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Originally published Sunday, January 5, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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‘Mr. Selden’s Map of China’ charts a fascinating course, circa 1600

In “Mr. Selden’s Map of China,” Timothy Brook uses a recently discovered artifact, a Chinese map created in the 1600s, to tell the stories of the people whose lives intersected with it.


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“Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer”

by Timothy Brook

Bloomsbury, 240 pp., $25

In 2009 a Chinese map from the early 1600s was rediscovered in a library at Oxford, England. Apparently no living scholar had seen anything like it.

The map shows East Asia, from Japan and China south to Java and Sumatra. Most is recognizable, though Japan is a blob, and Okinawa is drawn bigger than Taiwan. Still, writes author Timothy Brook, for its time this map “was the most accurate chart of the South China Sea in existence.”

Brook is professor of history at the University of British Columbia and an authority on China’s Ming Dynasty. As with his 2008 book, “Vermeer’s Hat,” he uses an artifact to begin a sashay into history. “Mr. Selden’s Map of China,” he admits, is “not really about a map. It is about the people whose stories intersected with it.”

The person of the book’s title is John Selden, a British scholar of the 1600s who was famous for his liberal argument that tithes were a human institution, not ordained by God, and that “every law is a contract between the king and the people.” Selden was an orientalist who read several Asian languages. It was Selden who, in his will of 1654, donated to Oxford’s Bodleian Library “a Mapp of China made there fairly and done in colloure.”

Brook’s book ventures from there into the English attempt to break open trade with Ming-dynasty China, then into the Chinese invention and use of the compass and the first Chinese person to live in England. The book is not a narrative, but a platter of diversions and fascinations made by someone with a deep knowledge of East Asia in the 1600s.

Some of the best parts are about the map. It has a compass drawn on it, which is common only to European maps of that time. But it is a Chinese compass, divided in different ways than a European compass. Its north is magnetic north, as it was in the early 1600s.

Sea routes are drawn, a practice which is also unusual. Brook is able to deduce that they were based on mariners’ rutters, or pilot books, and were the first things the mapmaker drew. It was a way to get his distances right, though the curvature of the Earth kept throwing him off.

In this map, land is peripheral to the sea. “This is a commercial navigation chart,” Brook concludes. It shows the ports of what are now Guangzhou and Xiamen in China, Kobe and Nagasaki in Japan, Manila, Brunei, Hanoi, Johor, Melaka and Jakarta.

The Selden map is a reminder that Chinese traders sailing in junks navigated in Asian waters centuries before the Europeans came. Yet there are European influences on this map, which suggest to Brook that it was drawn by a Chinese living outside of China.

The map is not signed. “The cartographer left no notes explaining how he drew it, and he taught no students,” he writes. “Nothing was learned or passed on, so far as the surviving evidence shows. It was a dead end.”

And a fascinating dead end, especially in the hands of someone erudite enough to decode it and explain it.



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