Maps of China

Two maps of Shanghai hang on the walls of my study. One is an 1875 reproduction. Frenchtown curls around the Chinese City while the International Settlement sprawls on top.

My map of Shanghai

The other map is handmade, enlarged so that it covers my bulletin board. I’ve superimposed the names of the past onto the streets of the present. It’s a mind map into my novels, The Shanghai Quartet.

You can use maps for more than finding the way. China, for example, weaponizes its maps.

century of humiliation

humiliation maps
Image source:

The idea of maps as weapons starts with China’s Century of Humiliation. In 1839, the British sent gunboats up the Yangtze River to force China to open its markets to trade. The First Opium War, according to China analyst Alison Kaufman,

marked China’s first sustained exposure to the West, and highlighted imperial China’s military and diplomatic weakness in the face of Western power.

The shock to the Chinese worldview cannot be overestimated.

Those shock waves reverberate well into the present. The Chinese Communist Party is seen as

the only modern Chinese political party that was able to successfully stand up to foreign aggression.

Moreover, the losses suffered during the Century of Humiliation – territory, control and international standing – have yet to be rectified.

historical maps

Loss of territory is where the sensitive subject of maps arises. Since the heyday of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), China has reasserted its control over Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. But there is more work to be done. Kaufman asserts:

the view is nearly unanimous that the losses of the Century of Humiliation will not be fully rectified until Taiwan is returned to the mainland. 

In 2014, Angela Merkel gave a map of China to Xi Jinping. It was an antique, printed in 1735 and drawn by the French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville. As Rachel Lu of the Sydney Morning Herald reported: the map was historically accurate but politically all wrong.

that is, the Chinese heartland mostly populated by ethnic Han people, without Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, or Manchuria. The islands of Taiwan and Hainan — the latter clearly part of modern China, the former very much disputed — are shown with a different colour border.

Xi was not amused. Nor was China’s official media outlet. But rather than express outrage

The People’s Daily, which has given meticulous accounts of Xi’s European tour, elided any coverage of the offending map.

Then things got weird. Two different maps circulated online. The new map showed China at its zenith

including Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and large swaths of Siberia. This larger map was the handiwork of British mapmaker John Dower, published in 1844 by Henry Teesdale & Co. in London, and was certainly not the gift from Merkel to Xi. But this mistake was not noted or explained in Chinese reports.

modern maps

All this might be an amusing anecdote but for other, less entertaining, adventures with maps. According to Louisa Lim of the Little Red Podcast, non-Chinese academics are being pressured

to ensure their maps show territorial boundaries which align with Beijing’s worldview. 

Problems with maps arise, of course, whenever depicting Taiwan as a sovereign state. But apparently there are also sensitivities regarding the border between China and India. Pressure comes in the form of student protests or anonymous harassment on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

But given the tiny readership of most academic journals, perhaps a few inaccurate maps won’t matter. John Zinda, an environmental sociologist at Cornell University, disagrees.

One of the key things here is that, as with any form of propaganda, if people see enough maps that represent Chinese territory as the Chinese state sees it, that becomes accepted more and more as common sense.

In the meantime, multinational corporations from Marriott, Zara, Qantas and Delta Airlines no longer list Hong Kong or Taiwan as countries on their websites.

nautical maps

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The South China Sea is a busy place. One third of the world’s maritime trade passes through. It is also the subject of completing territorial claims by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei.

The “nine-dash line” came into existence during the Republic of China (1912-1949). It’s not entirely clear whether those dashes are intended to show sovereignty, jurisdiction or some conflation thereof.

China expert Howard French reads the nine-dash line as China’s version of the Monroe Doctrine, an exclusive sphere of interest. Look at the construction of military outposts on islets in the South China Sea. Remember that it is China’s mission to recover territories lost during the Century of Humiliation. This is more than a debate among maritime lawyers.

The nine-dash line is now printed in the passports of Chinese citizens and stamped on globes manufactured in China and sold in American stores.

These are maps laying claims, both territorial and political.