Mr Selden’s Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart and the South China Sea by Timothy Brook - review by Jerry Brotton

Jerry Brotton

Roads to Xanadu

Mr Selden’s Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart and the South China Sea


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In the summer of 1976, following a two-year stint as an exchange student, Timothy Brook headed out of China through Friendship Pass, a rail junction on the border with Vietnam. Having already been warned not to take a folded wall map out of the country by a customs official in Shanghai, Brook was confronted by a gleeful border guard who plucked it from his rucksack and immediately confiscated the offending object. As far as the guard was concerned, Brook writes at the beginning of Mr Selden’s Map of China, the map ‘did not merely represent China’s sovereignty: it was that sovereignty. For him, the map existed at a level of reality higher than the real world.’ Having filed away this story for decades, just one ‘in a long tradition of embargoes on national maps’, Brook then moves forward thirty years, to the basement of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where he is examining a 17th-century Chinese map that he now believes is the most important made in the last seven centuries, and which provides the subject of this wonderful and ultimately very poignant book about a map and the people whose stories intersect with it. 

The map to which Brook was introduced in 2009 is known simply as the Selden Map, after its owner, the 17th-century English scholar, jurist and Orientalist antiquarian John Selden (1584–1654). He bequeathed it to the Bodleian in his will, where it was deposited in 1659, a symbol of England’s developing interest in ‘Oriental’ culture. The subject eventually fell out of fashion; the map languished in the basement until another scholar, Robert K Batchelor (author of an academic monograph just published on the map and 17th-century London), noticed a reference to it in an old library catalogue and called it up. The map’s rediscovery caused a flurry of excitement in the academic world and Brook, one of the world’s leading scholars of early modern China, was called in to examine it.

The first thing he noticed was that, when compared to other Ming dynasty examples, the Selden Map ‘was all wrong’. Exquisitely hand-drawn in black ink, over a metre wide and two metres long, this was a monumental wall map depicting East Asia stretching from the Indian Ocean in the west to the Spice Islands in the east, with Japan to the north and Java to the south. Its surface was covered with a spidery web of maritime trade routes unprecedented in Chinese cartography, which usually placed land – particularly that controlled by the Ming dynasty – rather than water at its centre (in this case, the stretch of water was the South China Sea). It also contained hitherto unknown traces of European cartographic practice. For Brook, the map ‘made complete sense, and yet it made no sense’. This paradox – just one of many that Brook would encounter in the process of piecing together the various parts of an unsigned and undated cartographic puzzle over the next four years – has inspired a book filled with historical detective work that is one of the best I have read for years.

He begins with a brilliant sketch of John Selden, focusing on his publication of The Closed Sea (1635), a legal tract arguing that the sea could be owned by a state, just like land. Brook notes that this position was in stark contrast to the map, which was ‘simply a sea chart showing merchants where to go’. From there he embarks on an extraordinary series of physical, historical and linguistic journeys, connecting Selden with political opposition to Stuart rule, his membership of the literary ‘tribe’ of Ben Jonson, the rise of English Orientalism and the arrival of Chinese Jesuits in England, and the tawdry early forays of the East India Company into the Chinese and Japanese commercial world (including the illicit trade in Oriental pornography). He then works backwards and excavates a thicket of arcane Chinese source material on geography, cosmology, history and even uranomancy – divination using the sky – to finally reconnect Selden’s world with that of the map in some remarkable and surprising ways. By the end of the book we are presented with all the best resolutions to a historical whodunnit: Brook provides a convincing case for dating the map to 1608, explaining who brought it to England (John Saris, an East India Company factor and commander of its eighth voyage, the first to Japan) and even where its maker may have come from (Java).

Brook has an enviable gift for picking his way through a vast amount of arcane historical and scientific material to produce a fast-moving, conversational narrative, which flies by before you realise you have just been guided through some of the more esoteric aspects of Chinese science or folklore. It is punctuated by telling personal anecdotes and trenchant observations on how the past continues to shape the present – especially when dealing with China. Some of the finest passages come when he brings his own linguistic skills to bear on the map and those involved with it. We eavesdrop on Thomas Hyde, an Oriental scholar at the Bodleian Library, and Michael Shen Fuzong, a trainee Chinese Jesuit, poring over the Selden Map in 1687, Michael’s Romanisations of the Chinese script helping Hyde’s parallel Latin translations, both still discernible to Brook’s trained Sinologist’s eye. He traces the map’s references to Dutch interlopers in the region as ‘Red Hairs’ and the Spanish as ‘shapeshifting foreigners’, as wild and unpredictable as the Jurchens then banging at the gates of Ming China. He unlocks various bewildering place names by showing how the Chinese-speaking mapmaker transcribes Japanese words filtered through Portuguese or other Romanised versions, so that ‘Wanlaogao’ becomes ‘Ternate’, and how, because of ‘his need to stretch a spondee’ into an iambic tetrameter, Coleridge turned the map’s utopian ‘Shangdu’ into ‘Xanadu’.

In a dazzling final chapter Brook shows that what appear to be the map’s rivers are in fact provinces and its cities astrological symbols, revealing just how far people in Ming China believed that every place in the circular heaven ‘has a corresponding location on earth’, which was believed to be flat. In contrast, European mapmakers were trying to deal with the curvature of the earth, not the heavens, and producing a series of map projections to resolve the problem. Brook puts these up against the Selden Map in a compelling argument as to its accuracy. ‘All maps are puzzles,’ he concludes, but like his chosen example, they ‘are always adequate to what they meant to do’. If a map looks ‘wrong’ to us, ‘it is simply because we haven’t figured out its code’.

However, Mr Selden’s Map of China is more than a fiendish academic puzzle solved just for the sake of it. Behind Brook’s chosen object, and the many subjects that crossed its path and made it what it is, lie even more profound reflections on the possibilities and perils of pursuing cross-cultural understanding. Brook uses a map which is ‘devoid of imperial designs or claims’ to address more recent and ongoing issues of contested sea and airspace in the South China Sea. In one of its most moving affirmations of academic endeavour, he cracks the map’s scale by recalling the recondite work on Chinese sailing manuals by Xiang Da, a scholar who worked in Oxford in the 1930s, just like Michael Shen Fuzong, before returning home, only to be tortured to death in 1966, the first year of the Cultural Revolution, simply for having travelled abroad and worked with foreign intellectuals. ‘His reputation outlives his tormentors,’ writes Brook. ‘The vindication is a small one, but among the people I hang out with, this triumph matters. Xiang was one of our finest, and this is what we do.’

Finally, of course, there is the map’s owner, John Selden. Brook ends this wonderful book at the Temple Church in London, where Selden’s tombstone can still be found, in a ‘murky cavity covered by a scuffed sheet of Perspex’. He reminds us that a light beneath the floor illuminates the tombstone: if it has been turned off, ‘the switch is on the pillar behind you’. This called to mind the end of another classic book following an extraordinary polymath, Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus. ‘We stand in darkness,’ wrote Kapuściński, ‘surrounded by light.’ This book shows that we all need Timothy Brook to keep switching on the lights.

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