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.