Who cares about maps?


Early bilingual tourist map of the Summer Palace (from Yang Lang’s blog)

The image shown here is from a map of the Summer Palace printed in 1913. It comes from the collection of Yang Lang, vice-president of the SEEC Media Group and a former China Youth Daily journalist. A map enthusiast, Yang recently released his second book of essays about maps and map collecting.

In the preface to the first book, Discovering Maps (地图的发现, 2006), he describes his hobby:

…Later on, I gradually built up a feeling for it, and found that maps were things that I couldn’t get enough of and couldn’t write enough about. Even today, when map publishers are flourishing, I still regret that they can’t put out 10,000 a year. But for old maps, particularly from before the revolution, each one you collect means one fewer on the market. A few years ago you could still occasionally run across Qing-era maps, but today, you barely see anything from before the Tongzhi and Guangxu periods, and when you do, you don’t really want to inquire about them: map prices at auction have doubled many times over the past few years. But this makes you prize old maps even more during your searches, and you work to absorb the limitless knowledge and information contained in that limited space. As you continue to collect, you write. If you were ever to reach an end to your collection, then you’d have all the more reason to write. Why else would you be collecting?

An article in a recent issue of New Weekly suggests that Chinese antique collectors are overlooking maps in their race to acquire ceramics and other artifacts of China’s imperial past. In the piece translated below, the magazine reporter talks to collector Sun Guoqing about the current situation.

Why are the best ancient Chinese maps overseas?

by Ning Xiaoxiao / NW

“I’ve seen and had a part in authenticating basically all the ancient maps that are on the market, so I know that there’s less and less stuff out there.” Sun Guoqing speaks about ancient maps even more passionately than if he were talking about his own child. A well-known connoisseur in the ancient map field, Sun originally served in the Ancient Books and Maps Group at the National Library. It was there that he first encountered and began acquiring ancient maps. He crossed the China looking into the current state of affairs: how many maps were in existence, what types they were, and how many were of each type.

In 2007, a Map of China appeared at the Haiwangcun Fall Auction held in Beijing by China Books. This 95-year-old map was drawn in the second year of the Republic (1913), one of only two left in the world; its twin was famously auctioned off by Sotheby’s in London a few decades back. At the time of its creation, the government had decided to embark on a whole series of reforms, one of the most important being a reform of the administrative organizational structure. From that point on, the prefecture level () would no longer appear among China’s administrative divisions; every prefecture would would be replaced by a county (). This Map of China was the final map produced before the changes, and it included Outer Mongolia, which was part of China at the time.

But such a rare and valuable map went unnoticed at auction: It appeared only briefly and then was quickly buried. The present situation has Sun Guoqing quite upset: “Why should a Qing-era vase fired at an official kiln be so fawned over by the marketplace, its price doubling over and over until it reaches far beyond its actual worth, when excellent-grade, sole existing copies of so many old maps are only noticed by foreigners?”

In stark contrast to the Map of China up for auction at Haiwangcun, a Map of China printed in 1913 by the Shanghai Commercial Press was the subject of a bidding war at Sotheby’s in 1990, where it ultimately went for 50,000 pounds. It was no mere accident that these two maps had different fates. All told, there are fewer than 120,000 extant copies of 10,000 different ancient Chinese maps, but more than one-eighth of these have escaped overseas, mostly to various countries in Europe but more recently to collectors in Japan, who have stepped up their acquisitions of old Chinese maps.

“There are extremely few good-quality maps on the domestic market,” Sun said. “Most of them are in private hands or have gone overseas.” Hong Kong collector Tam Siu-cheung (谭兆璋), known as “the king of maps,” has spent his life amassing more than 200,000 maps, 60% of which are ancient maps. He owns the sole remaining copy of a Kangxi-era map of the Yellow River that is more than 20 meters long. When he purchased it, he paid more than HK$100,000, and it has more than doubled in value since then.

Sun is most envious of an exhibition of Chinese and Japanese maps held by the British Museum in 1974, right as he was on a trip to England. On display were several dozen ancient Chinese maps of various kinds from various eras, along with the stories behind them. “There was a copy of the Chinese World Map of 1593 (乾坤万国全图古今人物事迹, Map of All the Countries in the World, with Deeds of Ancient and Contemporary Personages), the sole existing copy of a Ming-era woodcut edition. There are lots of experts who have never even seen that map, much less ordinary enthusiasts in China.”

Ancient China saw maps as tokens of its dominion over the land and symbols of the sovereignty of its borders. Most ancient maps were kept deep within imperial storehouses and not shown to outsiders. After the founding of new China, the National Library and archives at all levels maintained a strict system of management and review, meaning that even the truly interested had few opportunities to see the maps for themselves.

Overseas museums and private collectors exhibit ancient maps as precious treasures. Sun is envious of this: “It’s hard to talk about publicity and preservation when we don’t even know the value of our old maps and the current state of affairs.”


Discovering Maps

Most of the maps included in Yang’s book and its sequel (地图的发现·续, 2008) can’t be called “ancient.” Although he does have a great deal of respect for rare old maps, the examples he includes in his books are an eclectic group chosen more for the stories he can tell about them than for the price they’d fetch with collectors: Military charts from the anti-Japanese war are mixed with recent tourist maps of Yan’an and Taishan, and modern reproductions of Qing Dynasty city maps share space with genuine rare finds from the Republican era.

The two books are essentially collections of blog posts written in an informal, readable style that makes Yang’s enthusiasm for what the maps can reveal about geography, history, and language pretty infectious. He covers topics ranging from wars, border disputes, 20th Century ideology, and famous cartography-related episodes from Chinese history, to tourism, urban planning, and everyday life.

The centerpiece of the first book is an investigation into the geography of northern China that takes its inspiration from the most famous map of the Warring States Period, the Map of Dukang that the assassin Jing Ke presented to the King of Qin. Yang explores where various cartographers have placed Dukang (督亢), a territory belonging to the Kingdom of Yan to the southwest of present-day Beijing.

The book’s dust jacket unfolds to reveal a reproduction of a Japanese military map of the northwest part of the Korean peninsula, showing the mouth of the Ch’ŏngch’ŏn River and the cities of Chŏngju and Anju. Although the sequel doesn’t repeat that design choice, it does feature a fascinating 20-part walkthrough of Beijing based on city maps issued in 1954-55.

Yang Lang currently blogs on BLShe, a blog host that enforces ID authentication and is geared toward media workers and other professionals

Links and Sources
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