Selden seen

The chance deciphering of an ancient map in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library has generated a flurry of excitement among maritime historians. Vanessa Collingridge explains why it is changing perceptions about Chinese trade during the Ming dynasty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 12:47am


It was half an hour before closing time at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and historian Robert Batchelor was finishing his research before catching a plane home, from Britain to the United States.

As the library staff tidied up around him, he briefly turned his attention to a document described as, “A very odd mapp of China. Very large, & taken from Mr Selden’s [collection]”.

That description, written almost 300 years earlier, fairly accurately summed up the giant manuscript map that had been carefully unrolled before him. One metre wide and 1.5 metres tall, badly crumbling sections revealed a hand-drawn and coloured map of Asia. For three and a half centuries – since its arrival in the Bodleian in 1659 – people had come to look at this curiosity and marvel at the prettiness of its design and colour. But Batchelor knew in an instant that there was much more to this map – and that he had struck gold.

As a scholar of the expansion of British trade in the 17th century, what Batchelor discerned – and others had not – was a series of faint lines radiating out from Quanzhou, a seaport in Fujian province; lines following shipping routes across vast swaths of Asia, from southern Japan to the west coast of India with written instructions on how to get as far as Oman, Aden and the Strait of Hormuz. This, then, was no ordinary map: this was a merchant’s map, a snapshot of a previously hidden but extensive world of Chinese maritime trade in the late 16th or early 17th century, a period when, it had been thought, China was “closed off “ from the rest of the world.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just the trade routes that marked this map as extraordinary; it was also the radical way in which China was depicted that grabbed Batchelor’s attention and made it one of the most exciting discoveries of recent years, for the Bodleian and oriental scholars across the world. In official or scholarly Chinese maps from the period, China normally occupies the whole of the frame, asserting loudly to the viewer that China is the whole world and nothing more need be known. But this map lays out the whole of eastern Asia, with China nudged to the top: its focus is not land at all but the South China Sea and everything that lies within its reach – the first known map of its kind to show this and certainly the only surviving map to do so.

David Helliwell, curator of the Chinese collections at the Bodleian, was there, in January 2008, when Batchelor made his discovery.

“It was wonderful to have that happen on my watch,” says Helliwell.

“I’ve been at the Bodleian for 30 years but nothing like that had ever happened before. We have always known the map was beautiful and curious – I’d even put it on a list of interest along with other 17th century accessions – but until Bob’s visit, no one had realised that it was so much more than just a pretty picture. I’d looked at it many times but you really had to know about maps, navigation and Chinese history to notice the lines and compass bearings were even there, let alone make sense of them like Bob could.”

Helliwell made a high-resolution scan of the map, which he sent to Batchelor at Georgia Southern University, in the US, so he could attempt to decipher it. As word spread, so did the excitement.

“The next big moment for us was when Tim Brook, the newly appointed professor of Chinese at Oxford, first saw it, six days before his inaugural lecture at the university,” says Helliwell. “He was so enthralled, so completely blown away by it, that he rewrote his entire lecture to focus on the Selden Map. Why? Because there is simply nothing else like it in the late Ming period. It is such an important story: at a time when China was closing itself off to the rest of the world, here’s a map showing these extensive sea trades right across Asia and beyond, so you have these two stories running parallel – the official scholarly line that there was China and only China, the centre of everything; then you have this map, this alternative story, this underbelly of history in a map produced by tradesmen showing China was not the centre of the world and that their world extended from southern Japan out to Calicut in India, and beyond to the Near East.” Helliwell’s next move was to seek the opinion of Zhang Zhiqing, head of special collections at the National Library of China. Once again, an expert was open-jawed with excitement, proclaiming it more important than any of the pre-modern maps in his care.

With this trio of endorsements, Helliwell knew it was time to act.

Clearly a national treasure, the map had to be properly restored to its original glory, conserved for the future and studied by as wide a field of experts as possible, from orientalists and linguists to cartographers and historians of maritime trade.

The conservation effort was prolonged and intense. Funded as a joint venture between the Bodleian, the British Library and the British Museum, it would take £40,000 (HK$484,000) and almost a year to repair the damage of 350 years and what would now be considered an ill-advised attempt at stabilisation by backing it with linen in the early 20th century. The conservators painstakingly managed to remove the linen, stabilise the flaking map, repair the holes and reback the whole map with high quality paper, to make it flexible enough to be handled.

According to Bodleian map librarian Nick Millea, the results are almost magical: “It’s almost unrecognisable from what it was before, when it looked like a rolled-up piece of junk. It really was a bit of a mess when I first saw it, fragmenting here, there and everywhere – probably much as it had been since we acquired it in 1659. You could barely work out which bit went where but the work the conservators have done is just incredible – and, importantly, means that experts can now handle the map to study it properly.”

The conservation effort also means the Selden Map can go on public display for the first time. Currently part of the “Treasures” exhibition at the Bodleian, the map was pored over by about 50 cartographic and oriental scholars from across the world in a one-day colloquium held in September, in Oxford. Millea and his colleagues hope that such study will begin to unravel the secrets behind this enigmatic map.

“There’s just so much work to do,” Millea exclaims with a mixture of frustration and the thrill of the chase. “For example, China is illustrated with a mass of vegetation across its territory but this vegetation is from places like Vietnam and Indochina. It’s luxuriant tropical vegetation and very, very artistic – but, although it’s oriental rather than Western, a lot of it isn’t Chinese at all, which raises the questions, ‘Who drew the map?

Who was it for? And where was it made?’ At the moment, we just don’t know the answers.”

Helliwell shares Millea’s itch to solve the riddle of the map: “We just don’t know the author yet. It was probably drawn around 1620 and probably came to London around 1640-1650, but that’s only guesswork.

More certain is the mechanism by which it got here, which was almost certainly down to an East India Company merchant, as they were active in the area. The merchant would have then sold it to London lawyer John Selden, who was a well-known collector at the time with good contacts with the maritime world and a strong interest in trade and the legal aspects of overseas expansion.”

But as to the map’s author, that remains a mystery. “There was an early idea that it was possibly made by Chinese descendants of early Arab immigrants into Quanzhou, but that wasn’t really convincing. Was it the result of a Chinese hand or someone from Southeast Asia? We really can’t say with any certainty. It’s a real conundrum. We also can only make a stab at a date for the map based on linguistic and place name evidence; for example, Batavia is noted, which dates that inscription after 1619 [when the Dutch so named the city we now know as Jakarta]. As a librarian just listening at the colloquium, I want a title, an author, a date and a place of manufacture but we’ve got none of these. And so far there aren’t even any real smoking guns – it’s all just guesswork.”

For Millea, some answers will probably only begin to emerge once word spreads into the wider academic community. “It’s a real enigma: no one’s 100 per cent sure what we’ve got here. The colloquium was just the beginning and frankly it raised as many questions as it answered.

“One of my favourite comments came in the summing up session, when an expert confessed he’d come to the session with a fixed opinion about the origins of the map but he’d completely changed his views and now had an open mind. That’s exactly what we need here – it’s so very different from anything else we’ve ever seen. It certainly has the accuracy of an Arab or Western map from that era but there is no evidence to suggest an Arab influence. It’s not a rip-off of a portolan chart – the type of chart used by the Italians, Spanish and Portuguese throughout the Age of Discovery. This is a map of the land and sea, not just of the coasts and harbours but there are no soundings or depths, which you would expect.

“The only certainty is its purpose – to show roughly how ships get from A to B via what was quite a network of trade routes. And what we all realised at the colloquium was the considerable amount of trade there was – including trade in maps – between China and places like the Philippines, which would link through the Spanish to European ideas, so lots of styles would have been compared and shared by sailors and traders.”

The sheer quantity of trade in the South China Sea in the late 16th and early 17th centuries is backed up by contemporary documentary evidence but the Selden Map is the first extant map to show this melting pot of ideas in graphic terms, along with the dangers from unexpected shoals and even pirates. It also shores up the consensus among experts that this is a working map, a map with a function and a plurality of influences that derives from the “messiness” of cultures and peoples who plied their trade across Asian waters. And given that those trade routes emanate from Quanzhou, it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that its commission or production relates to that port and not from Ming scholars, who would have had a much greater knowledge of the empire and its tributary routes – and a much stricter cartographic style that eschewed not only the sea but the apparent Western influences and “realism” that helps to define the Selden Map’s uniqueness.

According to Chinese maritime historian James Chin, this uniqueness is not to be understated: “I can hardly describe the shock and excitement I felt when I first saw this map. I could hardly believe my eyes! There’s simply no comparison with any other Chinese map. We have nothing from this period of equivalent colour or accuracy but more than that, it’s the first map in our history to unite what were then considered the quite separate East and West oceans into one mass of water – the ‘East-West Ocean’ or ‘Dong Xi Yang’.

“My opinion is that it was produced by Hokkien traders, who, at this time, were the pre-eminent merchants and seafarers in China and active all over the East and West oceans, and operating out of Moon Harbour in Zhangzhou and along the coast of southeast China. It would certainly fit with the Hokkien trade networks and also their mentality, which was always turned to the sea. It wasn’t just a different culture to most of China, their whole historical tradition was different.”

Chin argues that with a culture based on trade came a receptiveness to new ideas and new ways of doing things – a fluidity that comes with mixing with lots of different peoples.

Back in Oxford, the hope is that by widening the net of experts who can now see the map in all its restored glory, new ideas about its origins will start to emerge and solve the riddle of the Selden Map.

According to Bodleian librarian Sarah Thomas, moves are afoot to bring the map to Asia – and it would be eagerly welcomed by Stephen Davies of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, which will be moving to a purpose-built home in Star Ferry Pier 8 in Central in spring 2013 with 15 themed galleries and five times the current gallery space for an expected 120,000 visitors a year.

“There are few things more exciting for a museum curator than ‘finds’ that change the whole way we think about our displays and the stories they tell,” says Davies, “and that’s just what the Selden Map has done for how we see the Chinese cartographic tradition. It also poses the question, how many more maps like this have been overlooked because we’ve ‘known’ how Chinese cartography portrayed geographical space?

“To be able to show this game-changing – and stunning – map in HKMM would be the stuff of dreams. To be able to have a quality replica to display and have our new galleries right up at the historiographical cutting edge … Wow!”


A Saturday morning series, The Big Idea, produced and presented by Vanessa Collingridge, starts on RTHK Radio 3 on November 19, at 8.30am. The subject of the first episode will be The Sea. The “Treasures” exhibition at the Bodleian Library runs until December 23.



From uncharted waters

The Selden Map is named after London lawyer John Selden, who died in 1654.
During his career, he amassed a vast collection of oriental manuscripts, Greek marbles, a famous Aztec history known as the Codex Mendoza and other curiosities, including a Chinese geomantic compass.

Shortly before his death, he added a codicil to his will requesting his map be given to a “convenient library publick”, describing it as “a map of China made there fairly, and done in colours, together with a sea compass of their making and divisions, taken by an English commander, who being pressed exceedingly to restore it at a great ransome, would not part with it.”

Frustratingly for modern scholars, there are no East India Company records mentioning the capture of the map. However, two possible contenders for the “English commander” were Henry Bornford, who led an independent venture chartered by the Portuguese from Goa to Macau to Surat, and the belligerent Captain John Weddell, who was in charge of a trading voyage by William Courteen’s Association that arrived in Macau in 1637.
Another possibility is that the map was taken from a Chinese merchant junk linked with Quanzhou – the port from which all the navigation lines radiate.