The Newsletter 84 Autumn 2019

Borders on Chinese Maps

Elke Papelitzky

The most eye-catching feature on the mid-16th century general map of China in Luo Hongxian’s 羅洪先 (1504–1564) influential atlas Guangyu tu 廣輿圖 is a long black strip north of China labelled shamo 沙漠: the Gobi Desert (fig.1). Visually, the desert very clearly separates China from the ‘northern barbarians’, depicting a seemingly impenetrable border. For decades, Luo Hongxian’s vision of the desert shaped the way Chinese mapmakers portrayed the Gobi Desert, emphasizing this natural border.

Later adaptations of the map, however, while keeping the shape of the desert based on the Guangyu tu, changed the symbol used for the desert: some mapmakers used little dots as a symbol for the sandy desert, and others just left the strip white with black contours. Maps depicting the desert in such a way were made throughout the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912), well into the 19th century.

Courtesy of the Harvard-Yenching Library.

Fig1: Section of the general map of China from the 1566 edition of the Guangyu tu.


Not all borders on Chinese maps appear as prominent as the Gobi Desert. In this section, four scholars will introduce different aspects of mapping borders and borderlands in Ming and Qing China. Sometimes, borders are even curiously missing, as Mario Cams discusses in his contribution. Qin Ying describes how in late 19th and early 20th century Yunnan, changes in the political situation resulted in officials having to quickly adapt to new circumstances. Gu Songjie introduces a mapping project that aimed to deepen knowledge of the northeastern borderlands in the 18th century. And as the Gobi Desert is a natural and not a political border, Stephen Davies looks at the border between land and sea on Chinese maritime maps.

Elke Papelitzky is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai