The Emperor’s Mysterious Map and the South China Sea


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Within the imperial chambers of the Wanli Emperor (萬曆), sovereign of the Ming Dynasty from 1563 to 1620, could be found an encyclopedic work of cartographic craftsmanship unlike anything existing in Europe.
It was a multicolored world map mounted on a six-paneled folding screen, taller than a man and twice that in width, which transfixed the emperor with the revelation that his own empire, vast as it was, was nevertheless a minor portion of all under heaven. It was said that the emperor himself frequently studied it with intense curiosity and ordered 12 more full-size copies for the palace.


The giant map was entitled Comprehensive Chart of the Myriad Lands upon the Foundation of the Earth (坤輿萬國全圖) and depicted a world 20 times more expansive than the emperor had ever imagined. It bore over 850 place names and minutely scripted legends for each kingdom, island and continent. It featured latitude and longitude lines identifying their locations on the spherical Earth.

In the map quadrant encompassing what we now know as the South China Sea was the legend, “The Great Ming is renowned for the richness of its civilization. It comprises all between the 15th and 42nd parallels. The other tributary realms of the four seas are very numerous.”

During the late Ming, the northern borders of the empire stopped at the 42nd parallel along the Great Wall that protected China from northern tribes. In the south, the empire ended at the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) on the 15th parallel in the South China Sea, beyond which were the Ming vassal kingdoms of Southeast Asia.

The map was the collaborative work between an Italian Jesuit missionary in Beijing, Matteo Ricci, and a famed Chinese geographer, Li Wocun (李我存). Li compiled the data points for Ming territories, while Ricci filled in the rest of the world and combined European and Chinese geographic knowledge for the first time in Chinese or in any language.