Mapping the vanishing border

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 June, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 1997, 12:00am

Old maps are rare, but examples of ancient Chinese cartography in particular are even harder to come by. While volumes of maps were produced in the West in the past century for navigational purposes, map-making remained an exclusive art form in China.

The fact that map collecting in Asian countries is not as popular as in the West makes mainland maps even more scarce in this part of the world.

That perhaps explains why The Vanishing Border - A Retrospective of China and Hong Kong Through Maps, published by Credit Lyonnais Securities (Asia), is a valuable collection of mostly mainland as well as Hong Kong maps.

The brokerage only printed 3,000 bound copies, to mark the territory's return to China. They are not for sale.

'The handover marks the biggest change in China's map since at least the Second World War,' the company's chairman Gary Coull says.

'We felt a retrospective look at Chinese history through maps would be an unusual way to mark the change of sovereignty.' Despite its title, much of the book is devoted to China's maps and history. Only in the last chapter does the book look at local geography and what is meant by 'the vanishing border'.

'To describe the border as 'vanishing' is nominally correct in political terms,' it says. 'What has apparently been there will soon decidedly disappear. But it is the economic relationship which will define the true border with the mainland.' The Vanishing Border is divided into eight chapters. It includes the history of map-making on the mainland - why and how they were made - and maps used for travel, trade and commerce. There are also maps of boundaries.

According to the book, Chinese cartography dates back at least to 600BC, contemporary with the first map making in Europe. The world's oldest printed map is Chinese, dated AD1155, two centuries before the first known printed European map.

While ancient Chinese and Western maps shared artistic designs, after the 17th century the two cartography approaches diverged.

'The West strove towards mathematical precision in comprehensive global mapping, developing the means for projecting points from a sphere - the globe - accurately on to a flat surface and copperplate engraving,' the book says.

'In contrast, Chinese cartographers adhered to tradition, continuing to map their own territory in the style they had inherited, using brush and ink and woodblock printing for reproduction.

'These contrasts in style, form and content suggest fundamental differences in Chinese and Western attitudes towards national security, towards the pragmatic value of geographical knowledge, and towards technology, tradition, trade and travel.' One interesting chapter entitled 'Celestial Order on Earth: The Capital' shows the importance of Chinese geomancy, or fung shui, in the building of the Imperial Palace, or the Forbidden City, in Beijing.

Instead of being a simple geographical map, a woodcut print mounted as a scroll dated 1885 shows that the city's construction followed strictly the mythological philosophy and astrology of ancient China.

The capital was a conscious imitation of the cosmos, bringing the harmony and permanence of the heavens down to Earth, the text points out.

Most of the Chinese maps and a Macau road map come from long-time local map collector Tam Siu-cheung's collection. Mr Tam, who has maps from Hong Kong, the mainland, Taiwan and Singapore, says German and Chinese maps are the most fascinating.

'While German maps are very detailed and meticulous, Chinese maps are very artistic, noble and rare,' he says. 'Collecting Chinese maps has been considered a luxurious hobby in the past and present.

'As a map lover, one is addicted to them. With maps, the collectors keep raising questions and finding new discoveries. We ask why boundaries changed and how my country has changed over the years.

'For instance, it was interesting to find Kwun Tong's old name was once a reference to coffins. It had to be changed because of its ominous implications.

'Vanishing Border is a great story as it depicts Hong Kong as having no boundary except a political one. Now that border will disappear and become the border of the two systems. And this border is expected to expand further north.'