Listen to this article
Mr Selden’s Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart and the South China Sea, by Timothy Brook, Profile, RRP£18.99 / Bloomsbury, RRP$25, 256 pages
In September 1659, the Bodleian Library in Oxford received its biggest ever bequest of books and manuscripts – almost the entire library of the renowned scholar and jurist John Selden, who had died five years earlier.
Selden’s will named only one item as deserving special mention, his “Mapp of China”. It survives in the Bodleian to this day. A metre wide by almost two metres long, the map is a thing of intrinsic beauty, lavishly ornamented and evidently intended to be displayed on a wall. Yet the exquisite watercolour, with its copious annotations in Chinese, was to languish unnoticed for centuries.
In the 1980s, the curator of Chinese collections at the Bodleian brought the Selden map to the attention of the distinguished sinologist Timothy Brook. In Mr Selden’s Map of China, Brook’s efforts to understand the map, with its puzzling focus on the South China Sea and its enigmatic annotations in several Chinese hands, become a very personal exploration of Anglo-Chinese relations in the 17th century.
The map never really yields up its secrets – at the end of the book we still know nothing of its maker, and little about its intended purpose. But for Brook it is the focus for a series of captivating explorations of Anglo-Chinese history, which reveal the depth of interaction between the two territories. Mr Selden’s Map of China is a picaresque journey, laced with asides, yet each digression contains a jewel of insight.
We discover what a special place maps held for the Chinese, then as now. We are introduced to the 17th-century European scholars who became fascinated by China, forging lasting connections between the two cultures at the beginning of the modern age. These include Selden himself, and Thomas Hyde, the orientalist, professor of Arabic and Bodleian librarian whose passion for oriental languages is in large part responsible for the library’s remarkable early holdings.
Then there is Shen Fuzong (known in the west as Michael), the Catholic-convert Chinese visitor who toured Europe in the 1680s, and in 1687 spent six weeks working with Hyde at the Bodleian, cataloguing its Chinese holdings. Brook detects Shen’s hand among the marginal annotations to the Selden map, and credits him with teaching Selden some Chinese. The Jacobean dramatist Ben Jonson is also drawn into the story, and Brook finds allusions to Selden’s activities and interests in Jonson’s plays.
The East India Company commander John Saris – captain of the first English ship to reach Japan – emerges as a significant figure, possibly accepting the map in lieu of a large trading debt. Saris was the man who first imported Japanese erotic shunga prints into Europe, which the horrified East India Company insisted on having destroyed, rebuking Saris for unleashing “a greate scandall”. The popularity of such images in the west continues today, as the British Museum’s successful recent Shunga exhibition demonstrated.
We learn about navigation across open seas, early legal attempts to define territorial waters, compass roses on maps, the differences in cartographic representation between Chinese and western examples. Alternating between early modern and modern history, England and China, biography, science and culture, Brook holds us spellbound, just as he did in his earlier compelling series of interwoven tales of China and the west, Vermeer’s Hat (2008).
Selden published important, politically charged work on territorial waters – who had the right to sail where. Brook argues that the map, centred as it is on the South China Sea and surrounding regions rather than the Chinese landmass, might be concerned with the law of the sea, hence Selden’s interest. This remains a fraught topic for China today.
We are unlikely ever to know the full story of the Selden map. But, by setting out in its pursuit, Brook has brought an entire, largely unknown, set of cross-cultural exchanges vividly to life.
Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance Studies and director of the Centre for Humanities Interdisciplinary Research Projects at University College London
Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published