Ming Maps

A display at the Bodleian Library,
28 August – 11 October 2015

This exhibition is now closed.


(All images are protected by copyright. Please do not use without permission.)

The Selden Map of China

This map was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in 1659 by the London lawyer John Selden. It is one of the earliest Chinese maps to reach Europe and was probably produced in the 1620s for display in the house of a Chinese merchant.

Its importance was discovered by the visiting American scholar Robert Batchelor in 2008. He was the first to notice the shipping routes with compass bearings that led from Quanzhou on the Fujian coast to all parts of the known world. The text even gives a brief description of the route through the Arabian Sea. It is the earliest known example of Chinese merchant cartography, and shows that China was open to the world at a time when it was generally believed to have been closed.

The map is also the first to depict China as part of greater East Asia and not the centre of the world. In this respect it is wholly different from the sino-centric products of the imperial bureaucracy, such as George White's map of the earth on the right of this case. The Selden Map is really a map not of China, but of the South China Sea and the lands that surround it.

Maps of the Heavens and the Earth 

This pair of maps was given to the Bodleian Library by George White, an East India merchant, in 1684. We do not know exactly when or where they were printed, but they probably date from the final years of the Ming (1368-1644) or the early Qing (1644-1912). They are almost certainly the only surviving printed copies. Perhaps they were designed for teaching use in a local school or academy.

The Map of the Heavens has a star map at its centre, a polar projection divided into twenty-seven unequal zones. Some of the smaller diagrams are for astrological prognostication, others are the same as those included in the Tianjing huowen, an astronomical treatise based on the work of Jesuit scholars composed around 1675.

The Map of the Earth depicts China as the centre of the world. Neighbouring countries such as Korea and Japan to the east and India to the west are mentioned only in the text. Below it is a gazetteer of the provinces and their towns. The romanized names of the provinces were written beside the characters by the Jesuit convert Shen Fuzong when he visited the Bodleian in 1687.


The conservation of the Selden Map of China and the Maps of the Heavens and the Earth combines innovative techniques with the tradition of Far Eastern scroll-mounting. At the turn of the 20th century the tightly-rolled maps were repaired with patches and cloth backings. Over time these interventions caused the maps to crack and distort.


With thanks

These projects have been made possible through the generous support of the Pilgrim Trust, the Radcliffe Trust, Sir Robert Horton, the Mercers’ Company, Merton College, Toshiba International Foundation and Mr Chung Hon Dak.

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