China’s Changing Shape: Exploring Geographic Conceptions of ‘China’ from the Second to the Twentieth-first Century

Designed to provide teachers with a concrete set of images and concepts that they can adapt for their own use in the classroom, this seminar focuses around a series of Chinese maps to explore how "China" was conceived of both culturally and geographically over time. Mapping in China varied greatly over the course of its long dynastic history. The images we will explore begin with early dynastic graphics that depict China as a civilization centered on the imperial capital with rings of "less cultured" people radiating out from it. In this conception the emphasis was not on territory controlled per se, but on cultural zones of influence. By contrast, a twelfth-century Song dynasty map, reproduced on rubbings made from a carved stele, shows a highly accurate grid of much of what is now China. Yet, while highly accurate in terms of scale, the emphasis is on hydrography, not on imperial borders. In late imperial China (1500-1900) maps were used primarily as a supplement to extensive textual geographic descriptions and generally demonstrate little interest in accuracy of scale. In 1602 China was introduced to European conceptions of the globe, including latitude and longitude and the five continents, through a world map in Chinese made by Jesuit Matteo Ricci and his Chinese colleague Li Zhizao. Following up on this technology, during the early eighteenth century the Kangxi emperor commissioned a scaled map of the entire Qing empire. The surveys were undertaken with assistance of European Jesuits serving at his court. But beginning only in the 1840s, when the Opium War also forced a significant transition in diplomatic practices in China, were these geographic conventions more broadly introduced to the Chinese public. Our "map tour" will culminate with a discussion of the "nine-dash" map that China developed in the 1930s and is currently using as the basis for its expanded claims to control of the South China Sea.