Mapping China’s World : Cultural Cartography in Late Imperial Times

Mapping China’s World : Cultural Cartography in Late Imperial Times

For encapsulating a worldview there is nothing quite like a world map. As with other forms of cartography, mappaemundi–whether medieval or modern, Asian or Western–tell us about values and attitudes, aims and aspirations, hopes and fears; but they express them on a particularly grand, indeed global, scale. To the extent that such productions in any given society share affinities across space and time, they reveal significant features of that culture’s self-image (and, of course, its conceptions of the “other”); and to the degree that they do not, they suggest changes, ruptures, tensions, and conflicts within the larger cultural system. With these considerations in mind, I would like to look at the evolution of Chinese maps of the world during late imperial times–from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries–focusing on two basic questions: How did changing conceptions of “the world” shape the contours of Chinese cartography, and how did changing (as well as enduring) cartographic practices affect Chinese conceptions of the world?

Significant methodological and practical problems attend such questions. In the first place, it is often difficult to determine where a map of “China” ends and a map of “the world” begins. Large-scale cartographic representations of space in late imperial times present us with a number of overlapping political, cultural, and geographical images, identified either by dynastic names (Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing) or by more enduring, but still fluid, 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–as well as the distinction–between these time-honored concepts is by no means always clear in traditional Chinese maps.

Another difficulty has to do with access. Not surprisingly, a number of politically sensitive maps that deal with disputed territory are still not generally available to foreign scholars doing cartographic research in the People’s Republic of China. Moreover, as far as I know, there is no single, comprehensive collection of Chinese “world maps” anywhere. Rather, they are scattered all over the globe–not only in Asian archives (primarily China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea), but also in Russia, various European countries (including Italy, Spain, France, Germany, England, and Holland), and North America.

In the course of my research, I have been able to examine well over a hundred Chinese manuscript maps and woodblock prints in various Asian, European and American collections. I have also consulted a number of other valuable primary materials in Chinese, dating from the Song through the Qing dynasties, and have investigated much of the large and growing body of secondary literature on Chinese cartography in both Asian and Western languages. Still, this chapter must be seen as only a preliminary investigation, an initial voyage of exploration into a vast and potentially very productive field of study.

Some Methodological Issues
A number of scholars, both within and outside the field of Chinese studies, have recently criticized what is generally described as a Parsonian version of culture (i.e., culture as “systems of symbols and meanings”) for contributing to various “totalizing” and “essentializing” orientalist projects, including the rise of “academic modernization theory” and “imperialist development policy.” It has been blamed for creating a “neat divide between ‘Oriental’ culture and ‘Western’ reason,” and for providing “the most convenient” explanation for the “willful backwardness and irrationality [of so-called traditional societies] in the face of rapid global modernization.” In the view of critics such as Judith Farquhar and James Hevia, the reification of ideas and values encouraged by Parsons and his disciples has led to a “static and stagnant” conception of culture which justifies Western aggression and represents imperialism as “a salvation project”

It is not clear to me that all, or even most, of those who have employed some sort of Parsonian notion of culture in their academic writing (including John Fairbank within the China field and Clifford Geertz without) are guilty of such crimes. Nor am I convinced that the long-posited relationship between ideas, values, intentions, ideologies and other forms of consciousness on the one hand and human behavior or “action” on the other is wrong-headed. One can argue, I think, for positioning culture “in the materiality and (messiness) of everyday life”without disengaging it entirely from the realm of thought.

My own work on Chinese culture has tended more toward the generalizing than the particularizing side of the interpretive spectrum. I would hope, however, that it is not viewed as either a “totalizing” or an “imperialist” enterprise, and certainly not one that valorizes or privileges Western culture in any way. As I have tried to indicate in the most recent edition of China’s Cultural Heritage (1994), my interest remains in sustaining a dialectic between holistic and particularistic studies of China. Pamela Crossley is assuredly correct in maintaining that the geographical and cultural entity of China is “a totality of convergently and divergently related localisms,” and that Chinese culture is a product of the “challenging and differentiating effects effects of aboriginal, border and heterodox cultures” But simply to speak of aboriginal, border and heterodox cultures is to acknowledge implicitly a hegemonic, “central,” and “orthodox” one in constant tension with them. What, one may legitimately ask, is the nature of that larger culture?

My interest is in the idea of culture as “classification”–that is, the way groups of Chinese (whether they see themselves primarily as “the Han people,” “Guangdong people,” or whatever) name and arrange things and ideas into coherent systems of meaning. In this respect I identify with the interpretive outlook of Marshall Sahlins. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge, however, that the “Chinese” cultures under consideration are neither static nor monolithic. They vary across time and space and according to class and gender; they are constantly changing, and are always situated in particular social and political contexts. I would also grant that these cultures are invariably the product of some sort of “invention,” and the cultural meanings produced are constantly contested by different groups and individuals.

Yet there remains a sense in which people share an identity that can not only be encapsulated by one or more self-referential terms (as opposed to designations imposed from without) but also described (again from within) as a constellation of commonly accepted attributes, attitudes, and concerns. As Sahlins points out, “In order for categories to be contested . . . there must be a common system of intelligibility, extending to the grounds, means, modes, and issues of disagreement.” It would be difficult, he argues, “to understand how a society could function, let alone how any knowledge of it could be constituted, if there were not some meaningful order in the differences. If in regard to some given event or phenomenon the women of a community say one thing and the men another, is it not because men and women have different positions in, and experience of, the same social universe of discourse?”

There would seem to be no point in asserting a collective identity unless there is an identifiable “other” that stands in opposition to it–“us” versus “them.” I am interested in what the “us” consists of, and how it may influence the way individuals within that self-identified group operate. Maps–“world maps” on particular–seem to be a revealing yet rather neglected way to get at conceptions of the other, thus revealing something important about the collective self. As Sahlins remarks, “Divinities or enemies, ancestors or affines, the Others are in various ways the necessary conditions of a society’s existence.” A more or less “self-conscious fabrication of culture,” constructed in response to “imperious outside ‘pressures'” is thus a “normal” historical process.

Robert Rundstrom has observed that mapping “is fundamental to the process of lending order to the world.” Yet quite clearly there are many ways of worldmaking. In Denis Wood’s vivid formulation: “Every map shows this . . . but not that, and every map shows what it shows this way . . . but not the other.” In other words, cartographers construct the world, they do not reproduce it. Places are where they are, but maps represent them where the mapmakers want them (or need them, or think them) to be. Every map, then, has an author, a subject and a theme (or themes). No map is a neutral document. All reflect efforts of one kind or another to impose oneself (or one’s culture) on physical space. A map is an interpretation that needs, in turn, to be interpreted.

How should one go about doing this? William Boelhower emphasizes the need to take special notice of the map’s hybrid nature, its “dissimulating cleverness” and “the complexity of its conventions.” He urges us to feel the map’s “political muscle,” salute its “military potential,” and delight in its “aesthetic seductiveness.” In Boelhower’s view, to understand the peculiar “generative logic” of maps requires a perspective that gives to the viewer a sense of the map’s “spatial dynamism, its temporal narrativity, and its unfailing subjectivity.” Such an interpretive stance requires the “reader” to understand how images, words and lines produce symbolic information together, how the world is transformed into these three different but related ways of “encoding space.”

G. N. G. Clarke alerts us to the importance of inscriptions and other forms of “decorative” art on maps. To view cartouches as merely a source of visual pleasure, or to see them as fundamentally a distraction from the main content of a map, is to “deny the complex textuality held within the look of the map.” Such a perspective, he says, “not only fails to give the map its necessary cultural status; it ignores the subtle relationship between the scientific and decorative; it fails to see them . . . as a series of interrelated indexes which bind the map within a series of ideological assumptions as to the way the land is viewed.” Thus, inscriptions, colors, the presence or absence of overt symbols, even the thickness of lines, may provide clues as to the cultural purposes of maps.

Many theorists emphasize the use of cartography as a means of asserting political and social control. J. B. Harley writes, for instance: “Both in the selectivity of their content and in their signs and styles of representation, maps are a way of conceiving, articulating and structuring the human world which is biased towards, promoted by, and exerts influence upon particular sets of social relations. By accepting such premises it becomes easier to see how appropriate they are to manipulation by the powerful in society.” David Harvey states more succinctly, “command over space is a fundamental and all-pervasive source of social power.” As products and symbols of various kinds of authority (moral, “scientific,” etc.), maps make distinctions that favor certain interests, “culturalizing the natural” through the process of identifying and naming, categorizing and containing.

Although maps are usually viewed as representations of space, they can also be taken as spaces of representation–fields of opportunity, waiting to be cultivated by acts of physical or intellectual appropriation or both. Indeed, as Boelhower points out in “Inventing America: A Model of Cartographic Semiosis,” the map, as a “cultural sign,” provides an “ideal text for studying the way Indian land was transformed into Euro-American territory and settlers from various nations into a homogeneous ethnos, as the ideological boast goes.” . According to Boelhower, it was not so much the “discovery” of the New World that mattered as the particular way that it was seen–the sense of possibility that maps opened up. How, we might now ask, did Chinese cartographers view their craft and their world? What sort of possibilities did Chinese maps present?



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