The Selden Map of China. (Image: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

What is it?

This late Ming dynasty map depicts China, the South China Sea, and surrounding lands. It was drawn in the early 17th century on three sheets of paper by an anonymous cartographer with an eye for detail. Measuring 158cm in length and 96cm in width, the map is too big for practical use as a navigational chart, and probably served a decorative function instead, perhaps adorning the wall of a wealthy merchant’s house. It abounds in detail, carefully executed in black carbon ink and watercolours using Chinese landscape-painting techniques. Different species of plants are depicted across the map, and the Great Wall of China is visible towards the top, just below a scale bar and an accurate compass rose.

Where was it found, and when?

The map – along with an accompanying compass – was bequeathed to Oxford’s Bodleian Library by the London lawyer John Selden after his death in 1654, and it is by this former owner’s name that the chart is now widely known. It is believed to have been the first Chinese-made map to enter England, and while it is not certain how the Selden map initially arrived, it has been suggested that it was brought back by an East India Company official who acquired it in South Asia.

The Selden map has been kept at Oxford since it came into the Library in 1659, albeit largely forgotten until it was brought to light once more in 2008, reassessed, and conserved.

Why does it matter?

While the Selden map follows the standard imperial Chinese practice of using north as its cardinal direction, it unusually takes the middle of the South China Sea as its central point, relegating the slightly distorted Chinese mainland to a less prominent position in the top left.

With the sea at its heart, the map stretches as far as India and the Persian Gulf in the west, Siberia in the north, and Timor and Indonesia in the south-east. Lines cross the water, showing the many nautical trade routes, ports are labelled, written instructions outline how to navigate off the edges of the map, such as to the Red Sea, and notes provide warnings about strong currents in certain areas.

The Selden map is the earliest largescale nautical map from the Ming dynasty. Its focus on maritime trade across a vast region makes the map an important piece of evidence concerning how Ming China looked far beyond its borders over the sea, challenging the popular conception of the period that it was an inward-looking terrestrial empire.

See for yourself
The map is on display at the National Library, Singapore, until 22 March 2020 for the island’s bicentennial exhibition (www.nlb.gov.sg/exhibitions/).
The map has been part of the exhibition Talking Maps at the Weston Library, Oxford, which runs until 8 March 2020 (www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson).

This article appears in issue 98 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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