On a cold, wet day in January 2008, Robert Batchelor decided to take a peek at a map in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, an old and venerable collection founded in 1602 and filled with arcane treasures. Anyone who has ever used the library may recall the oath that all readers are required to take (formerly in Latin, but nowadays in English, I think) not to remove, deface, or injure any of the library’s books, let alone bring in any fire or kindle one—a great temptation in a library originally devoid of any artificial heating source, especially for a generation that had just discovered the lure of Virginia tobacco. Batchelor, a historian of Britain and Asia, was about to fly back to the United States, where he teaches at Georgia Southern University, but this unusual item—“A very odd mapp of China. Very large, & taken from Mr. Selden’s”—beckoned. With the help of the Bodleian’s curator of Chinese collections, David Helliwell, he retrieved it from the bowels of the library. The map was in a fragile, indeed ruinous state, disintegrating on the stiff linen backing that had deformed it during a botched preservation job a century earlier. Helliwell would later recall that he had seen the map before, but without recognizing its full import. Batchelor was enchanted and enthralled. Here was a hand-painted map of East Asia and parts of Southeast Asia and India that raised a myriad of interesting questions.

Housed in the Bodleian since 1659, the map had previously belonged to an English lawyer named John Selden (1584–1654), who, in a codicil to his 1653 will, singled it out as a prized possession: “a Mapp of China made there fairly and done in colloure together with a Sea Compasse of their making and Devisione taken both by an englishe commander.” The 2008 rediscovery inspired a great deal of speculation about how the map had arrived at the Bodleian, and who had made it. How Selden acquired the map is unknown. Most likely, he got it from Samuel Purchas, who collected numerous artifacts of distant travel, trade, and piracy for publication. Digitization and restoration of the map, completed in 2011, have made it possible for viewers to inspect it with the care and attention it deserves. The results have been discussed and debated by an international community of experts in Britain, East Asia, and the United States, and the Selden map has subsequently traveled as far as Hong Kong.

Measuring about 60 inches long and 40 inches wide, the Selden map is a magnificent artifact of the age of long-distance trading empires and overseas colonies. And yet it does not show us the world as we expect to see it. This is not a map of late Ming China as a territory, nor a celebration of the Middle Kingdom, though the mapmaker carefully outlines its provinces. Nor does it trace the pathways by which Europeans made inroads into Asia, though these stories are implicitly present. Filled with Chinese characters and occasional annotations in Latin, the map delineates a different story.

To the north of China, beyond the Great Wall, lies Siberia; Indonesia and the Moluccas, otherwise known as the legendary Spice Islands, demarcate its southern boundary. Japan and the Philippines define the easternmost edge, with faint indications of the presence of Taiwan, Korea, and the Singapore Strait; Burma and southern India lie to the west, with several routes indicating how to arrive in different parts of the Middle East from Calicut (now Kozhikode) on India’s southwestern coast. The map traces 18 routes in precise, straight-edged lines—six to the east and 12 to the west—whose junctures are defined by directional markings in Chinese characters referring to a compass rose at the top of the map, whose scale is indicated on a ruler. All of the routes point to the southern Chinese emporium of Quanzhou, a melting pot of goods and people in Fujian Province connecting Asia, Persia, the Islamicate empires, and Europe.

The Venetian merchant Marco Polo visited this prosperous port in the 13th century, though by the time this map was made, Western Europeans were no longer welcome. In 1549, the Portuguese traders who infamously incited the Chinese inhabitants to violence against them had fled to Macau, creating the first permanent European trading outpost in Asia by 1557. The famous Jesuit missionary, translator, and cartographer Matteo Ricci arrived in Macau in 1582; he made his way into the interior of China, finally reaching Peking in 1601, at the emperor’s invitation. There he gave his imperial patron a copy of Abraham Ortelius’s world map of 1570 and perfected his own great project in that field. Ricci spun the European globe just enough to place China near its center, filling the vast space with information gleaned from Chinese maps and informants and surrounding it with everything that Europeans knew about the rest of the world. The result is a very different document than the one Selden acquired, though Ricci also made the ocean the geometric center of his world map.

Had Ricci been in Quanzhou rather than Peking, he might have thought somewhat differently about Asia as he stretched its contours across sheets of Chinese paper, using Mercator’s technique of projection, and laboriously translated what he knew into a language he had only recently mastered. From Quanzhou, one could see that the Chinese too were on the move, emigrating all over Asia, perhaps even beyond, as they had done for generations. The fundamental significance of the Selden map is that it reinforces what historians of China have long known: that late Ming China was neither a closed nor uniform world, but instead one defined by repeated threat of foreign invasion on its northernmost borders and by a long-standing tradition of maritime commerce in southern ports like Quanzhou, and in trading outposts even further south that lay beyond the reach of imperial jurisdiction. What is the relationship between this Chinese port and the creation of the Selden map? Who made it? Who wanted it to be made? The map doesn’t entirely reveal its secrets.

There is a considerable amount of writing on the map’s western edge, but Chinese characters dot the entire landscape, sparse in some locations, dense and crowded in others, identifying over 60 ports. The most prominent topographic feature is the South China Sea. These are increasingly crowded waters. The map assumes that we are supposed to know where we are in order to contemplate where we might want to go. The map also warns of the peoples we might encounter at the edges of this world, or perhaps even closer to its center: “shape-shifting foreigners” (probably the Spanish who increasingly displaced the loathed Portuguese in Southeast Asia after occupying the Philippines in 1571) and “red hairs” (certainly the Dutch, and possibly some English who began to troll these waters in the 1580s and ’90s, hoping to dislodge their Iberian competitors). Western Europeans have begun to intrude. They are not welcome, but their presence is certainly noted.

* * *

Shortly after Helliwell looked at the map with Bob Batchelor, he contacted Timothy Brook, a historian of China at the University of British Columbia who had recently arrived at Oxford to take up a chair in Chinese studies. Brook and Batchelor have both written books about the Selden map, and each scholar takes a somewhat different approach to framing the story and to interpreting a reconstruction of the document’s origins. Yet they concur that this is a Chinese maritime map and a product of late-Ming ambitions, enterprise, and mobility. It delimits the world from the perspective of a diaspora around the South China Sea, highlighting locations such as Manila and Bantam that had Chinese communities. Equally intriguing are references to the fabled voyages of the eunuch admiral Zheng He, whose massive ships sailed from the Fujian coast to India and East Africa in the early 15th century. Zheng’s expensive and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to project Ming glory as far as the Indian Ocean are a ghostly presence, his voyages recalled in the map’s westernmost lines. Perhaps the anonymous cartographer read Luo Maodeng’s 1597 novel of historical romance, magical realism, and westward travel inspired by Zheng’s famous excursions, or other tales that brought to life this earlier age of Ming travel and diplomacy, including the lost city of Xanadu. The map embodies nostalgia for an era when China briefly turned west.

Batchelor especially emphasizes these developments in his sweeping study of the role of Asia in the emergence of London as a global entrepôt. He wants to explain how Asia as much as the Atlantic shaped the making of modern Britain. We are accustomed to thinking of Virginia, Bermuda, and Jamaica as starting points for the British Empire. Batchelor’s account of London as an emerging capital looking both east and west describes how the British first attempted to grasp the scale and complexity of China. The South China Sea mattered, then and now, as China’s gateway to a global economy.

Brook tells a more finely woven story, situating the map’s production and use at the intersection of Chinese enterprise and European curiosity. He is especially fascinated with the fusion of technical skills necessary to make a map at the juncture of these worlds. His account is not a story about large-scale transformations, with Selden’s possession of the map marking a critical moment in the birth of British cosmopolitanism and empire; instead, it’s a gracefully rendered and highly personal early modern itinerary occasioned by an unusual Chinese map whose features form around not an imperial dynasty but a thriving oceanic culture. Brook takes us into these unsettled waters, with the benefit of long experience of this region of the world. Migrating through many different hands, the Selden map becomes our portolan, guiding us wherever we need to go.

Brook is also interested in the map’s namesake, who never set foot in the East and could not read a single brushstroke of Chinese. Therein lies a delicious irony. John Selden was one of the great Orientalists of his age, meaning he had armchair knowledge of ancient biblical languages as well as Persian and Arabic. In his youth, Selden witnessed the founding of the British East India Company, chartered in 1600; by 1612, the Mughal emperor had offered the British his imperial patronage to establish a factory in Surat. Selden, an omnivorous bibliophile, published a work titled The Closed Sea that by 1622 had earned him a certain fame in the realm of international law. He argued vociferously against the position staked out by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, who proclaimed the seas to be no man’s possession. Selden instead sought to define a kind of sovereignty that made the waters in proximity to shore an extension of the state; he hypothesized other circumstances under which one might also lay claim to the ocean. His king, James I, may have appreciated the creation of an invisible boundary that a strong navy might enforce, even though this idea would not become a reality until his son, Charles I, succeeded him. The Anglo-Dutch wars of the mid-17th century began, in many respects, in the world bounded by the Selden map before reaching their culmination in the North Atlantic.

The Selden map manages to capture key features of a world in transition, with various parts of it becoming ever more interconnected without becoming a homogeneous global village. Portuguese place-names are rendered (almost homophonically) in Chinese, while Chinese characters are transliterated into Latin. Similarly, an earlier generation of mapmakers used Arabic to create the (now-lost) Chinese map on which was based the Korean Kangnido map of the world, circa 1402, whose outer limits reached as far west as the Azores. Zheng’s voyages, retraced on the Selden map, recall that experience, since he was from a Muslim family and possibly following the route that Chinese Muslims had previously sailed on their pilgrimage to Mecca. So the Selden map speaks many languages because it contains traces of all past encounters.

At Oxford, the Selden map continued to spark new dialogues between East and West. In June 1687, Michael Shen Fuzong, a Nanjing physician’s son and Catholic convert whose portrait hung in James II’s royal chambers, spent six weeks at Oxford working with the Bodleian librarian Thomas Hyde. Together, they examined and annotated the Selden map, becoming part of its history. Its Latin annotations are primarily the result of their efforts, just as the macaronic sounds of certain locations reflect the intermingling of peoples and cultures in these waters between the Song and early Qing dynasties.

Batchelor and Brook offer different conjectures about the map’s origins. They agree that it was created after the Dutch and Spanish divided control of the clove-producing island of Ternate in 1607, and neither says much about Quanzhou around this time, knowledge of which might have been helpful if the port was a cause of the map’s creation. Brook dates the map to around 1608; based on the quality and quantity of information in this southern sector, he concludes that it was probably made in Bantam. Batchelor looks to the northeast, arguing that the map was probably made in Manila around 1619, an era in which Spanish galleons began to transport shiploads of porcelain and even a few Chinese laborers all the way to Acapulco. In his earlier work on the subject, Batchelor suggested a potential connection between it and the activities of a piratical Chinese merchant-adventurer named Li Dan from Quanzhou, who immigrated to Manila and then Hirado, where he mingled with the English before they closed their trading outpost in Japan. The two scholars’ divergent explanations allude to other accounts of purloined Chinese maps that found their way into European hands. While it seems unlikely that these two historians will reach a consensus about the history of the Selden map, together they demonstrate how effectively the artifact makes us see a world in which points of contact were rapidly multiplying, creating new perspectives for cartographers to draw.

The Bodleian website for the Selden map offers further alternatives. Recalling the two English voyages to China in the 1630s, it suggests that an English captain might have acquired the document in Macau, or removed it somewhere in these waters from a Chinese ship originating in Quanzhou. By the 18th century, no one seemed to care any longer about the map’s secrets. The British knew much more about Asia and about cartography. The Selden map migrated from the library to the Oxford anatomy theater, where it hung on a wall next to the flayed, tattooed skin of a Pacific Islander briefly celebrated as “Prince Giolo,” who died of smallpox shortly after arriving on English soil. It was said that his skin contained a map of one-quarter of the globe. These two talismans of a distant world entertained medical students and visitors in P.T. Barnum–like fashion, until the Selden map was returned to the Bodleian. The Giolo “map” simply disappeared, a distasteful reminder of the most odious aspects of claiming an empire.

* * *

I found myself wondering whether the materials from which the Selden map was made might eventually yield further insights. The map is inscribed on mitsumata, a thin, strong, high-quality paper produced from a Japanese plant, Edgeworthia chrysantha, which seems to have been more commonly used in East Asian ­papermaking by the late 16th century. It would be interesting to know more about the uses of this paper in mainland China and the Chinese communities dispersed throughout this region, though admittedly few things travel more easily than plants and the paper made from them. In Amsterdam, not too long after this story unfolded, Rembrandt printed some of his beautiful etchings on East Asian paper, including mitsumata, creating yet another paper experiment across cultures. Even the surface on which this map was inked and colored tells a story of an interconnected world.

Of the two books, Brook’s, informed by his considerable experience of this region as a historian and traveler for many years, is the more approachable. It also includes a poignant homage to one of Brook’s mentors, Joseph Needham, whose pioneering work on Chinese science and technology laid the foundation for our knowledge of this subject, and to subsequent scholars who continue to unlock the technical secrets of premodern mapmaking across cultures. Brook re-creates the origins of Oxford Sinology during the very period in which he held the department’s distinguished professorship, reminding us that every modern project of mastering the languages and cultures of the world began with a decision to travel, collect, and translate. Batchelor’s book is densely academic, yet his annotations make the map far more legible and interactive, which is essential for sharing it with others. His knowledge of the early modern British Empire is most helpful in thinking about how to contextualize Brook’s enjoyable and elegant micro-history.

While reading about the Selden map, I was reminded of another cartographer who lived in Fujian Province: the Jesuit Giulio Aleni, who arrived in China in 1613 and saw himself as Ricci’s heir. Around 1620, he created his own world map that demonstrated his fluency in the Chinese language and his ability to combine the cartographic traditions of East and West. Aleni encouraged those who saw his map to contemplate its scale by describing a single human as a tiny point on it, an infinitesimal dot that nonetheless contained the entire universe. A world map is indeed a cosmological enterprise of a different order than a regional one like Selden’s, which shines a spotlight on a single sector. And yet its original Chinese creator and owner surely carried a portrait of their world within themselves. This paper exercise in navigation brings to life the lived reality of the South China Sea and the regions lying just beyond it. But can we identify the point on the map where it all began?

Fairly soon, we will be able to do something that only the 21st century could have dreamed of: play the map as a retro-style board game. Fujian Trader is the next outcome of Batchelor’s fascination with the Selden map. Funded by Kickstarter and created by Thinking Past under Batchelor’s guidance, this historical game allows you to be a Chinese seafaring merchant around 1620, building your trading empire. The Selden map is the game board. The goal: to acquire as many ports and provinces and advantageously trade as many commodities as possible, calculating the varying rates of exchange in the different places you go in order to maximize your power and wealth. Spanish silver is the coin of the realm. With any throw of the dice, the Ming dynasty may falter; those Manchu move cards will eventually trigger an invasion. For the aggressive player, profit can still be made with a ship in many ports, some real estate, and a reserve stash of goods and Spanish currency to barter and discount. ­Batchelor has created a Chinese Monopoly for the 21st century, set in the contested waters of the South China Sea.