Map Quest

When a Georgia Southern University researcher asked to see a map from one of the most famous collections housed in one of the world’s greatest libraries, he had no idea he was about to re-write a portion of history. But, what started out as a simple request from associate history professor Robert Batchelor turned into a discovery that has astounded scholars on three continents.

“It was a very exciting day that day,” Batchelor recalls. “There is a point where you can move the world with your scholarship a bit and that’s a real joy.”

Batchelor “moved the world” while doing research at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The map he asked to see, known as the Selden Map of China, was donated to the Bodleian in 1659 by English legal philosopher John Selden. Selden’s collection is famous for including dozens of important maps and transcripts, including early Hebrew writings and even documents from the Aztecs. But, library records showed only a handful of times that the Selden Map had been viewed since the 1600s. As soon as he unrolled the Selden Map, Batchelor discovered what had gone unnoticed for centuries.

“Immediately, I noticed it had these fine lines on it,” Batchelor remembered. Those lines, Batchelor realized, marked Chinese shipping trade routes of the 17th century. “I thought, ‘This changes our ideas about how maps were made and there is a technology here that we don’t know very much about,’ and that was very exciting as well.”

The map is a colorful, detailed sketch of the South China Sea and Batchelor says it shows the earliest known Chinese depiction of Taiwan and the Chinese cities there. He believes it is the earliest and most detailed map from Asia of the Philippines and Viet Nam.

“Unlike many Chinese maps that show only the empire itself, this map depicts the whole of East Asia and most importantly the trading routes used to reach Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Southeast Asia. It also shows how such navigation worked, and restoration has revealed that the routes on the map were drawn before the coasts,” Batchelor explains.

And, it is proof of a thriving Asian marketplace unified by trade.

“When Europeans came in, they were with companies sponsored by the state,” Batchelor says. “But, the Chinese traders from Fujian, indeed most Asian traders, were family businesses, and to the extent they had no state sponsorship they show a kind of free market at work, giving us a different perspective on East Asia. The markets were really quite dynamic very early. So, this is a visually striking piece of evidence that also tells a new story about globalization and economics.”

Batchelor believes the map was most likely commissioned by a Chinese or perhaps Mos­lem merchant family-lineage group from Quanzhou, Fujian, who had strong connections in Southeast Asia.

Batchelor’s discovery has scholars in the United States, Asia and Europe enthralled. He will meet with other scholars at Oxford and in the U.S. this fall to discuss his findings.

“Just as the map was probably produced by many people in the 17th century, it’s the kind of thing that in the 21st century is going to take many, many minds to unlock all of these interesting secrets about it,” Batchelor says. “How does this map work mathematically? How does it work technologically? I think the map has the potential to open up whole new domains – not just about Chinese mapping, but about the Pacific, about Southeast Asia. And that opens up global questions, as well. How were people mapping, how was globalization happening in the 17th century?”

Batchelor says it is no coincidence that his discovery in one of the world’s great research libraries came around the same time as Georgia Southern students and faculty were discovering a Civil War prison camp thought lost to the ages and that Georgia Southern alumnus Lee Berger discovered a new species of a human precursor in one of the most studied regions of Africa.

“You come out of a place like Georgia Southern University seeing the world differently,” Batchelor said. “Georgia Southern is very good at mixing the traditional research with the hands-on. And I think this is a good lesson for the students. What might seem very local is at the same time very global and if you train yourself to see things that way, you’ll see things that other people won’t.

“Here I am, a scholar from southern Georgia and I’m at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and I’m seeing things that no one else saw. Maybe it was because no one else was looking, but that in itself is very telling. Why has nobody bothered to unroll this map? And if they did unroll it, why did nobody see these lines? And I attribute that, in part, to being at Georgia Southern. Because it is the culture of Georgia Southern that encourages that kind of seeing.”

And that kind of discovery.

A connection to Georgia

Professor Robert Batchelor says the port of Savannah played a part in his discovery that the Selden Map of China held centuries-old information about Chinese trade routes.

soybean“Like many researchers, I approached China in this period from the perspective of the Ming Empire, which because of The Forbidden City and The Great Wall is usually remembered for closure rather than openness,” explained Batchelor. “But when I moved to Georgia and began learning about the Savannah Port, it piqued my interest in the Chinese shipping trade of that era. That’s why I was studying a nearly 400-year-old map in the Bodleian Library when I discovered it was actually a map of Chinese trade routes. The Bodleian Library knew they had the map, but no modern scholars ever made the connection that the map actually documented Chinese trade routes.”

While the map will prove invaluable to researchers who want to study Chinese shipping and trade history, Batchelor thinks the discovery also paves the way for a modern dialogue about China’s relationship with the U.S. and other countries.

“Many people don’t realize that South Georgia’s relationship with China goes back to at least the 1760s when Henry Yonge planted the first soybean crop in North America in Savannah with seeds brought from China. It’s important to think like early Americans and merchant Chinese – reaching out to build relationships rather than walls,” said Batchelor.

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