A while back I bought this map of China, hand-drawn in ink, from a dealer in Japan. Other things also point to it being a Japanese-made map: the translucent, resilient paper, typical of Japanese manufacture; an emphasis on marked routes from Japan (a country that China showed little interest in until recent times); and the general style, similar to Japanese woodblock-printed maps copied from Chinese sources. The Chinese have been making maps of their country since at least the fourth century BC; one way or another, this one is most likely based on 皇與全覽分省圖, China’s first modern survey map, commissioned by the emperor Kangxi in the eighteenth century. A broad date range is also given by the block of text on the right mentioning 大清地, the “Land of the Great Qing” – in other words, China during the Qing dynasty (1642–1912).
Everything is written in Chinese characters, which the Japanese use too. Named features include mountains, rivers and lakes, along with provincial capitals (in square cartouches) and prefectural towns (round cartouches). These use the city’s actual name (eg 桂林for Guilin), or the name of the administrative region (eg 湖廣, Huguang , for Wuhan city), an initial character (eg 貴 for Guiyang), or an archaic name (eg 蜀, Shu, for Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province).
Names aside, all other text measures distances between places in li (里). Today a li has been standardised at 500m, and some measurements are accurate enough – Beijing to Nanjing is given as 2240li or 1120km, pretty close to the true distance of around 1050km. But traditionally a li had more to do with the time it took to travel between points, and travellers in China reported that different estimates were sometimes given for the same stretch of mountain road, depending on whether you were going uphill or down. Unsurprisingly, some of the distances on this map are way out: Beijing to Dali in Yunnan province, southwest across the country along a notoriously rugged road, is given here as 6800li or 3400km, while the actual distance is only 2700km.
The map has some interesting points. Beijing – capital of China since 1403 – is clearly marked but not given any special prominence, and the nearest major town is not its port, Tianjin, which grew considerably during the late nineteenth century, but Datong (900li to the northwest), famed for its coal deposits and monumental sixth-century Buddhist rock carvings.
The Great Wall, stretching for thousands of kilometres across northern China, is shown realistically broken up into sections. Most similar maps show it as a continuous line, which might help identify the original source map that this one was taken from.
Lakes include Poyang, Dongting, Tai and Xi in eastern China, along with the whole courses of the Yellow and Yangzi rivers, as far as they were known at the time.
South of Beijing, a shaded line slanting off to the northeast marks the old route of the Yellow River (黃河古道). Known as “China’s Sorrow”, the river carries so much silt that its bed is continually rising above the level of the surrounding land, so that the river has to be contained within dykes and embankments along its eastern end. If these banks give way the flooding is catastrophic, sometimes killing millions of people, and the river often changes course afterwards. This map shows the river flowing into the sea south of the Shandong Peninsula as it did before 1855, and not flowing north of the Peninsula as it does today; so the “old route” marked here must mean before 1358, when it also flowed north.
Major mountain ranges include scenic Huang Shan in Anhui, to well-known but remote holy peaks such as Emei Shan in Sichuan and Yunnan’s Jizu Shan. The Kunlun Mountains are shown too, along the banks of the upper Yellow River, but this is fantasy – they should be about 1000km further west.
Up in the northwestern deserts are the former Silk Road towns of Zhangye (here given its old name 甘州, Ganzhou) and Jiayuguan – a fortress which historically marked China’s frontier with central Asia.
Southwestern China is shown with surprisingly accuracy – much of it was considered a barbarian wasteland until the twentieth century – with the major cities of Chengdu, Kunming (marked 云南, Yunnan) and Dali shown, along with the borders of Myanmar (缅甸) and Vietnam (安南).
Interestingly, Hainan island is shown off the south coast of Guangxi province, as is Taiwan (here written 大冤), along with the Pescadores and Diaoyu islands – part of China’s current claim of ownership over the area.
Elsewhere, parts of the map are surprisingly vague. Chunks of inland China, including Guizhou, Fujian and Jiangxi provinces, are left virtually blank; and even a few big cities such as Nanjing (here given the regional name 江南, Jiangnan) and Xi’an are barely visible.
There’s no sign of Shanghai at all, even under the name of the original walled city, Shangyang (上洋). In fact all of eastern China is a bit of a mess, and clearly whoever made the map had little interest in this culturally important and well-populated area.
Similarly, down on the south coast there’s no sign of Hong Kong, which before 1842 was sparsely inhabited and of no consequence – again helping to date the map.
With landmarks, towns and distances given between them, this map is definitely the equivalent of a road atlas of China (rather than a map of geological deposits, ethnic geography etc). The red lines trace somebody’s travels around the country, arriving from Japan to Beijing and heading right across northern China to the borders with Central Asia, before heading down to the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu. From here they explored southwestern China, following caravan routes to Kunming, Dali, and the borders with Vietnam and Burma, before heading to the southern coast at Guangzhou and making some treks inland to Guilin and northern Guangxi province. As both sea lanes and overland routes to Japan via Korea are marked, the traveller presumably arrived one way and left another.
The emphasis on China’s northern and western frontiers possibly suggest a pilgrim interested in Lamaism and Chan (Zen) Buddhism – there are Tibetans throughout the region, and a big Chan temple at Chengdu. Anyone out there know about Japanese Buddhist pilgrims in the early nineteenth century?
So… this is a hand-drawn Japanese travel map of Qing-dynasty China before the 1840s. Of course, there’s no way to know its actual age: it could have been made just before I bought it, or it could date from the early nineteenth century, and have been used by a Japanese traveller in China.
With thanks to Mike Clayton