The story of mapmaking in China stretches back to ancient times, with its roots deeply entrenched in the country’s rich history. During the earliest periods, maps in China were simple and often interlaced with myths and legends.
Such primitive maps, while rudimentary, offered insights into the world’s understanding, balancing both tangible geography and symbolic interpretations. One notable example from this era is the “Yu Gong” or “Tribute of Yu” from the “Book of Documents”, which depicted the nine provinces of ancient China in a manner that mingled geographic detail with legendary tales, like mountains where the sun was believed to rise.
However, as the Han dynasty dawned, there was a significant evolution in Chinese cartography. Maps transformed from mere symbolic representations to detailed tools critical for governance, military strategies, and burgeoning trade routes. The works of Pei Xiu, often considered the “Ptolemy of China”, serve as notable examples from this period. His emphasis on scale, standardization, and accuracy laid foundational principles for Chinese cartography. This era also saw monumental efforts like the commissioning of comprehensive atlases during the Sui Dynasty, which meticulously portrayed the vast empire’s landscape, complete with its administrative divisions, intricate waterways, and vital roads.
It entered its golden age with the invention of the compass during the Song dynasty (11th century) and reached its peak in the 15th century when the Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He.
With the Song Dynasty came another pivotal moment in the history of Chinese mapmaking: the invention of the compass. This new tool catalyzed a renaissance in cartography. The maps from this era are characterized by their heightened precision, attention to detail, and emphasis on accurate surveys. Innovations, such as the introduction of grid lines and consistent scales, elevated the art of mapmaking to new heights. The “Atlas of the Tracks of Yu” from this era encapsulates this scientific approach, capturing topographical details with unparalleled clarity. The Ming dynasty furthered this legacy, with figures like Admiral Zheng He charting courses to distant lands. His epic voyages, stretching as far as East Africa, were underpinned by advanced navigational maps like the “Mao Kun map”, representing the zenith of 15th-century Chinese cartography.
Over time, from simple beginnings steeped in myth to the refined survey maps illustrating vast explorations, China’s journey in the realm of cartography not only underscores its innovative spirit but also showcases its profound contributions to the world’s understanding of geography.
Chinese traditional Mapmaking skills became more developed and advanced in the late Ming dynasty under the influence of new ideas of technology and studies of natural science, which were introduced from the West to China. [Wikipedia]