The use of map features heavily in Chinese mythology and real historical events.
The Legend of Chinese Maps
The earliest tale about the map is related to the legendary Great Yu, a hydraulic engineer and the found of Xia Dynasty. Allegedly, his success in the flood control projects more than 4,000 years ago owned to a detailed map carved on a slab and presented to him by a higher being who administrates the Yellow River affairs (apparently the guy didn’t do a good job as the river either flooded or dried out).
The earliest recorded events associated with a map are from Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (史记) about Jin Ke’s assassination of the last king of Qin who later became First Emperor Qin.
In 228 BC, the Qin Kingdom in today’s Shaanxi conquered the Zhao Kingdom in today’s Hebei, which caused an alarm in Zhao’s neighbour the Yan Kingdom in today’s Beijing. Prince of Yan Kingdom thus sent Jin Ke to present a map of Yan to King of Qin. When the map scroll was unrolled to the end, a short sword was exposed. Jin Ke snatched the weapon and lurched at King of Qin but was eventually neutralised.
A 3,000-year-old World Map from Chinese Mythology
This is an illustration in the ancient book Classics of Mountains and Oceans (山海经), a collection of Chinese mythological tales.
A Han Dynasty City Map
This is a map of an ancient Chinese city dated back between 1,800 and 2,000 years ago during the East Han Dynasty. The map illustrates city walls, city gates, shopping streets and residential areas with courtyards.
The map was carved on a 39x47cm stone and is a collection of the Sichuan Museum.
The World’s First Paper Map
This nearly 2,000-year-old map is no doubt the world’s earliest paper map, unearthed from an East Han tomb in Fangmatan, Gansu Province.
A Tang Dynasty Map of Heaven and Earth
This is a Tang Dynasty telestial/celestial map that indicates the spatial collaboration between big cities, mountains and rivers on earth and major planets, stars and constellations in the sky.
It is a collection of the Beijing Library.
The Earliest Chinese Map Drawn to Scale
This is the site plan of a Tang Dynasty royal summer palace engraved on a 64x38cm stele at a scale of 1:2800 a thousand years ago in 1080.
The summer palace was built during Tang Emperor Xuanzong‘s reign. The property is divided into two quarters, with the front centred a large pond functioning as his office quarter where he worked and met the envoys of the foreign kings, and the back quarter as a living area surrounded by gardens.
It is the earliest Chinese map drawn to scale.
The map is a collection of the Shaanxi Stele Museum.
The Earliest Chinese Grid Map
This territory map, drawn at the scale of 1:5,000,000 during the South Song Dynasty in 1136, is carved on a 114x114cm stele. It uses the grid to define the scale and illustrates the coastline, major waterways including the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, Taihu, Dongting and Poyang lakes.
It is the earliest Chinese grid map. The maps drawn to scale with a similar orientation to today’s maps did not appear until the South Song Dynasty about 800 years ago. The more classic Chinese maps before that period are mainly feng shui maps, illustrating the shapes and orientations of waterways and hills with the south on the top and the north below.
This is a collection of the Shaanxi Stele Museum.
A Song Dynasty Territory Map
This territory map was produced using engraving printing techniques during the South Song Dynasty in 1177. It illustrates nine provinces, major mountains and waterways. It also describes in the text the alteration to the natural flow regimes of rivers and their floodplains.
The map is from the book Geographic Map of Great Yu and is the earliest ink-printed Chinese map. It is now a collection of the Beijing Museum.
A Song Dynasty County Map
This county map was produced using engraving printing techniques during the South Song Dynasty in the 1220s. It shows the boundaries and neighbouring counties, and highlights the mountains, waterways, islands, bridges, ports, docks, temples, military barricades, schools, tax offices, markets, villages and heritage sites.
This is a collection of the Beijing Museum.
Suzhou City Map 800 Years Ago
This Suzhou city map was engraved on a 277x142cm stele in 1229 during the South Song Dynasty at scales 1:2500 in the north-south direction and 1:3000 in the east-west direction.
The map shows the city walls, city gates for access from the land, city gates for access from the waterways, the city government and police office buildings, water channels, streets, 305 bridges, 250 temples, public venues and residential blocks.
This is a collection of the Suzhou Museum.
The Earliest Map of the West Lake, Hangzhou
This isometric map of the West Lake and its surrounding tourist attractions in Hangzhou was produced using engraving printing techniques during the South Song Dynasty in 1268.
It illustrates Six Harmony Liuhe Pagoda, Leifeng Pagoda, Broken Bridge, Temple of National Icon General Yue Fei, Su Causeway, Bai Causeway, North High Hill, and South High Hill in a 3-dimensional aerial view.
This is a collection of the Beijing Library.
The Map of the United Great Ming
The map of China including its adjacent neighbouring states was painted on a 386x456cm silk fabric in 1389 during the early Ming Dynasty, showing the locations of the major cities, waterways and mountains.
A collection of the Historical Archives of China.
A Map of Beijing 500 Years Ago
This earliest Beijing city map indicating the inner city, outer city, the Forbidden City and a waterway flowing from the southwest to a pond in the north in the 15th century during the Ming Dynasty was painted on a 99.5×49.5cm silk fabric.
The map was smuggled to Japan and now is a collection of a Miyagi Prefecture library.
This is a map of China produced in 1552 during the Ming Dynasty.
The World Maps
This is the European part of the world map produced during the Ming Dynasty in the early 15th century.
This is part of the American continent in the world map produced in the early 15th century during the Ming Dynasty, marking the location of today’s Canada and Cuba. It is much more accurate than the European part which may suggest that although Zheng He’s fleets never travelled to Europe but did have visited the land known as America and Canada today.
2 thoughts on “Ancient Chinese Maps”
To suggest that Zheng He or other Chinese navigators had visited America requires solid evidence, not imagination. A European writer wrote a book quite a few years ago concluding that Zheng He “must have” reached that and other places on earth (only without reaching the Moon) but never gave any solid evidence, except speculation. Quite a few Chinese writers followed suit and only quietened down in recent years. Sailing boats in those days were at the mercy of the elements: wind and sea current. Even if by chance you were blown off course to a place other boats did not reach, you may still not come back to tell the story. The assertion above saying the map showing Cuba and Canada was a result of the Zheng He voyage is worse than speculation. To believe that a boat that touched the shore of a new continent would enable the sailors to draw a map of that continent or even island is ignorance of the worst kind.
Please read Zheng He’s story. The navigation technology of Zheng’s fleets was way way ahead of Columbus’ who “discovered” “new world” just decades later than Zheng He’s adventure.
There is no technical barriers for Chinese fleets to reach America.