China, the South China Sea, and the nearby territories are shown on this Ming Selden map from the late Ming era. An unidentified cartographer with an eye for detail drew it on three sheets of paper in the early 17th century. The map, which is 158 cm long and 96 cm wide, is too large to be used as a nautical chart in practice. It is more likely to have served a decorative purpose, possibly adorning the wall of a wealthy merchant’s home. It is meticulously detailed and made with watercolors and black carbon ink using Chinese landscape painting techniques. The map shows several plant species, and the Great Wall of China may be seen near the top, just below a scale bar and an exact compass rose.
Ming Selden Map: Where was it found, and when?
The chart is now well-known by the name of its former owner, London barrister John Selden, who left it to Oxford’s Bodleian Library after his death in 1654. The Ming Selden map also came with a companion compass. Although it is unknown how the Selden map first came in England, it has been hypothesized that an East India Company official who bought it in South Asia brought it back. It is thought to have been the first Chinese-made map to enter England.
The Selden map has been held at Oxford since it was acquired by the Library in 1659, however it was mostly ignored until it was rediscovered, evaluated, and conserved in 2008.
Why does the Ming Selden Map matter?
The Selden map uses north as its cardinal direction, as was customary in imperial China, but it oddly centers on the middle of the South China Sea, pushing the slightly warped Chinese mainland to a less noticeable position in the top left.
The map, which has the sea in its center, reaches as far as Timor and Indonesia in the south-east, India and the Persian Gulf in the west, and Siberia in the north. A number of nautical trade routes are indicated by lines that span the water; ports are labeled; written directions explain how to navigate to locations off the margins of the map, such as the Red Sea; and comments issue warnings about strong currents in specific regions.
The earliest large-scale maritime map from the Ming era is the Ming Selden map. The map is a crucial piece of evidence showing how Ming China looked well beyond its borders over the sea, refuting the common perception of the time that it was an inward-looking earthly empire because of its concentration on marine trade across a broad region.