Jul/Aug 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

Mr. Selden's Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer

Review by Ann Skea

Mr. Selden's Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer.
Timothy Brook.
Profile Books. 2014. 211 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78125 038 9.

When, in 1654, John Selden bequeathed his large collection of books and manuscripts to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, his "Mapp of China" was the only item he mentioned by name. It is not known how or when he acquired this old Chinese map, but in 1618 when he was writing "Mare Clausum," his legal treatise on the ownership of the sea, this map was the most accurate chart of the South China Sea in existence. By 1640, however, its value had leached away. And by the 18th century it was regarded as an Asian curiosity and displayed on a staircase wall in Oxford University's Anatomy School alongside the tattooed skin of a Pacific Islander named Giolo. Then it was rolled up, packed into a box, and sent to the basement stacks, where it lay forgotten for almost a century.

In 2008, an American historian of the British Empire noticed the map's entry in the library catalogue and called it up. Alerted by a librarian to something of interest in his own field of studies, Timothy Brook found himself looking at a large, very old, beautifully decorated Chinese paper map. It was totally unlike any other Chinese map he had ever seen. It was "perfect," but "it was all wrong."

Brook was fascinated by this strange map and the questions it raised, so he set about exploring not only its origins and purpose but also the secrets it contained. Along the way, he delved into the European and Chinese history surrounding it and the lives of the many people associated with it. This ambitious project took Brook into unexpected places and involved history, law, politics, science, biography, cartography, and (bringing the possible importance of the map up-to-date) a discussion of present-day Chinese claims over disputed territories in the South China Sea. In the handling of all these different aspects, he needed to be almost as much of a polymath as John Selden clearly was.

Some will find all of Brook's findings fascinating, and his style is easy-going and often personal. He has, as he says at the end of the book, written himself into the story of the map. For me, however, there were too many extensive excursions into historical events surrounding people remotely linked to the map and too many details of the lives of their relatives, and my interest often flagged.

Brook admits that his journey of exploration was more "convoluted and complicated" than he expected when he set out: "a circling maze rather than a straight path." "Perhaps," he writes, mixing his metaphors, it was like those many historical expeditions that got lost at sea, and his own ship "hasn't quite made it to home port."

Perhaps he is being a too hard on himself. Other reviewers have thoroughly enjoyed the book and not had the difficulties I had. Certainly, the map still keeps some of its secrets, but it is an interesting and curious object. The end papers of the book show part of the map, and it is delicately colored and beautifully decorated with Chinese mountains, trees, and flowers. I wish the full reproduction of it in the book were larger so that Brook's favorite illustration—two tiny butterflies in the Gobi Desert—could be easily seen. John Selden, too, is a man whose life was full of drama, and who lived in what the Chinese curse would define as "interesting times." His extensive knowledge and his many important achievements were, and still are, worthy of recognition.


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