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Early Chinese cartography

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Title: Early Chinese cartography  
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Subject: History of science and technology in China, Geography of China, Wanguo Quantu, Cartography, Academic publishing in China
Collection: Cartography, Geography of China, History of Science and Technology in China
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Early Chinese cartography

The Yu Ji Tu, or Map of the Tracks of Yu Gong, carved into stone in 1137, located in the Stele Forest of Xian. This 3 ft (0.91 m) squared map features a graduated scale of 100 li for each rectangular grid. China's coastline and river systems are clearly defined and precisely pinpointed on the map.

Cartography or mapmaking (in Greek chartis = map and graphein = write) is the study and practice of making representations of the Earth on a flat surface. Cartography combines science, aesthetics, and technical ability to create a balanced and readable representation that is capable of communicating information effectively and quickly. However, most of the record in the history of cartography is based on Europe, not mentioned so much in Chinese history. Native Chinese geography begins in the Warring States period (5th century BC). It expands its scope beyond the Chinese homeland with the growth of the Chinese Empire under the Han Dynasty. It enters its golden age with the invention of the compass in the 11th century (Song Dynasty) and peaks with 15th century (Ming Dynasty) Chinese exploration of the Pacific under admiral Zheng He.


  • Maps in Ancient China, a classical legend 1
  • Earliest reference to map from the Qin Dynasty 2
  • Qin State maps 3
  • Han Dynasty maps 4
  • Maps in Ming Dynasty 5
  • Survey map in Qing Dynasty 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Maps in Ancient China, a classical legend

There is a classical Chinese legend called “He Bo Xian Tu” about the ancient map. It is said that in the time of “Dayu’s Taming of the Floods” (roughly during the Xia Dynasty), a river god gave Dayu a stone with a flood map etched upon its surface. Dayu used this map to hold back the flooding that threatened to devastate the rural agriculture. Another account attributes Dayu's deeds as a marvelous feat of engineering.

In general, the development of early Chinese cartography experienced three phrases: primitive map, classical map, and survey map. The primitive maps were simple maps, still steeped in myth and legend. It wasn't until the Han Dynasty that classical maps began to emerge.

Earliest reference to map from the Qin Dynasty

Qín or Ch'in (Wade-Giles) (秦), (9th century  BC-221 BC) was a state during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods of Chinese history, which eventually grew to dominate the country and unite it for the first time under the Qin Dynasty.

The earliest reference to a map in Chinese history can be found in the Records of the Grand Historian, Volume 86, Jingke Biography. This records an event in 227 BC when Crown Prince Dan of Yan had his assassin Jing Ke visit the court of the ruler of the State of Qin, who would become Qin Shi Huang (r. 221–210 BC), the first Emperor of China. Jing Ke was to present the ruler of Qin with a district map painted on a silk scroll, rolled up and held in a case where he hid his assassin's dagger.[1] Handing him the map of the designated territory was the first diplomatic act of submitting that district to Qin rule.[1] Instead he attempted to kill Qin in a failed assassination plot. From then on maps are frequently mentioned in Chinese sources.[2]

Qin State maps

Fragment of the paper map from Fangmatan Tomb 5

In 1986, seven maps were found in Tomb 1, dating to the Qin State of the Warring States period, at Fangmatan in Gansu province. The maps are drawn in black ink on four rectangular pieces of pine wood, 26.7 cm in length and between 15 and 18.1 cm in width, and depict the tributary river systems of the Jialing River in modern Sichuan province. The areas covered by the seven maps overlap, but in total they cover 107 × 68 km in area.[3]

In addition to the seven maps on wooden blocks found at Tomb 1 of Fangmatan, a fragment of a paper map (5.6 × 2.6 cm) was found on the chest of the occupant of Tomb 5 of Fangmatan in 1986. This tomb is dated to the early Western Han, so the map dates to the early 2nd century BCE. The map shows topographic features such as mountains, waterways and roads, and is thought to cover the area of the preceding Qin Kingdom.[4][5]

Han Dynasty maps

Silk map from Mawangdui, datable to circa 168 BC

The Han Dynasty (simplified Chinese: 汉朝; traditional Chinese: 漢朝; pinyin: Hàn Cháo; Wade–Giles: Han Ch'ao; 206 BC–220 AD) followed the Qin Dynasty and preceded the Three Kingdoms in China. The Han Dynasty was ruled by the prominent family known as the Liu clan. The reign of the Han Dynasty, lasting over 401 years, is commonly considered within China to be one of the greatest periods in the history of China. To this day, the ethnic majority of China still refer to themselves as the "Han people".

So far, the exact evidence of map is dated back from Han Dynasty, that is 168 BC ago. And from that time, there already had very exquisite map in ancient China. The three maps on the silk found at Mawangdui tumulus dated to the 2nd century BC in the Han Dynasty. These three maps are a topography map of Changsha region, a military map of southern Changsha and a prefecture map.

The research of three maps indicate that China already had a very exact cartography skills in Han Dynasty. Although there have not map name, legend, scale and any other explanation, in the military map there already displayed the Hunan, Guangdong and Guangxi region and depict the political boundary between the Han Dynasty and Nanyue, where the region covered from 111°E to 112°30′E, and from 23°N to 26°N. And the map scale is about 1:180000.

At the time of its discovery, they were the oldest maps discovered in China until 1986, when Qin Dynasty maps dating to the 4th century BC were found.

Maps in Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty (Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo), or Empire of the Great Ming (simplified Chinese: 大明国; traditional Chinese: 大明國; pinyin: Dà Míng Guó), was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644, following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The Ming was the last dynasty in China ruled by ethnic Hans (the main Chinese ethnic group), before falling to the rebellion led in part by Li Zicheng (李自成) and soon after replaced by the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty. Although the Ming capital Beijing fell in 1644, remnants of the Ming throne and power (collectively called the Southern Ming) survived until 1662.

The period from Yuan Dynasty to Ming Dynasty, which have more than 300 years, was a long time of feudal dynasty period in China history. During this period, Chinese cartography did not have too much important development, but became much more mature in traditional cartography skills and there had more types of map. Such as, national map of mountains and cities, military defense map, coast defense, river defense map for flood control and nautical chart for marine navigation. And the characters of these map are: Based on China district area, mathematical basis using traditional methods, concentrating on accuracy of rivers and hills.

In 1579, Luo Hongxian published the Guang Yutu atlas, including more than 40 maps, a grid system, and a systematic way of representing major landmarks such as mountains, rivers, roads and borders. The Guang Yutu incorporates the discoveries of naval explorer Zheng He's 15th century voyages along the coasts of China, Southeast Asia, India and Africa.

Among maps in Ming Dynasty, Zhenghe map chart was the most influential nautical chart. Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored Zhenghe a series of seven naval expeditions to visit countries in Asia, Africa, and beyond. Thus, the Zhenghe map was the important one in Chinese cartography history and a specific map for marine navigation. And it had some special characteristics in presentation content and method:

  • For convince usage, the map sheet is continuously splicing from starting point to ending point of naval expedition.
  • Drawing the figure of hill or object related with orientation, which could relate the map and geography features and made it possible to find one’s position as soon as possible.
  • Drawing reef, port and island which is used for marine navigation and other geography features like residential spot, hills and so on.

Ming Dynasty had a developed map making method. Especially in the late Ming Dynasty, when the western rising natural scientific technology was gradually spread to China by some western Boanerges, the cartography skill had much more development. And at that time, the world map drawing by western was firstly imported to China and add material and area of China in it, which have a great influence in Chinese traditional cartography.

The Da Ming Hun Yi Tu map, dating from about 1390, is in multicolour. The horizontal scale is 1:820,000 and the vertical scale is 1:1,060,000.

The Great Ming Amalgamated Map or Da Ming Hun Yi Tu (Chinese: 大明混一圖; pinyin: dàmíng hùnyī tú- characters in left-to-right order, Manchu: dai ming gurun-i uherilehe nirugan) is a world map created in China. It was painted in colour on stiff silk and 386 x 456 cm in size.[6] The original text was written in Classical Chinese, but Manchu labels were later superimposed on them.

It is one of the oldest surviving world maps from East Asia although the exact date of creation remains unknown. It depicts the general form of the Old World, placing China in the center and stretching northward to Mongolia, southward to Java, eastward to central Japan, and westward to Africa and Europe.

The Earth's curvature affects even the scale of the Chinese section of the map. Horizontally, it works out at about 1:820,000; but vertically it is around 1:1,060,000.[7] The use of colour is particularly effective within China itself, including elegant touches like the ochre tint of the Huang He (Yellow River).

The recently rediscovered Selden Map of China dating from the early seventeenth century, which shows a series of precisely plotted maritime routes, has provoked a reassessment of the global significance of Ming cartography.

Survey map in Qing Dynasty

The Qing Dynasty (Chinese: 清朝; pinyin: Qīng cháo; Wade–Giles: Ch'ing ch'ao; Manchu: Daicing gurun; Mongolian: Манж Чин Улс), also known as the Manchu Dynasty, was the last ruling dynasty of China, ruling from 1644 to 1912 (ostensibly with a brief restoration during the short-lived Empire of China).

When the time of Emperor Kangxi’s reign in Qing Dynasty and because of import of western cartography skills, he realized Chinese map were not accurate enough and needed scientific methods to mapping. Thus he sponsored a national wide geodesy and mapping based on astronomical observation and triangulation measurement. It took ten years to complete the map named Huang Yu Quan Lan Tu from 1708 AD, which was the first on-the-spot survey map. It had 41 framings based on province boundary and have following characteristics:

  • Using pseudo-cylindrical projection and latitude and longitude cartography methods
  • Using writing Chinese and Manchu language to name place together that Manchu to name boundary and writing Chinese to name inland content
  • Survey map of Taiwan province in the first time

Besides cartography, the unification of scale measurement and the field measurement of meridian of earth are both contributed to the development of cartography in Qing Dynasty and help to improve quality of maps in a great deal.

See also


  1. ^ a b Needham, Volume 3, 534.
  2. ^ Needham, Volume 3, 535.
  3. ^ Hsu, Hsin-mei Agnes (2009). "Structured Perceptions of Real and Imagined Landscapes in Early China". In Raaflaub, Kurt A.; Talbert, Richard J. A. Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 44–45.  
  4. ^ Yi, Xumei; Liu, Xiuwen (2010). "The calligraphy and printing cultural heritage of Gansu — the development of the engraved printing process and papermaking: an archaeological approach". In Allen, Susan M.; Lin, Zuzao; Cheng, Xiaolan et al. The History and Cultural Heritage of Chinese Calligraphy, Printing and Library Work. Walter de Gruyter. p. 64.  
  5. ^ Behr, Wolfgang (2007). "Placed into the Right Position — Etymological Notes in Tu and Congeners". In Bray, Francesca; Dorofeeva-Lichtmann, Vera; Métailié, Georges. Graphics and Text in the Production of Technical Knowledge in China: The Warp and the Weft. Brill. p. 113.  
  6. ^ (Wang et al. 1994:51)
  7. ^ (Wang et al. 1994:51-52)

External links

  • The history of cartography at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland
  • Mapping History - a learning resource from the British Library
  • Chinese cartography website by Qiming Zhou, Hong Kong Baptist University- accessed 2008-03-16
  • The Journey of a Manchu Map by Mario Cams, KU Leuven
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