Mapmaking in the Pearl River Delta

Lineage, State, and Imperial Cartographies: Mapmaking in the Pearl River Delta by Peter Hick

In contrast to the maps produced by and for lineages and local administrators, the Qing imperial state commissioned maps of grand and sweeping scale, seeking to delineate imperial boundaries and situate the empire in the wider world, as well as to convey the sheer enormity of the Qing domains. Qing rulers, fully aware that European empires were staking territorial claims around the world, were cognizant of the need to delineate their own realm, while the court and bureaucracy sought to know and fix the location of the empire’s host of counties, prefectures, and other jurisdictions. Simultaneously, such cartographic prestige projects made unmistakable to any viewer the splendor and size of the Qing Empire.

The Kangxi and Qianlong atlases of the Qing Empire drew on a common cartographic idiom among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century imperial powers, utilizing the mapmaking skills of European Jesuits and their Chinese collaborators to commission maps of unprecedented scale and detail. In so doing, they drew on a tradition of Jesuit cartography in China that dated to the late sixteenth century, when Matteo Ricci produced his first map of the world in Chinese for the Ming dynasty. This mapmaking tradition continued into the Qing dynasty, and outlasted the Jesuits’ loss of influence at court in the eighteenth century. Jesuit mapmaking also served as one of the few sources of European knowledge about Chinese geography, and the imprint of the Jesuit atlases can be found in early modern European maps of China as well.

This exhibit will focus on a handful of maps of China drawn from this tradition, including maps produced for the imperial court, and several related foreign maps. It will focus on maps of the empire itself, as the Ricci and Verbiest maps of the world have been amply described and exhibited elsewhere, and were created for rather different ends than the maps of the empire. The maps on display here demonstrate the shared idiom of late-imperial mapmaking, and give us a glimpse of the motives behind these enormous cartographic projects, as well as the transmission of geographic knowledge and cartographic techniques between China and Europe.

The Map of China
“The Map of China.” Samuel Purchase [London, 1626].
This early English map of China is heavily indebted to the work of Matteo Ricci (honored on the left side of the map) and his co-cartographers, and reflects the state of European knowledge of Chinese geography by the end of the Ming dynasty. Ming China’s cities and county-level towns are marked, though only the provinces and a handful of major cities are named. The country’s waterways are laid out in great detail, while the depiction of the Great Wall is rather more schematic. “Carte exacte de toutes les provinces, villes, bourgs, villages et rivieeres du vaste et puissant empire de la Chine, faite par les ambassadeurs hollandois dans leur voyage de Batavia à Peking. dressee par Jean Nieuhof, ... ; presentement mise a jour par Pierre Vander Aa. (to accompany) La galerie agreable du monde ... Cette partie comprend le tome premier de Chine & Grand Tartarie. Le tout mis en ordre & execute a Leide, par Pierre Vander Aa.”
Huang Yu Quon Lan Tu, Detail Guonglong Province Row 7 #3 1721
“Huang Yu Quan Lan Tu” 1721
The Kangxi atlas was the culmination of a decade-long cartographic project, based on surveys by Chinese mapmakers and French Jesuits. For the Qing court, detailed atlases could serve as a tool of expansion and administration; for the Jesuits, the atlases were a way to impress upon Manchu and Chinese elites the scientific and technical achievements of Christendom. However, Qing atlases functioned less as tools of practical administration, and more as signifiers of the immensity and grandeur of the empire itself. The maps display a very high level of detail, especially in the core provinces of China proper; as every town down to the county level is marked and labelled, the more densely populated and administered parts of the empire are almost drowning in symbols and text. Other types of maps would surely have served the needs of administrative or military planning more effectively. The Kangxi atlas was, above all, a prestige project designed to impress with its state-of-the-art technique and the grandeur of its subject, rather than a tool of practical administration.
Qionlong Shi San Pai Tu, Detail Guonglong Province, Row 7 Sheet 1 West 1760
“Qianlong Shi San Pai Tu” [1760]
During the reign of the Qianlong emperor, an updated atlas was produced, taking into account imperial expansion and more refined cartographic techniques. This atlas showed the Qing empire close to its height, with vast territories having been added to the empire during the Qianlong reign. The atlas served many of the same goals as its predecessor; additionally, its production may have been a means to staking territorial claims at a time when European empires were increasingly active on China’s periphery. However, the atlas’s circulation was highly restricted, suggesting that Europeans were by no means the primary audience. The atlas did not neglect the empire’s maritime frontiers, nor the core provinces of “China Proper.” As this detail centered on Guangdong province and the Pearl River Delta suggests, although the rendering of the area had been updated and refined since the Kangxi period, in its cartographic techniques, objectives, and aesthetic sensibility, the Qianlong atlas owed much to its predecessor.
Carte exacte de toutes les provinces, villes, bourgs, villages et rivieeres du vaste et puissant empire de la Chine
Carte exacte de toutes les provinces, villes, bourgs, villages et rivieeres du vaste et puissant empire de la Chine, Jean Nieuhoff; Pieter van der Aa, [Leiden 1670]
Published by Pieter van der Aa in 1670, this map replicates an earlier map drawn by the Dutch adventurer Jean Nieuhoff in the wake of his 1656-7 journey from Guangzhou (Canton) to Beijing with an embassy from the Dutch East India Company. The Company sought to break the Portuguese monopoly on the China trade by convincing the Qing empire to open trade relations with the Dutch on the southern coast (the emperor did agree to receive periodic Dutch delegations, but granted no trade rights).
Plan de la Ville de Quancheu ou Kanton (Guangzhou)
Plan de la Ville de Quancheu ou Kanton Capital de la Province de quantung en Chine., Jean Nieuhoff, Pieter van der Aa, [Leiden 1670]
Nieuhoff’s rendering of Guangzhou (Canton), which accompanied his map of China as a whole, strikes a vivid contrast to his map of the empire. Splitting his perspective, Nieuhoff renders the city’s defenses, the shipping in the harbor, and the bustle of people, horses, donkeys, and camels outside the walls in great detail, but is more schematic in his depiction of the city itself, leaving questions about his familiarity with the city’s interior.
Canton (Guangzhou)
Canton. Jean Nieuhoff, Pieter van der Aa, [Leiden 1670]
An example from the many ethnographic drawings that accompany Nieuhoff’s maps. Note that the tonsure of the male figure is rendered in the style of a European monk, not a Qing tonsure (which demanded shaving the entire head apart from a queue in the back).