HONG KONG: Last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping at a dinner where they exchanged gifts. Merkel presented to Xi a 1735 map of China made by prolific French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville and printed by a German publishing house. According to an antique-maps website, d’Anville’s map was based on earlier geographical surveys done by Jesuit missionaries in China and represented the “summation of European knowledge on China in the 18th-century”.
The map showed, according to its original Latin caption, the so-called “China Proper” — that is, the Chinese heartland mostly populated by ethnic Han people, without Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, or Manchuria. The islands of Taiwan and Hainan — the latter clearly part of modern China, the former very much disputed — are shown with a different color border.
Historical maps are sensitive business in China. Every schoolchild in China learns that Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the Diaoyu Islands have been “inalienable parts of China since ancient times”. The d’Anville map, at least visually, is a rejection of that narrative.
Unsurprisingly, China’s official media outlets don’t seem to have appreciated Merkel’s gift. The People’s Daily, which has given meticulous accounts of Xi’s European tour, elided any coverage of the offending map. More curiously, when news of the map’s presentation reached the Chinese heartland, it had somehow morphed into a completely different one. A map published in many Chinese-language media reports about Merkel’s gift-giving shows the Chinese empire at its territorial zenith, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and large swaths of Siberia. This larger map was the handiwork of British mapmaker John Dower, published in 1844 by Henry Teesdale & Co. in London, and was certainly not the gift from Merkel to Xi. But this mistake was not noted or explained in Chinese reports.