Sunday, April 05, 2015

'Mr Selden’s Map of China' Timothy Brook

All Isles and Continents (which are indeed but greater Isles) are so seated, that there is none, but that, from some shore of it, another may be discovered.
John Selden
Historie of Tithes

In 2009 an ancient Chinese map came to light in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Timothy Brook, a well known authority on Ming China, was called in to investigate its provenance and history. Brook noticed that unlike other maps from Ming China, which usually focus on the land mass of China to the exclusion of the sea, this map depicted the South China Sea and the coast lines which surround it: the center of the map was not land, but the void of the empty sea. Brook also noticed the astonishing accuracy of the distribution and shape of the many islands in the area, and noticed also a fine tracery of lines connecting the islands to the mainland. Brook realized that what he was looking at was a map of trade routes connecting Ming China with the markets of Japan, the Dutch East Indies and the Spanish Philippines. The only thing known for sure about the map was that it had been bequeathed to the Bodleian by John Selden, who specifically mentioned the map in his will as having been given to him by an English commander who had obtained it ‘there’. The map was the only object in his vast bequest of documents to be named and described in detail in the will.

From this observation and slenderest of evidences, and undaunted by the lack of any other information about the map, Brook sets out to discover who made it, when, and how it came to be in Mr. Selden’s possession. Along the way he spins a tale that connects East to West and sheds light on the dawn of the modern global age. He unearths many interesting things, and gives to the reader a wealth of fascinating information concerning Mr. Selden, maps, and the interaction between Europe and China in the seventeenth century.


Mr Selden was the most important jurist of the age, at least in England. Bosom friend of Ben Jonson, student of James Ussher, Selden was also one of the most distinguished Orientalists of the age, able to read Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Syriac. We learn many other things about him. For example, it was Selden, in dialogue with the great Dutch jurist de Groot, who hammered out the first version of the international law of the sea. In 1609 de Groot published a book arguing that the sea was mare liberum, open to all, and that no nation could claim jurisdiction over it. Selden in 1635 published a riposte to de Groot, arguing that the sea was mare clausum and that nations could lay claim to it. The importance of this debate for the legality of trade (and the illegality of piracy) hardly needs emphasizing, and it was as important then as it is now.

Brook shows how both jurists’ positions were the result of specific economic and historical circumstances. De Groot was arguing for the Dutch East India company, who were trying to break into the market for spices and exotic woods in what later became the Dutch East Indies, a market that was exclusively claimed by the Portuguese. To argue that the seas were free was to argue that the Portuguese had no legal claim to their monopoly, and that the Dutch could therefore compete. Selden, on the other hand was arguing for the British government of Charles I, who was contesting lucrative fishing rights over the North Sea, rights which were also claimed by the Dutch. Selden, who had been in and out of prison on various political charges connected with the struggle between the Stuart dynasty and Parliament, was released from prison on condition that he could provide a legal argument for Charles’s claims. His book The Closed Sea was the result. Brook comments:

‘The Free Sea’ and ‘The Closed Sea’… were both lawyers briefs written for their clients… their difference had mostly to do with the interests they served rather than with the law each sought to uphold.

Although he shies away from coming to the conclusion that questions of legality are always determined by those who have the power to enforce it, that legality per se is simply a cloak to cover the exercise of power, he does quote de Groot’s famous maxim: Jurists who use their proficiency in the law to please those in power usually are deceived or themselves deceive. Given Selden’s interest in other cultures and his professional involvement in the law of the sea, it’s not surprising that a map from China which puts the sea at the center became one of the most valued items in his library.


Maps are at the center of this book. Brook gives a potted history of cartography, both European and Chinese. He is very good indeed on the problems of projecting a round surface onto a flat sheet of paper, and the various solutions to this problem that have been found throughout history; his technical descriptions are clear enough for the layperson to grasp without dumbing down the subject. Brook situates Mr. Selden’s map within the context of other maps from the period, including those published by Hondius in 1608, Purchas in 1625 and John Speed in 1627, some of the first writers and cartographers to depict China for Western eyes, and he draws out the associations between Selden and these other men. Brook gives detailed descriptions of these and other maps to highlight their similarities and differences and to arrive at conclusions about their origins; these descriptions are beautifully complemented by the lavish full-color illustrations and the diagrams included in the text. The book is beautifully produced, and for anyone who loves poring over old maps and documents, reading it is highly pleasurable.

We learn about rutters – pilot’s logbooks with compass directions and timings, used in the Medieval period in the absence of charts to help pilots navigate- and their relationships to maps. Rutters were used by the Dutch, the British, the Portuguese, and by the Chinese, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the space Brook gives to an important Chinese navigational guide compiled in 1617 by Zhang Xie from oral and other sources now lost. Zhang’s Study of the Eastern and Western Seas is an important addition to our understanding of early navigation techniques and trade routes in the South China Sea, and complements  the information found in an earlier Chinese rutter known as the Laud Rutter after Archbishop Laud – another associate of Selden’s – who donated it to the Bodleian. This Chinese rutter details the routes taken by the great Chinese navigator Zheng He in the fifteenth century. Brook profitably draws out the connections between the Laud Rutter, Zhang Xie’s compendium, and the dim tracery of sea routes on the Selden map. A fortuitous discovery leads him to the conclusion that the cartographer of the map used these sea routes as a starting point for his drawing of the coastlines, not the other way round, and this in part accounts for the amazing accuracy of Mr. Selden’s map.


China during the seventeenth century was, for Western eyes, a site of exotic  mystery. Westerners who went there had the impression that they were ‘opening up’ the country, ‘civilizing’ it, bringing it onto the world stage. Traditionally, Western historiography has confirmed this Eurocentric view. More accurate, however, is the view that puts China at the center of the world economy during this period. Ming Dynasty China drew in silver from Japan and from across the Pacific. This hunger for silver drove subsidiary trade among the Japanese, the Chinese diaspora among the archipelagos of the South China Sea, and early Europeans such as John Saris, who commanded the eighth voyage of the East India Company to the far east, and the man who is the most likely candidate for the ‘commander’ mentioned in Mr. Selden’s will. The increasing presence of Europeans in this theatre of operations had a huge impact on Europe and her culture, but less so on Chinese history and culture. China was the center, and Europe the periphery, in spite of Europeans’ assertions to the contrary. Whatever knowledge the Europeans possessed, the Chinese had it too; whatever technology the Europeans brought with them to China, they found Chinese versions of the same, often at a higher stage of development, including maps, rutters, compasses, atlases and compendia of knowledge.

It is Timothy Brook himself who has arguably done the most to correct our view of the relative importance of China and Europe during the early modern period, with four magisterial studies of the Ming. Brook as an academic historian combines detailed readings of source texts that owe much to the methods of the New Historicists, and the longue duree approach to economic history espoused by the Annales School: think Stephen Greenblatt meets Fernand Braudel and you get a fair idea of Brook’s approach to doing academic history. Here, in Mr Selden’s Map of China, he puts his unparalleled knowledge of Ming China to good use, focusing generally on the way China impacted Europe rather than on how Europe impacted China; and more especially on how new discoveries about China were changing European habits of thought.

As evidence of other ways of being and thinking came more insistently into view, some realized that the old ways were not the only ways and indeed might have to be revised or superseded. To be alive in John Selden’s day was to live through this shift in paradigms.

Two examples will suffice. Brook describes how James Ussher – Mr. Selden’s teacher of Hebrew – dated the creation of the world to 23rd October 4004 BC by delving into ancient Hebrew texts. The discovery by the next generation of scholars of the great age of Chinese culture would invalidate this exercise in pious futility. Brook comments: The Biblical account of the creation of the world was only one casualty of the global enlargement of knowledge that inspired some thinkers to pry up the theological floorboards of European thought.  

The second example is the fascinating story of Michael Shen Fuzong, the first Chinese to ever visit Europe, a convert to Catholicism, and a protégé of the Jesuit missionary Philippe Couplet. Shen was presented at the court of King Louis XIV in 1684, and then later at the court of King James II in 1685, had his portrait painted by Kneller and was for a while the wonder of Europe. While in England he worked with Thomas Hyde, the Keeper of the Bodleian Library, and the man who had entered Mr. Selden’s map into the Library catalogue. Hyde was something of an enthusiast for Oriental languages, and for six weeks in 1685, Shen was his teacher. Shen and Hyde studied Mr. Selden’s map together, annotating it: Shen’s Romanisations of Chinese place names followed by Hyde’s Latin translations are still visible in the margins of the map. Shen and Hyde poring over maps and Chinese books together in the Library at Oxford is an enduring image of a fleeting historical moment when the encounter between East and West was fruitful and non-invasive. As Brook notes:

The nations and peoples of the world differed, but not in essentials. Saris could go to them to trade without conquest, Selden to delve into their documents in search of the common wellsprings of enlightened humanity. It would be another century before this sense of equality gave way to condescension and the East India Company concentrated its efforts on stripping the world of its assets and other peoples of their dignity.

There are countless tales of European travellers to China and the wonders they found there, but the tale of a Chinese traveller to Europe and the work he did there to increase European understanding of China is surely just as fascinating, and Brook does well to give this space.


Mr Selden’s Map of China is Timothy Brook’s second go at writing popular history, after his earlier prize winning Vermeer’s Hat. Vermeer’s Hat had its academic longeurs as a work of popular history written for the layperson; Mr Selden’s Map has no such, and is arguably a better exemplar of the genre. This is partly due to  the emphasis Brook places on why such an old map of the South China Sea and all its islands is important to our present historical moment, when the nations around that sea bitterly contest possession of some of those islands. It is also partly due to Brook’s sensible decision to foreground himself in the text. He includes personal anecdotes about his experiences in China as a historian there, and peoples his texts with pen portraits of his colleagues and his mentor the great Sinologist Joseph Needham. The book is as much a detective story as a work of history; Brook describes his elation when he discovers new evidence,  recounts his confusion when new evidence doesn’t fit his emerging picture of the background to the map, and his consternation when a particular line of enquiry reaches a dead end. This has the effect of drawing the reader in, making us part of the process of doing history; he walks with us along the fine line between speculation, imaginative reconstruction, and what can be established as historical fact. We learn as much here about how historians do history and of the importance of that history for our own times as we learn about the actual history of the map itself. This is surely how popular history should be written.

We never do learn, though, who made the map, or when, or how it came into Mr. Selden’s possession, so at the center of this book, then, just as at the center of Mr. Selden’s map of China, is an empty space, a void. But this doesn’t matter, because, like Brook, we are richer in our knowledge at the end than when we started.

This piece first appeared in Kyoto Journal 80 and is reposted here with kind permission.

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