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date: 28 June 2017

Chinese Charting of Maritime Asia

Abstract and Keywords

Navigation played a major role in the integration of East Asian polities and economies prior to and during the arrival of European traders in the 16th and 17th centuries. That arrival stimulated an increase in the volume of intra-regional trade in East Asia as Chinese merchants organized exports on a large scale to meet European demand, yet the history of the production of nautical charts in China has been little studied, due in no small part to the poor survival of sea charts and other documentation. The most important new addition to maritime charting in the past decade is the rediscovery of the Selden Map in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This map of navigation routes throughout East Asia is unprecedented, and may be seen as marking the beginning of the transformation of Chinese cartography under the influence of European mapping techniques.

Keywords: chart, China, Ocean, Maritime, Nautical, East Asia, Selden Map, Laud Rutter, Ming dynasty, Zheng He


If the history of maritime charting is the history of who mapped the water, for whose use, and by what methods, there is little to distinguish China from other zones of active nautical practice in the early-modern world in any but the third aspect. In Europe and China alike in the 16th and 17th centuries, the water was charted by those who sailed it to trade, and the demand for these charts was principally for the use of commercial voyagers. Some sea charts were drawn for and by diplomatic envoys who sailed abroad, but these were in a minority. Most charts were in the hands of navigators, merchants, and those who worked the sea lanes or sojourned abroad. The numbers are impressive. In 1630, the minister of war reported to the emperor that every year one hundred thousand people boarded ships in the southeastern coastal provinces, mostly Fujian, to go abroad and find work as temporary sojourners.1 Many of these people owned charts. When a junk that the East India Company purchased in Bangkok in 1615 was becalmed in the East China Sea on its way to Japan, and the Chinese captain too ill to sail it, company employee Edward Sayers had to take over. Sayers was at a loss to direct their course until he discovered that one of the Chinese cooks on board had what he called an old “platt,” the antique English word for chart (which survives today as “plot,” as in the expression “plotting a course”).2

The main challenge for the study of Chinese nautical charting is the relative scarcity of charts or other records of navigation. An envoy observes in his report on his mission to the kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands in 1579 that “this kind of chart seems not to be in short supply,” yet so little survives today. The state was the greatest preserver of documentation of all sorts, especially of maps, yet the Ming court did not significantly interest itself in maritime matters except when they were perceived as impinging on state security. Charts of the ocean had political utility only to the extent that they marked the maritime border and defined a national defense perimeter.

The period of exception was the first third of the 15th century, when Emperor Yongle (r. 1403–1424) dispatched a series of diplomatic fleets under the command of Zheng He (1371–1433) and other court eunuchs to prompt rulers all over Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to submit tribute to Heaven’s appointed ruler of the world, and thereby weave an illusion of legitimacy to his coup. These voyages were operations of the imperial household, mounted not for trade but for tribute, and thus of a fundamentally different character than the private trade of the late Ming. But imperial envoys needed maritime charts as much as commercial traders did, at least during the years when the expeditions traveled (1405–1433).3 Thereafter, the only nautical charts the Ming state needed were those for envoys traveling to nearby states in the East China Sea, such as Ryukyu.

The history of maritime charting would be better told on the basis of the materials produced and circulated in the commercial sphere, but these materials are hard to come by, due in no small part to the state’s intermittent hostility toward private overseas trade. For much of the Ming dynasty, the state kept close control over the coast, sometimes banning private shipping altogether in the interest of state security. An anxiety about Chinese dealing without authorization with foreign traders reached its nadir in 1525, after a conflictual decade of illegal Portuguese attempts to trade in China, when Emperor Jiajing (r. 1522–1567) closed the coast to any vessel of two or more masts, effectively ruling out the shipping of cargo on the high seas.4 When Jiajing died in 1567, the court rescinded the ban under pressure from the governor of Fujian, who understood the financial benefits that maritime trade brought to his province. The three-quarters of a century from the late 1560s to the final years of the dynasty in the early 1640s became the period when Chinese maritime merchants traded most actively with their Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, Japanese, Vietnamese, Malay, and Muslim counterparts at ports scattered through the long arc of islands off the coast of East Asia, from Nagasaki, Japan, in the northeast to Aceh, Sumatra, in the southwest. This trade was sustained by the westward flow of silver from Japan as well as from Spanish mines in the Americas, which was at its high point through this same period. For this trade, Chinese needed and produced charts and other navigational documents. Though precious little survives, there is just enough material that survives from the last century of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to permit the following sketch of traditional Chinese navigation.

Chinese Navigational Practices

“Once you are through the harbor entrance, the spray from the whitecaps fills the air and the surging waves leap as high as the Milky Way. No longer can you track the bluffs along the coast. No longer can you note the villages as you pass through them or count off the post stations stage by stage. The senior officers ply the oars and raise the sails, cutting a path through the flood of waves with only the compass needle to show them the way. They rely on its readings to forge ahead, sometimes letting the needle stay on one of the main bearings, sometimes letting it point in a direction between them.”5 Thus Zhang Xie, a professional writer living in Moon Harbor, Zhangzhou’s busy harbor on the southern Fujian coast, describes the exhilarating experience of launching a junk to sea in his 1618 handbook of maritime travel, Dongxi yang kao (Study of the eastern and western sea routes).

In this passage, Zhang reveals more than just the excitement of heading out onto the open sea. He notes several distinguishing features of Chinese navigation. First, he tells his landlubber readers that traveling on the water is different from traveling on land, where landmarks are fixed and distances easily determined. Second, he points out that coastal landmarks can be used to guide a ship only if it sails close enough to the coast; any further and they become valueless. Third, once the ship is too far from shore to read the profile of the landward horizon, the pilot has two options. One is to look up at the Milky Way and sail by the stars; the other is to use a compass. It was above all the compass, in Zhang’s view, that made maritime navigation possible.

Unlike the Arab compass with its thirty-two points (“winds”), spaced at every eleven and a quarter degrees around the circle, the Chinese nautical compass has twenty-four points at every fifteen degrees: four at the four cardinal directions at ninety degrees (N, E, S, W), four at the four ordinal directions at forty-five degrees (NE, SE, SW, NW), and two each within the eight arcs of forty-five degrees among these eight points. Larger ships carried two compasses, one fore and one aft, to correct for error and ensure that the ship was properly aligned on its course. Although the captain was in charge of the vessel, Zhang Xie observes that the pilot controlled navigational decisions. “Though the deeps across which he traces his watery course are vast, he is listened to in all things affecting the command of the ship,” he reports. A pilot had to be skilled in more than compass reading. “He knows there are regularities in cloud formations and the movement of winds, and with this knowledge he ploughs through the waves for ten thousand li and is never once fooled into taking the wrong course.” By consulting his compass every twenty nautical miles, Zhang writes, pilots “may grope their way forward in the gloom and yet have complete knowledge of whatever part of the ocean they are in and what dangers they have to look out for. Indifferent to the storms buffeting them, they remain at ease in their places. Despite sharp winds and crashing waves, they voyage on as though everything were normal. With their long experience at doing this, they sail as though they are walking on level ground. At a glance they can figure out whatever it is they need to know.”6

The possibility of pilot error was nonetheless high. Another maritime enthusiast writing a century later declared, “Off by a hair and you will miss your distant destination, to your endless regret.” To avoid such regret, he cited the need for the pilot to factor time of day, wind direction, and the speed of the current into his directional calculations.7 Zhang Xie noted also the importance of keeping track of depth and speed. For depth the pilot had sounding lines. Ascertaining speed, which was essential for determining position on a course, was more difficult. Pilots counted time in units of geng, or watches, ten to the day. To estimate his speed, he dropped a speed log off the bow and paced its passage to the stern, then multiplied the time taken by the ratio between a given unit of distance (usually the li, or about a third of a mile) and the length of the ship. Clocking time was the main problem. As Zhang Xie explains, “To calculate how far they have traveled on their course, pilots set the distance covered in twenty-four hours as ten watches. By counting how many watches they have sailed, they can calculate where they are.” A watch was the time it took to cover four forty-eight li, or roughly fifteen nautical miles. The standard way to time a watch was to light incense, of which the burn rate was known, and from the amount of incense burned deduce the time that had elapsed and therefore the distance traveled. This calculation improved significantly with the adoption of the European hourglass in the 18th century, and then of course mechanical clocks thereafter.8

Chinese navigational charts reflect the use of these various methods. Most record compass bearings and geographical features such as sandbars, islands, and coastlines. Some also include time-distances and depths. To appreciate the range of formats for recording maritime knowledge, let us consider four known from the Ming period: coastal maps, nautical route charts, rutters, and the Selden Map.

Types of Maritime Maps

Coastal Maps

Not all charts of the ocean are “nautical” in the sense of being produced for navigational purposes. Coastal maps are properly not maritime charts at all, but they sometimes include coastal sailing routes and deserve inclusion for reference purpose. In general, the impulse for producing these maps came from the state, which was eager to document its borders and organize information useful to border defense in legible form. Nautical data appear on coastal maps, but only secondarily.

Many coastal maps survive from the Ming depicting the coast from the Gulf of Bohai in the north to Hainan Island in the south. Best known is the series of maps produced for the compendium of maritime defense knowledge, published in 1562 as Chouhai tubian (Illustrated compendium on maritime security). These maps did not recycle pre-existing maps, but were surveyed anew.9 They depict the coast in a series of consecutive frames, printed over many folio pages. Each folio accounts for roughly forty-five miles of coastline. These maps are drawn from the land and looking toward the water, with land and water each sharing roughly half of the space within the frame. The water is marked by place names and captions that describe features of interest to mariners, such as anchorages and tides. Only one of these maps, dedicated to showing where the coast was vulnerable to predation from Japanese pirates, marks sea routes heading toward Japan. They are not otherwise charts for plotting a course.

Chinese Charting of Maritime AsiaClick to view larger

Figure 1. A coastal map of part of Guangdong province, from Chouhai tubian (1562).

Images of the maritime border were popular at court and beyond. Three decades later, a concertina-style map of the coast ten feet long was published under the title Quanhai tuzhu (Annotated atlas of the complete ocean), with a preface dated 1591 and signed with the name of Li Hualong (1554–1612).10 Nicely engraved and visually easy to read, the map directs the viewer’s attention to the ocean, devoting a greater proportion of space to it than to the land, and dotting that space with generic two-masted ships under full sail. Even more beautiful is the maritime defense map that Dong Kewei painted for the court in color on a series of ten silk scrolls in the year or two following the publication of the Li Hualong map. Each scroll measures 67 inches from top to bottom, and when placed together attain a total width of about twenty feet.11 This set is said to have been based on the coastal map in Chouhai tubian, yet it far exceeds that model in its fineness of detail and the care with which islands and other locations along the coast have been portrayed. The set also includes twenty-seven small text boxes (cartouches) dotted about the maps.

Of particular interest for the history of state navigation is the cartouche in the Gulf of Bohai, which begins: “This is the old sea transport route of the Yuan dynasty. It starts in Meihua Battalion in Fujian and ends at Zhigu,” today’s Tianjin. The cartouche is located beside a thin pathway through the water, indicated simply by the absence of the otherwise continuous fish-scale-style waves. This is just one of several routes marked on this scroll, and is continued on subsequent scrolls. Whether to reopen the sea route to transport grain from the south to the capital, as the Yuan chose to do rather than rebuild the Grand Canal, was a subject of debate at the time. The colophon advocates reviving the sea route, citing several authorities on its superiority over the Grand Canal, including the eminent mid-Ming statecraft scholar Qiu Jun. This set of coastal maps was thus produced to support certain defense policies, not to depict sea routes, although the inclusion of routes is worth noting. It has been suggested that the map was intended for publication, but the 1605 inscription by Minister of Personnel Xu Bida suggests that they remained at court, where they may have been used for policy evaluation.

Many Qing maps of the Chinese coast survive. Many continue to view the sea from the land, though in the Qing increasingly such maps reverse the perspective and view the land from the sea. A fine late-Qing example is Qisheng yanhai quantu (Complete map of the coastline of seven provinces), a colored handscroll that Fairbank acquired in China before 1949 and donated to Harvard University. The artist presents the coast in careful visual detail but has straightened it into one long horizontal sequence, consistent with the map’s purpose, which is informational rather than navigational.

Route Charts

Route charts were drawn to depict itineraries of sea travel. Route maps in general were common in the Ming, favored by travelers wishing to know how to get from one place to another. These maps listed way stations and markers along the way, which is what Zhang Xie was alluding to when he wrote of “noting the villages as you pass through them and counting off the post stations stage by stage.”12 By contrast, routes maps for ocean travel are rare. Here are three formats for which examples survive.

Best known is a set of charts referred to variously as the Zheng He map, the Mao Kun map, or the Wubei zhi map. It is a continuous chart of the route that the Zheng He expeditions sailed to the Indian Ocean, starting at the imperial boatyard in Nanjing and ending in Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It survives in a printed version that the statecraft scholar Mao Yuanyi (1594–c. 1641) included in his digest of writings on national defense, Wubei zhi (Records of military preparedness), published in 1621. This map is based on route charts of the Zheng He voyages, and may have come to Mao from his grandfather, Mao Kun (1512–1601), who may have acquired them while he was working on the maps for Chouhai tubian. The sequence fills twenty folio pages in Wubei zhi, changing scale as it proceeds. Along the China coast, each sheet covers about 95 miles. In the Strait of Malacca, a folio covers about 250 miles. The penultimate folio showing the Arabian Sea covers in excess of 600 miles.

Chinese Charting of Maritime AsiaClick to view larger

Figure 2. A summary chart of nautical routes crossing the Arabian Sea, from Wubei zhi (1621), 240.20a–b.

The Wubei zhi charts have received much scholarly attention.13 J. V. Mills was enthusiastic enough in 1951 to declare them “real mariners’ charts,” though he did lament that “they contain some errors and certain surprising omissions.”14 Of most interest is not what they got or failed to get right, but in their formal elements. Even though the version in Wubei zhi is many copies removed from whatever original might once have existed, the charts preserve some telling features. First, routes are depicted mostly as hugging the coast, as the armadas themselves appear to have done, rather than crossing blue water. Second, the charts reverse the perspective of coastal maps. They have been drawn from the water and look toward the land, as route maps should. Third, for both of these reasons, the charts pay considerable attention to the coastal features that helped sailors to locate their position, indicating and sometimes naming major landmarks, as one would do with coastal sailing. Fourth, they are marked with place names, particularly of islands and other obstacles in the water. Fifth, the cartographer has drawn the course that the ships took as a meandering dotted line. Finally, he has included annotations along that line giving sailing directions and compass bearings. The detail of information suggests that while this is not a nautical chart, it is a good summary of one. Short of crossing the Arabian Sea, but possibly even there, a pilot could rely on these directions to reach his destination.

The second type of maritime route chart is another production associated with the court: sea charts for emissaries to overseas tributaries. Several have been published depicting the itinerary of Chinese envoys traveling from Meihua Fort on the Fujian coast—the same port from which the Zheng He expeditions set forth—to the kingdom of Ryukyu, the capital of which is on today’s Okinawa. Every envoy bound for Ryukyu was required to submit a report of his journey that included a chart of the route. Known by the generic title of Liuqiu guohai tu (Chart of crossing the ocean to Ryukyu), this chart survives in at least two versions. A printed version appears in the published report of Xiao Chongye’s embassy of 1579, and a manuscript version in the report of Xia Ziyang’s embassy of 1606. Both authors, neither of whom was a mariner, express amazement that a ship’s course can be charted over water. Xia Ziyang poses the standard rhetorical question, “On the ocean, how is it possible to draw a route across it?” and then admits that all he has been able to do is to “sketch an approximation.” In 1579, Xiao Chongye similarly asks, “Charting the ocean is like painting the sky: how can it be easy to capture its likeness?” Then he goes on to explain that “to record a water route you have to use a compass, which is the south-pointing method of the ancients.” After making a few comments about this sea chart, he offers the revealing observation that “this kind of chart seems not to be in short supply.” 15

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Figure 3. Detail from the 1579 version of the Liuqiuguo haitu (Map of the ocean to the Kingdom of Ryukyu), depicting the final section of the route from China to Ryukyu, in Shi liuqiu lu (Record of an embassy to Ryukyu, 1579).

Like the Wubei zhi map, the Ryukyu route charts focus on the route and provide a visual depiction of landmarks that served to guide the ship on its course. These maps show the route not as a dotted line but as a continuous line of text. The final stretch from Huangwei Yu (Yellowtail Island) to the port of Naha on the 1579 chart reads: “We again took the same mao heading (90º) for 5 watches. When the ship was abeam of Chiyu (Red Island), it stayed on a mao heading for 5 watches. When the ship was abeam of Nianmi Shan (Sticky Rice Island), it turned onto an yimao heading (97½º) for 6 watches. When the ship was abeam of Machi shan (Horsetooth Island), it went straight into Ryukyu” (fig. 3).16 The 1606 version plots a more southerly course from Yellowtail Island and tracks different marks.17

The third type of sea route chart depicts the east coast of China in a series of panels. No route is explicitly designated, but the charts show mariners where to sail and what places to avoid. The oldest may be the Qing manuscript that turned up in a used bookstore in Shanghai in 1956. Said to have come from the Hangzhou area, it is probably a copy of a Ming pilot’s chart. It was published in 1980 in an annotated edition by Zhang Xun.18 This chart uses a format different from the other two examples. It looks from the water to the land, as they do, but it does not maintain any consistency of distance from one section to the next, nor does it indicate a continuous ship’s course. Instead, it consists of a series of ninety-six sketches of small islands, outcroppings, and coastal landforms along the east coast of China from Liaoning Bay to the mouth of the Pearl River, with annotations explaining where to moor and how to navigate difficult passages.

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Figure 4. The ninety-sixth panel of a manuscript coastal pilot’s manual, reproduced in Zhang Xun, Gu hanghai tu, p. 137.

For example, panel sixty-five shows two main islands and a dozen smaller islands along the coast of eastern Guangdong from Nan’ao Island (which stands off from Moon Harbor) to Chi’ao (Red Island) in the region of Honghai Bay, a distance of 150 miles. The annotation on the right below Nan’ao Island drawn in profile reads: “You will see this shape standing off at 22½ ̊. In the distance you will see a blocked water passage in which there is an islet. If as you pass they disappear, drop a sounding at 20 fathoms (tuo, the distance between the hands of two outstretched arms): the bottom is red sand layered with broken shells.” The annotation on the left below a group of small islands in front of a profile rendering of Chi’ao—labeled “this island is red”—reads: “In the lee of this island you can sound 23 fathoms, the bottom is muddy. Abeam of Chi’ao you draw 22 fathoms, this is a black sand area. On an yimao heading (97½ ̊) you can reach Nan’ao.”19

At least one other example of this genre survives: a Qing manuscript in 122 pages now in the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Acquired by the commander of the HMS Herald in 1841 during the First Opium War, it depicts the coastline of East Asia from the Goto Archipelago off Kyushu to the Gulf of Thailand.20 Other exemplars should come to light.


For historical research, the most important textual source for maritime routes is what in English is called a rutter; in Portuguese, a portolano; and in Chinese, a compass manual (zhenjing). A rutter describes routes in words rather than drawing them in pictures. Each route is broken down into a sequence of compass bearings and the distances over which the pilot should hold to that heading until another bearing is given. A rutter can also include a range of information useful for piloting a ship at sea, such as mnemonic rhymes explaining how to read the weather.

Most of the rutters we have today document routes that diplomatic embassies took when they sailed abroad, their survival dependent on their official status. A simple version is the record of two “compass routes” (zhenlu) to Japan in the 1602 anthology on coastal defense, Liangzhe haifang leikao xubian (Further documents by category concerning the maritime defense of Zhejiang). The first traces the route to Japan starting in Taicang at the mouth of the Yangzi River, in eleven stages, and the second gives the route from Meihua on the Fujian coast, in seventeen stages. Topographical bearings, compass directions, time distances, depths, and other navigational information are provided, along with sketches of the shapes of the larger islands marking the way.21

A more complex example, recording the routes that the Zheng He expeditions took to the Indian Ocean, is preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, under the makeshift title Shunfeng xiangsong (Dispatched on following winds) and known in English as the Laud Rutter, after the archbishop who donated it to the Bodleian Library in 1639. It dates from the late Ming. The other, entitled Zhinan zhengfa (Correct method for the compass), is a chapter in a manuscript copy of a book entitled Bingqian (Latchkeys to military knowledge). Although this book includes a preface dated 1635, Xiang Da, who published both Bodleian rutters in a combined annotated edition in 1962, deduced that the latter was inserted in the first century of the Qing. The third surviving rutter is a composite text compiled by Zhang Xie and included as the ninth chapter of Dongxi yang kao, Zhang’s handbook on maritime trade.

The Laud Rutter records a wide selection of maritime routes, extending as far as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. By the late Ming, the reach of Chinese trading vessels went no farther than the western mouth of the Strait of Malacca. The rutter went farther because, as the author of the preface observes, the material was derived from records of the Zheng He sailings. As Chinese ships traveling around the South China Sea in the late Ming were using exactly the same routes Zheng He took, the information was standard navigational lore, unaffected by the fact that an imperial fleet sailed the same routes two centuries earlier. The first route in the rutter runs from Five Dragon Mouth at Quanzhou, Fujian, to the chief Vietnamese port in the Gulf of Tonkin. Quanzhou had been China’s main ocean port during the Song and Yuan dynasties, but was eclipsed by Zhangzhou in the 16th century. The route to Vietnam is the first of forty-nine outbound routes in the Laud Rutter. Most of these are paired with a return route, for a total of eighty-three. The second Bodleian Library rutter, Zhinan zhengfa (Correct method for the compass), provides directions for forty-eight routes.

Zhang Xie’s rutter, compiled on the basis of several he was able to get his hands on in Moon Harbor, is shorter. To organize his material, Zhang follows the old distinction of western versus eastern routes.22 First, he provides sixteen routes running southwest toward Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia, called the Western Sea (Xiyang) routes. The first starts at Zhenhai (“Quelling the ocean”), the naval base below Moon Harbor, and runs to the Gulf of Tonkin. The farthest point on Zhang’s string of Western Sea routes is Aceh, Sumatra, which was as far as Chinese ships sailed in his day. He then gives eight Eastern Sea (Dongyang) routes out to Taiwan and down along the coast of the Philippines as far as Borneo. His structure of routes is indifferent to the Zheng He data, which makes his rutter a better approximation of where Chinese mariners actually traveled in the late Ming.

Composite Maps

Charts exist primarily for navigational purposes, and secondly for coastal defense. But the information they contain can be used to generate regional maps designed around landforms that have been charted from the water. This was the process that, in European cartography, led from portolan charts of coastal areas drawn in the 14th century, to composite maps of Europe in the 15th century, and then to the Atlantic region and eventually the entire world in the 16th century. There survives today one example of this process of composite mapping from navigational charts: the Selden Map. This wall map of East Asia was deposited in the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1659 as part of the bequest of John Selden (1584–1654), an English lawyer, constitutional theorist, and Orientalist. Selden may have acquired this map in the late 1620s along with a Chinese compass and possibly even the Laud Rutter, which he may have presented to William Laud in return for political protection. Its format is roughly that of a hanging scroll painting five and a half feet long. The extensive decoration and coloring indicate that it was intended for display.

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Figure 5. The Selden Map, 1608; courtesy of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

The map depicts all of East Asia, from Japan in the upper right-hand corner to the islands of Java and Sumatra in the bottom left. Selden called it his “map of China,” though in fact China occupies barely a third of the top half and is the least innovative part of the map. The center of the map is occupied by the South China Sea. The left side ends at the western terminus of the Strait of Malacca. The anonymous cartographer has inserted the name of Calicut at random on the coast of the Indian Ocean, accompanied by a cartouche giving brief instructions to sail from Calicut to Aden, Djofar, and Hormuz. He must have found this Zheng-He-style information in something like the Laud Rutter, including it against the day that someone might end up in the Indian Ocean and need to know how to sail across it.23

The important place names on the Selden Map are port cities, which dot the coastlines. Connecting these ports, the cartographer has drawn a web of straight lines representing navigation routes. These lines segment and change angle from time to time according to the changes of course of a ship traveling that route. Most of these segments are annotated with their compass bearings. The lines have been draw to approximate the distances and angles of the courses they describe. They are aligned closely to the compass rose the cartographer has drawn at the top of the map, and both the compass and the lines tilt about six degrees to the left to reflect the declination of magnetic north.

The map has been drawn to a scale of about 1:4,750,000. A distance scale appears below the compass rose. This scale is drawn as a Chinese decimal ruler (chi) divided into ten units (cun, “inches”), each of which is halved and then further graduated into five subunits per half-inch (called fen or “tenths”). The ruler as it has been drawn on the map measures 14.7 inches, which is notably longer than the standard length of a Ming-dynasty ruler (about 12 inches.). Given that the traditional ruler in Hong Kong today measures 14.7 inches, however, this may well be a tracing of the actual ruler the cartographer used to draw the map. In fact, what the ruler seems to be calibrated to is not an abstract length but the distances depicted on the map. As has been noted, Chinese pilots measured distance by measuring time. Accordingly, each inch on the ruler corresponds to one day’s sail (ten watches at an average speed of four knots).24 This works out to a physical distance of ninety-six nautical miles (110 miles.). It was time and not space that the cartographer was measuring with this ruler. Each tenth on the ruler was the distance traveled in one watch.

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Figure 6. Detail of the compass rose and ruler on the Selden Map.

When the map was lifted off its cloth backing in the course of restoration, it was discovered that a draft of the principal navigation route down the east coast of China had been drawn on the verso side of the sheet. These marks suggest that the cartographer started to draw his map on one side of the sheet, then turned it over and redrew it on the other. What this reveals is that he produced the map by drawing the route lines first on the basis of a written record such as a rutter, then filled in the landforms around these lines. Compiling the chart from navigational data explains the remarkable accuracy of the Selden Map. Complete accuracy escaped the Selden cartographer, however, given his inability to calculate the effect of the curvature of the earth’s surface. But then, that problem defied the portolan chartmakers as well. Curvature would not be solved until the recovery of Euclidean trigonometry in the 16th century, and would only be mastered for cartography through the work of Gerardus Mercator.

Conventional wisdom suggests that every map is a copy of another map. There are no Chinese precedents for this map, but the overall design may indicate that the Selden cartographer had seen a European chart of East Asia drawn from portolan methods. As Peter Shapinsky has shown in his study of Japanese use of European portolan charts, navigators in East Asian waters shared their charts and navigational knowledge across cultural boundaries, leading to a hybridity that generated its own products.25 This map detail dating from 1649 (fig. 7) displays the sort of image of East Asia that the Selden cartographer might have seen. It is unlikely that an “original” of the Selden Map will ever be found, as the cartographer, though inspired by a European image, worked his map up on the basis of Chinese, not European methods and data. The Selden Map appears to be the only attempt to compose a composite map from rutter data.

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Figure 7. Detail of eastern Asia from the 1649 portolan chart of the world by Jose Teixeira Albernaz.

Discussion of the Literature

After a surge of interest in Chinese maritime navigation in the middle decades of the 20th century, notably by John Vivian Gottlieb Mills, who devoted his life’s research to the documentary records of the Zheng He expeditions, the topic of maritime charts disappeared from the Western literature. This falling off may be attributed to a lack of primary documents, though perhaps as well to the decline in popular knowledge of how to read and interpret nautical charts.

The rediscovery of the Selden Map in 2008 reinvigorated the study of the history of maritime navigation. The two principal studies are by Robert Batchelor, a historian of England who called up the map from storage in 2008, and Timothy Brook, a historian of China. Batchelor’s London showcases the Selden Map in the context of English interest in maritime trade through the 16th and 17th centuries. Brook’s Mr. Selden’s Map of China contextualizes the map in relation to Chinese cartographic traditions as well as to the growth of European Sinology and the development of the international law of the sea. The two agree that the map was probably not produced in China, though they differ in proposing its origin, with Batchelor locating its maker in the Philippines in 1619, and Brook in Bantam, Java, in 1608. The difference hinges on their different reconstructions of when and how the map might have reached London.

A topic that requires further study is the design and use of the maritime compass. Each of the twenty-four angles of fifteen degrees into which the Chinese compass is divided bears the name of a character taken from one of the eight trigrams, ten Heavenly Stems, or twelve Earthly Branches. Between these twenty-four points of the compass are marked another twenty-four binomes based on the names of the two points within whose fifteen-degree arc they lie. For example, chen is marked on the compass at what we designate as 120 degrees, and the next point, continuing clockwise and marked xun, is 135 degrees. A challenge for historians has been to read these compass directions. Mills noticed the problem in his 1937 article on the Zheng He charts in the Wubei zhi and offered three alternative readings. Did chenxun mean follow a chen course (120 degrees) and then switch to a xun course (135 degrees); travel on a course midway between chen and xun (127.5 degrees); or travel in a direction somewhere between chen and xun (120–135 degrees)? Mills favored the first explanation.26 In 1944, W. Z. Mulder, a Dutchman with ten years’ navigational experience in the South China Sea, proposed a fourth alternative, which is that there was not one point midway on each 15-degree arc, but two. For the case given, xunchen should be read as chen by xun, that is, 125 degrees, and chenxun as xun by chen, or 130 degrees.27 Although Mills dismissed Mulder’s reconstruction, Brook followed it in the first edition of Mr. Selden’s Map of China, persuaded in part by a compass diagram in the British Library that Michael Shen, the first educated Chinese to visit Oxford, drew for the Bodleian librarian Thomas Hyde in 1687 on the basis of a compass that John Selden donated to Oxford. Lengthy discussion with Endymion Wilkinson subsequently suggested that this reconstruction was not supported by the patterns of binomes found in other navigational texts, and that the correct way of reading the binomes was to locate them, regardless of the order of their characters, at one point midway between the two positions named, in this case, at 127.5 degrees. The second edition of Mr. Selden’s Map of China follows this interpretation. It is worth raising the matter here to alert future researchers that the issue may not be closed.

Primary Sources

All of the currently known primary sources for the history of maritime mapping in the Ming dynasty have been explored here: coastal maps, route charts, rutters, and the Selden Map. Of written sources, Zhang Xie’s Dongxi yang kao is the most informative, as he drew on a large mass of documentary material and personal observation to produce his handbook. More sources await discovery, not just in China but in Japan and possibly other locations around East Asia where Chinese sojourned.

Additional material on Asian navigation history may be gleaned from the diaries of men working for the East India Company, particularly those of John Saris and Richard Cocks for the early 17th century.28 The archives of the East India companies in London, Amsterdam, Lisbon, and elsewhere should also yield useful material pertaining to Chinese navigation.

The Selden Map is available in two locations, one from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the other at Factum Arte, which produced the high-resolution (22.3 data pixels per displayed pixel) image for the Bodleian Library.

Further Reading

Batchelor, Robert. London: The Selden Map and the Making of a Global City, 1549–1689. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Brook, Timothy. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. New York: Bloomsbury, 2008.Find this resource:

Brook, Timothy. Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Also published as Mr Selden’s Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart and the South China Sea. London: Profile, 2013.Find this resource:

Drake, Fred W.China Charts the World: Hsu Chi-yü and his Geography of 1848. Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1975.Find this resource:

Leonard, Jane. Wei Yuan and China’s Rediscovery of the Maritime World. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1984.Find this resource:

Mills, John V. G.Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lan, ‘The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores’ (1433). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4, Pt. 3: Civil Engineering and Nautics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.Find this resource:

Ptak, Roderich. China, the Portuguese, and the Nanyan: Oceans and Routes, Regions and Trade (c. 1000–1600). Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2004.Find this resource:

Schottenhammer, Angela, ed. Trade and Transfer across the East Asian “Mediterranean.” Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2005.Find this resource:

Schottenhammer, Angela, ed. East Asian Maritime World, 1400–1800: Its Fabrics of Power and Dynamics of Exchanges. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2007.Find this resource:

Schottenhammer, Angela, ed. The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2008.Find this resource:

Schottenhammer, Angela, ed. Trading Networks in Early Modern East Asia. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2010.Find this resource:

Schottenhammer, Angela. “The ‘China Seas’ in World History: A General Outline of the Role of Chinese and East Asian Maritime Space from its Origins to c. 1800.” Journal of Marine and Island Cultures 1.2 (December 2012): 63–86.Find this resource:

Schottenhammer, Angela, and Roderich Ptak, eds. The Perception of Maritime Space in Traditional Chinese Sources. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2006.Find this resource:

Wade, Geoff, ed. Southeast Asia-China Interactions: Reprint of Articles from the Journal of The Malaysian Branch, Royal Asiatic Society. Singapore: NUS Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Yee, Cordell. “Reinterpreting Traditional Chinese Geographical Maps.” In The History of Cartography. vol. 2, Pt. 2. Edited by J. B. Harley and David Woodward, 35–70. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Yee, Cordell. “Taking the World’s Measure: Chinese Maps between Observation and Text.” In The History of Cartography. vol. 2, Pt. 2. Edited by J. B. Harley and David Woodward, 96–127. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.Find this resource:


(1.) Noted in Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (New York: Bloomsbury, 2008), 170.

(2.) Cited in Timothy Brook, Mr Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 96.

(3.) For a complete bibliography of the copious studies of the Zheng He voyages, see Jong Liu, Zhongping Chen, and Gregory Blue, eds., Zheng He’s Maritime Voyages (1405–1433) and China’s Relations with the Indian Ocean World: A Multilingual Bibliography (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014).

(4.) Timothy Brook, “Trade and Conflict in the South China Sea: China and Portugal, 1514–1523,” in A Global History of Trade and Conflict since 1500, eds. Lucia Coppolaro and Francine McKenzie (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 20–37.

(5.) Zhang Xie, Dongxi yang kao (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981), 171, translated in Brook, Mr Selden’s Map of China, 110.

(6.) Ibid., translated in Brook, Mr Selden’s Map of China, 95.

(7.) Preface to Zhinan zhengfa, in Xiang Da, ed., Liangzhong haidao zhenjing (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1961), 107.

(8.) The newly recognized value of the hourglass is signaled by the inclusion of a full-page illustration of one in a Chinese book about the Ryukyu Islands published in 1757, Liuqiuguo zhilüe (Taipei: Taiwan xuesheng shuju, 1969), tuhui 34b.

(9.) For a survey of coastal maps, see Li Xiaocong, “Zhongguo lishishang de haiyang kongjian yu yanhai ditu,” and Claudine Salmon, “Coastal Map from the Beginning of the Qing Dynasty, with Special Reference to the Qingchu haijiang tushuo,” both in The Perception of Maritime Space in Traditional Chinese Sources, eds. Angela Schottenhammer and Roderich Ptak (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2006), 155–189.

(10.) Published in Zhonghua guditu zhenpin xuanji (Harbin, China: Haerbin ditu chubanshe, 1998), 114–115. Li, who at that time was serving as director of education in Shandong province, may or may not have been involved in the production of this map, though his subsequent posting to Liaodong at the start of Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea could indicate an informed interest in maritime affairs. See the biography of Li Hualong by Chaoying Fang in Dictionary of Ming Biography, eds. L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), 822–826. This map is kept in the Beijing Library.

(11.) Published in Zhongguo gudai dituji: Mingdai (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1994), plates 39–45, pp. 24–25. This map is preserved in the Number One Historical Archives in Beijing.

(12.) On route maps for land travel, see Timothy Brook, Geographical Sources of Ming-Qing History (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 2002).

(13.) The text is available in a modern edition in Xiang Da, ed., Zheng He hanghai tu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1961). For a close study of aspects of the chart, see John V. G. Mills, “Arab and Chinese Navigators in Malaysian Waters in about A.D. 1500,” in Southeast Asia-China Interactions, ed. Geoff Wade (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007), 409–488. Several essays in Zheng Yijun and Zheng Hesheng, eds., Zheng He xia xiyang ziliao xuanbian (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980), examine the Wubei zhi chart: see especially Liu Mingshu, “Zheng He hanghai shiji zhi zaitan,” (192–215), and Fan Wentao, “‘Zheng He hanghai tu’ diming kaoshi” (216–241).

(14.) John V. G. Mills, “Notes on Early Chinese Voyages,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 1.2 (April 1951): 17.

(15.) Xiao Chongye, Shi Liuqiu lu (Taipei: Taiwan xuesheng shuju, 1969), 18; and Xia Ziyang, Shi Liuqiu lu (Taipei: Taiwan xuesheng shuju, 1969), 73. For studies of these charts, see Maria Schreibweis, “Der Seeweg China-Ryukyu am Beispiel des Gesandtschaftsberichts Shi Liuqiu lu von Chen Kan (1489–1538), in Trade and Transfer across the East Asian “Mediterranean,” ed. Angela Schottenhammer (Wiesbaden, Germanhy: Harrassowitz, 2005), 11–74; and Angela Schottenhammer, “Islands in Traditional Chinese Sources: An Introduction,” Crossroads: Studies on the History of Exchange Relations in the East Asian World 7 (2013).

(16.) Xiao Chongye, Shi Liuqiu lu, 14–16.

(17.) Xia Ziyang, Shi Liuqiu lu, 29–32: “On a bing (165º) wind, it took an yimao heading (97½º) for 7 watches. On a ding (195º) wind, it took a chenxun heading (127½º) for 1 watch. When the ship was abeam of Nianmi Shan, it again took a chenxun heading (127½º) for 6 watches. When the ship was abreast of Wengju Shan at Tunaqi, it again took a chenxun heading (127½º) for 1 watch. When the ship was abeam of Machi Shan (Horsetooth Island), went directly to Naba Harbor of Ryukyu.”

(18.) Zhang Xun, Gu hanghai tu (Beijing: Haiyang chubanshe, 1980).

(19.) Ibid., p. 137.

(20.) Qian Jiang and Chen Jiarong, “Niujin cang ‘Mingdai dongxi yang hanghai tu’ jiemeizuo—Yelu cang ‘Qingdai dongnan yang hanghai tu’,” Haijiao shi yanjiu 2013:2, 1–101.

(21.) Fan Lai, Liangzhe haifang leikao xubian (Taipei: Chengwen chubanshe, 1983), 9.7a–10a.

(22.) On the distinction between Eastern Sea and Western Sea, see Li Xiaocong, “Zhongguo lishishang de haiyang kongjian yu yanhai ditu,” 160–166.

(23.) Timothy Brook, “Traces of the Zheng He Voyages in Late-Ming Navigational Materials,” in Ming China: Courts and Contacts, eds. Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall (London: British Museum, 2016), 253–259.

(24.) On the problem of ship speeds, see Brook, Mr. Selden’s Map of China, 162–163.

(25.) Peter Shapinsky, “Polyvocal Portolans: Nautical Charts and Hybrid Maritime Cultures in Early Modern East Asia,” Early Modern Japan 14 (2006): 4–26. See also Kazutaka Unno, “Cartography in Japan,” in The History of Cartography, Vol. 2, Pt. 2., eds. J. B. Harley and David Woodward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 381–386.

(26.) John V. G. Mills, “Malaya in the Wu-pei-chih Charts,” in Southeast Asia-China Interactions, 372.

(27.) W. Z. Mulder, “The ‘Wei Pei Chih’ Charts,” Toung pao 37 (1944): 5–6.

(28.) John Saris, The Voyage of Captian John Saris to Japan, 1613, ed. Ernest Satow (London: Hakluyt Society, 1900); and Richard Cocks, Diary of Richard Cocks, ed. Edward Thompson, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1883; repr. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010).