any good historian, Brook uses the past to illuminate the present.    

Margaret Thompson’s new novel, The Cuckoo’s Child, has just been published by Brindle and Glass.       



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