By JOHN HÉBERT
The student of China and of historical cartography in general will find the Geography and Map Division's collection of maps of China one of the most extensive outside of Asia. This rich body of cartographic objects is valuable not only for its geographical and historical insight, but also because these materials reflect a mode of visual expression that is different from the Western European tradition. Early Chinese maps differ from Western maps in their use of symbols and color, degree of pictorialization, media and format.
Cartography in China did not emerge as a graphic practice independent from the visual and literary arts until late in the 19th century when the influence of Western examples began to take hold. While there has been a tendency to believe that the Western tradition in mapping became the norm following the explorations and discoveries of the world by Western Europeans in the late 15th century, this was not true in China.
From the earliest times, Chinese scholars and administrators appreciated the value of an exact knowledge of the empire's geography. The centralized Chinese bureaucracy needed detailed and accurate maps for efficient administration. Mapmaking served various purposes, from tax collection, water conservation and river transport to defense of the empire from external threat.
While references to mapmaking in China date from the fifth century B.C., examples of maps survive from the 10th century A.D. The Library's earliest example of a map of China is a 19th-century rubbing from a map on stone from 1136 A.D., the "Yu ji Tu" ("Map of the Vestigate of Emperor Yu"). It was taken from the stone map located in the official college at Qishan in Fung-xiangfu, 120 miles west of Xian, the provincial capital of Shanxi. The stone map was carved to delineate the territories that paid tribute to the Emperor Yu, the reputed founder in 2205 B.C. of the first legendary dynasty.
The Library's Geography and Map Division has approximately 300 Chinese manuscript and wood block print maps, including scrolls, maps on fans, and manuscript rubbings from maps on stone. These, in addition to maps held in the Asian Division, constitute a rich untapped resource at the Library of Congress for the study of Chinese cartographic traditions.
In recent years the Geography and Map Division has become increasingly aware of the extraordinary depth of this collection due to the efforts of scholars of Chinese cartography who have studied the Chinese holdings and offered valuable insights into the key treasures and broad themes of the extensive collection. Those scholars have concentrated their efforts on examining the valuable indigenous segment of the collection, rather than maps of China prepared by mapmakers in the Western tradition.
In 2001 the distinguished Chinese cartographic scholar Xiaocong Li visited the Library in order to review the Library's collection of maps prepared by Chinese cartographers before 1900. Li, a professor of history and historical cartography at Beijing University, said he considered the collection of pre-1900 Chinese maps in the Geography and Map Division the finest in the Western Hemisphere, if not in the world, outside of China, and he wanted to return to examine it in greater depth. In previous research in Europe, Li had studied and published articles and books on pre-1900 Chinese Maps in the British Library, Italy, Vatican City and in Japan, and he offered a proposal to prepare a cartobibliography of the Library's holdings similar to his 1996 publication "A Descriptive Catalogue of pre-1900 Chinese Maps Seen in Europe."
In 2002 the Geography and Map Division invited Professor Li to prepare a complete cartobibliography of the Library's pre-1900 Chinese map holdings and develop a plan to produce digital images of some of the most significant maps in the collection. The project was challenging, since a large number of the manuscripts were maintained in extensive rolls and their provenance was unknown. Knowledge of classical Chinese languages as well as the history of Chinese cartography was necessary in order to understand the history and the context of each map—skills that Li brought to the project.
He arrived in June 2002 for four months to undertake the project, which was coordinated by the Geography and Map Division in collaboration with the Asian Division. One of the project's goals was to include the rare Chinese cartographic holdings of both divisions in a single cartobibliography. Mi Chu Wiens, China specialist, was the coordinator for the Asian Division.
Li concluded his on-site review of the collections in October 2002, but work continued in the divisions after his departure. Min Zhang, the Chinese map cataloger in the Geography and Map Division, and other Library staff verified catalog records and reviewed the cartobibliographic output and the scholarly commentary for each entry. The resulting cartobibliography will be published in a bilingual edition by the Chinese government.
In the process of Li's study, a number of gems were uncovered in the collections. One of the most exciting discoveries was the precise dating of a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) atlas of China, prepared in the second half of the 16th century. The "Atlas of the Ming Empire" ("Da ming yu di tu"), circa 1536-1566, is a manuscript atlas with 18 maps, containing separate plates for each of 16 provinces of China and for the metropolitan areas of Nanking and Beijing. The atlas had been purchased in 1929 from archaeologist Langdon Warner (1881-1955), director of the first and second China expeditions of the Fogg Museum of Harvard University. Until Li's assessment of the date of the atlas, made by determining that a number of the maps were backed by tax records from the 1560s, it was assumed that the atlas dated from the first half of the 17th century. Li's finding makes it one of the earliest, if not the earliest, "national" atlases in the division's collections.
Another exquisite item, "A view of the Summer Palace" ("Yi he yuan quan tu") was acquired from Arthur W. Hummel. This panoramic map shows the Summer Palace and its grounds in the western outskirts of Beijing before they were reconstructed in 1888. The anonymous author of the traditional drawing employed both Chinese and modern Western artistic techniques in constructing the pictorial landscape painting. It was purchased in 1934 by Arthur W. Hummel (1884-1975), a distinguished Sinologist who headed the Orientalia Division (now Asian Division) of the Library of Congress from 1928 to 1954. Hummel was instrumental in forming the Library's collection of rare Chinese maps.
Of the nearly 300 pre-1900 Chinese manuscript and wood block print maps in the Library's collection, the vast majority of them date from the late 18th through the 19th centuries. They include provincial plans, atlases of China, city plans, coastal defense maps and detailed maps of major streams and rivers, such as the Yellow and the Yangtze, and their flood control systems.
Now that the Library's early Chinese manuscript and wood block print cartographic treasures have been fully identified, cataloged and described, it is hoped that knowledge of their existence will attract increased scholarly use. Only through more exhaustive study of these collective and individual treasures can scholars reach a more complete understanding of Chinese contributions to the history of cartography.
John Hébert is chief of the Geography and Map Division.