Richard J. SMITH

The Huayi tu (“Map of China and the Barbarians,” 1136, one of the most famous examples of early Chinese maps. This 3-meter-square work, carved in stone, boasts nearly five hundred place names and identifies a about dozen rivers. The map depicts a few foreign lands—notably Korea and India—but it represents more than a hundred different groups of “barbarian” peoples only by written notes in the margins. Several of these notes refer specifically to tribute relationships, past and present.

Chinese world maps have evolved over the years in response to China’s changing views of the world, from the Song dynasty Huayi Tu (Map of China and the Barbarians), a 3-meter-square work, carved in stone, to a map from a 1912 almanac identifying all the places taken from China by foreign imperialism. Maps could be extraordinarily accurate, but often the lines between “China” and what lay beyond were blurred.

Since at least the tenth century, Chinese scholars have produced what might be called world maps. However, until the late nineteenth century, a person contemplating any given world map might well have difficulty determining exactly where China ended and where the rest of the world began. This difficulty arose because large-scale cartographic representations of space during late imperial times in China involved a number of overlapping political, cultural, and geographical images, identified either by dynastic names (Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing) or by designations such as the Central Cultural Florescence (Zhonghua), the Spiritual Region (Shenzhou), the Nine Regions (Jiuzhou), the Central Kingdom (Zhongguo), the Central Land (Zhongtu), and All under Heaven (Tianxia). The relationship between these conceptions is by no means always evident in traditional Chinese maps.

Many, if not most, premodern Chinese world maps show an abiding concern with the so-called tributary system, which endured as a prominent feature of China’s foreign policy down to the late nineteenth century. This system, which underwent many changes through time, was designed to confirm institutionally the long-standing theory that all of the people living beyond China’s constantly shifting borders, like all those people within them, were in some sense Chinese subjects.

The bringing of tribute to the Chinese emperor by foreign representatives testified to this conceit. As loyal subjects they dated their communications by the Chinese calendar, came to court, presented their local products, and performed all appropriate rituals of submission, including the standard three kneelings and nine prostrations (kowtow). In turn they received a patent of appointment as well as an official seal for correspondence with the Chinese Son of Heaven. They were given lavish presents, offered protection, and often granted privileges of trade at the frontier and at the capital. This assumption of universal overlordship blurred the distinction between maps of China and Chinese maps of the world.

Earliest World Maps

The earliest existing world maps in China date from the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE). One of the most famous examples is the vaguely square-shaped Huayi Tu (Map of China and the Barbarians, 1136), a 3-meter-square work, carved in stone, that boasts about five hundred place names and identifies a dozen or so rivers. The map shows a few foreign lands—notably, Korea and India—but it represents more than a hundred different groups of “barbarian” peoples only by written notes in the margins. Several of these notes refer specifically to tributary relationships, past and present.

However, not all Song dynasty renderings of space followed this vague model. Indeed, inscribed on the reverse side of the Huayi Tu is an astonishingly modern-looking work entitled the Yuji Tu (Map of the Tracks of Yu, 1136). It is the earliest existing example of the so-called latticework cartographic grid in China. The outstanding feature of this map, in addition to the near total absence of written commentary, is its extremely accurate depiction of major landforms, including the Shandong Peninsula, as well as China’s two major waterways, the Huang (Yellow) River and the Yangzi (Chang) River. Throughout the remainder of the imperial era, down to 1911, Chinese cartographers continued to produce both kinds of world maps. However, tributary-oriented cultural representations of the Huayi Tu variety vastly outnumbered mathematically accurate ones.

Jesuit missionaries brought sophisticated surveying techniques to China in the seventeenth century, enabling the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) to create extraordinarily accurate maps of the empire for certain political and strategic purposes, but they did not inspire a more general cartographic revolution in China, much less provoke a change in the way the Chinese viewed the world. To be sure, Chinese scholars were not averse to using Western cartographic knowledge selectively. Consider, for example, Cao Junyi’s Tianxia Jiubian Fenye Renji Lucheng Quantu (A Complete Map of Allotted Fields, Human Events and Travel Routes [within and without] the Nine Border Areas under Heaven, 1644). This expansive work acknowledges the existence of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and India, and gestures toward mathematical accuracy by providing longitudinal lines and degrees, which do not, however, correlate well with specific locations. Yet the Middle East and India are represented primarily by cartouches (ornate or ornamental frames), and Africa, which appears only about one-tenth the size of China, hangs down on the western side of Cao’s map as if it were little more than a protective flank. Europe, tiny and even more marginal, is barely recognizable in the upper northwest portion of the map. Significantly, in his treatment of barbarians, Cao does not differentiate clearly between actual foreign countries and the lands and peoples described in ancient mythical works such as the Shanhai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas).

Other Cartographic Traditions

The work of Ma Junliang (flourished c. 1780) shows another effort to integrate radically different cartographic traditions into a single production. Although his Jingban Tianwen Quantu (Capital Edition of a Complete Map [Based on] Astronomy, c. 1790) is dominated by a rectangular Huayi Tu–style rendering of the world, with inscriptions that emphasize the process by which barbarian envoys come to China and offer themselves as vassals of the Qing dynasty, it also boasts a seventeenth-century Chinese version of a Jesuit map of the Western Hemisphere and a similarly structured, but more detailed, Chinese map of the Eastern Hemisphere that was first published by Chen Lunjiong in his Haiguo Wenjian Lu (Record of Things Heard and Seen in the Maritime Countries) in 1730. An interactive version of Ma’s three-part map with commentary can be found at

The rise of Western imperialism during the nineteenth century brought a new level of global awareness to China. Intelligence-gathering efforts during the Anglo-Chinese War of 1839–1842 began the process, and by the end of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the traditional Chinese worldview had been completely undermined. From this time onward, in elite journals and even popular almanacs and encyclopedias, Chinese readers sought ever more accurate knowledge about other parts of the world, including Japan. As in many other aspects of
Chinese life after 1895, the rise of Chinese nationalism—generated by China’s humiliating defeat by the Japanese—brought a revolution in Chinese cartography. One revealing example is a map taken from a popular almanac of 1912, the year the Qing dynasty fell. Although not particularly sophisticated in terms of mathematical cartography, it is instructive because its commentaries identify all the places taken from China by foreign imperialism, including the province of Taiwan and the former tributary states of Korea, the Liuqiu Islands, and Vietnam. Chinese cartography had suddenly become irrevocably global in a radically new and highly nationalistic way.

Further Reading

Harley, J. B., & Woodward, D. (Eds.). (1994). Cartography in the traditional east and southeast Asian societies. In The history of cartography. (Vol. 2, Book 2). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hostetler, L. (2001). Qing colonial enterprise: Ethnography and cartography in early modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Howland, D. R. (1996). Borders of Chinese civilization: Geography and history at empire’s end. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Leonard, J. K. (1984). Wei Yuan and China’s rediscovery of the maritime world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Smith, R. J. (1996). Chinese maps: Images of all under heaven. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Smith, R. J. (1998). Mapping China’s world: Cultural cartography in late imperial times. In Y. Wen-hsin (Ed.), Landscape, culture and power in Chinese society (pp. 52–109). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, Center for East Asian Studies.

Yamashita, K. (1996). Japanese maps of the Edo period. Tokyo: Kashiwashobo.

Yee, C. D. K. (1996). Space and place: Mapmaking east and west. Annapolis, MD: St. John’s College.

An unfolded map reveals a dagger.


Tú qióng bǐ xiàn

Source: Smith, Richard J. (2009). Cartography. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 282–285. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Map of Shizhong, during the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), from a book created circa 1736–1795 by Wang Minghezhuan. Chinese scholars produced “world maps” as early as the tenth century. But until the late nineteenth century a person studying any given world map might well have had difficulty determining exactly where China ended and where the rest of the world began. A number of political, cultural, and geographical regions overlapped during China’s late imperial times. COURTESY OF THE BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, YALE UNIVERSITY.

Cartography (Dìtúxué 地图学)|Dìtúxué 地图学 (Cartography)

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