Book review: Mr Selden's Map of China, by Timothy Brook

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 6:47pm

Mr Selden's Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart & the South China Sea
by Timothy Brook
Profile Books
3 stars

Kit Gillet

In 2009, scholars at Oxford University found themselves looking down at an ancient Chinese map that hadn't been seen for almost a century.

The one-metre by two-metre watercolour, an exquisite depiction of the South China Sea and the lands around it, defied convention: it was clearly Chinese, since all of the markings on it were in Chinese characters, yet it positioned China as simply another landmass around the central focus of the sea.

The map was marked with lines that obviously represented Asian shipping trade routes, but also seemed to employ aspects of European cartography.

It had somehow made its way to England, where it had then spent almost 400 years being largely ignored in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It was a beautiful mystery, and one that China scholar Timothy Brook felt compelled to delve into.

In Mr Selden's Map of China, Brook attempts to get to the bottom of how and when the map was made, by whom, and, perhaps most intriguingly, how it ended up in the hands of John Selden, a mediocre poet but one of the leading legal brains of 17th-century Britain.

It is a fascinating journey that starts in the present day and gradually goes back through time into the murky depths of Anglo-Chinese history. Through it we are drawn into the stories of some of the unusual men whose histories intersected with that of the map's: earlier European scholars such as Selden who were fascinated by the Orient; a Jesuit-trained Chinese man who toured Europe in the 1680s and helped catalogue the Chinese-language books in Bodleian; traders and ship captains from the East India Company, and merchants from Fujian.

Even King James II of England makes an appearance, witnessing a food fight that takes place among Oxford scholars in 1687.

Brook never does manage to trace the map back to its creator - the earliest is the possibility that it was accepted by an officer of the East India Company in lieu of a trading debt - but that matters little because his book is not really about the Selden map.

Rather, it's about the world the map passed through, and the exchanges between East and West that were already taking place in the 17th century and the changing way we saw the world.

The book is an enjoyable read and, in an age where China is flexing its muscles and where the South China Sea is a growing source of contention, there is no better time to look closely at a long-forgotten map of the region that highlights, through its unique history and features, the early interchange between foreign lands, cultures and individuals.