The Newsletter 84 Autumn 2019

Maritime maps as painted screens

Stephen Davies

Early modern Chinese maritime maps are intriguing when one looks at them as a seafaring navigator. When one reads them, that is, as expressions of a perceived relationship between the worlds of land and sea. They speak of an earlier world of humanity when the sea was the alien other, the great void.

A modern nautical chart at large scale has crisp lines and clearly contrasting colours showing the exact locus of points along which land becomes intertidal zone, and intertidal zone becomes sea. At smaller scales only one line and two contrasting colours suffice: this side land, that side sea. In both cases the lines are continuous, delineating a given coastline with a precision dependent on scale. In all cases the delineations are tightly anchored to a geodesy and a geography that allow us to identify any specific point on a coastline and, depending on scale, read off its position to within ±5 metres and, if it has a toponym, read that as well. It tells a sailor with precision where the dangers lie and how to avoid them as well as showing with precision how to find the way into and out of safe havens.

Whether we are looking at the so-called ‘Zheng He map’ contained in Mao Yuanyi’s Wubei zhi 武備志 [Treatise on Armament Preparations], one of the many coastal maps of China like Chen Lunjiong’s 陳倫炯 Yanhai quantu 沿海全圖 [The Complete Map of the Coastline], or one of the ‘coastal view’ guides like the Yale Maps (fig.4), the message is different. There is neither geodetic nor geographical precision, nor were such intended. As Sinologists note, that isn’t what such maps are about. In relation to Qing maps as Ronald C. Po nicely, if somewhat opaquely puts it, “the maritime space claimed by the Qing court did not have an exact boundary. Instead, time and space were the foundation of Qing justifications for sovereignty over its maritime frontier”.1 Po, R.C. 2016. 'Mapping maritime power and control: a study of the late eighteenth century Qisheng yanhai tu (a coastal map of the seven provinces)', Late Imperial China 37(2):98.

Courtesy Yale University Library.

Fig.4: One sheet of the Yale Maps showing the important navigational landmark C.n Sơn Island.


What’s interesting to the sailor is that the coastline on such maps is as much absence as presence. Yes, there is a more or less elaborate depiction of something separating the sea from any coastal and inland features shown. Yes, there are various very general textual descriptions of what’s where. There is a toponymy, though a very selective and often an inconstant one. But exactly – and the emphasis there is on ‘exactly’ – where and how the sea joins the land and the land the sea, and how a seafarer may make in safely from ‘out there’ to a sought haven ‘in here’ is ignored as, in a sense, irrelevant. The world of the sea is what it is: separate, as if lying on the other side of a vast, dense fogbank that begins inland and stretches a few miles out to sea. Between it and the world of the land lies a zone with forts and lookouts, mountains and islands which poke up through the fog, but the inlets and river mouths, shoals and shallows are at best vague contrasts perceived as the fog swirls, thins and thickens. We see an opaque barrier, penetrable only with difficulty, not an enabling interface.

Even the few score maritime route books, or rutters, have a similar take. Almost all begin and end when the mariner is at sea in the offing. On the intricacies of the inner coastal zone they are largely silent. 

From a navigator’s perspective the border between land and sea in such sources is indeterminate and yet absolute. The depictions are a way of saying that from out there to in here, or in here to out there, you must be someone who is authorised, or you must find someone who is authorised, to enter or leave. Here is here, there is there, and passage between the two should not be free or easy.

The few examples of what would seem to be the mariners’ own ‘coastal view’ guides also have this distanced take on the coast itself. The coast proper in all its infinite detail reduces to the occasional salient feature – an island, a rock, a shoal, a promontory – that swims out of a general indeterminacy as something to be avoided, that marks a turning point, or signals where the mariner can pray, get water, or anchor. But to penetrate the inner fastnesses of the land behind the nebulous coastline more detailed knowledge must be sought from those who guard it.

The sea and the land are not an interpenetrating whole at the junction of which terrestrial transport gives way as seamlessly as possible to its seaborne kin. So, on Chinese maritime maps the borderlines along which lie the places where such awkward – even abnormal – exchanges happen are not precisely shown, no more than are the ways to and from them. There is no making plain the way. Nor should there be. Each to their own.

Stephen Davies is Hon Professor at the Department of Real Estate and Construction, and Hon Institute Fellow at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong.