Charting the Actual and Imagined - the History of Cartograph

Natural History, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Charting the Actual and Imagined - the History of Cartograph


In May of 1977, geographers Brian Harley and David Woodward were strolling through the English countryside, discussing a collaboration on the mapping of North America. But as they walked and talked, they began to plan a work of even greater scope-a comprehensive history of worldwide mapping from prehistoric times to our century.

Under their joint editorship, two volumes of The History of Cartography are now in print, with at least four more to come. Their international team of scholars has already appraised for us an extraordinary range of cartographic artifacts, from Neolithic wall paintings to the globes, maps, and diagrams of the ancient Mediterranean and medieval European worlds to the dazzling variety of cartographic accomplishments in Islamic and Asian societies. Future volumes will include the brilliant works of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; cartographic enterprise in the age of expansion and the nineteenth century; and the technological innovations of our time, including, no doubt, satellite and GIS (Geographical Information Systems) imagery.

What do all these artifacts have in common? More simply put, what is a map? Historians of cartography have had to choose between a narrow view, in which faithfulness to the earth's surface is of primary importance, and a liberal view, which, in contrast, regards a map as any attempt to picture the spatial qualities of the world, actual or imagined. The narrow view is heavily Western, with an emphasis on progress toward systematic measurement and precision. The liberal view emphasizes the multiplicity of styles, incommensurate as to purpose, hence not to be ranked on a uniform scale of achievement.

Unlike earlier historians of cartography, Harley and Woodward have wholeheartedly embraced the liberal view.

China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Southeast Asia are the five areas covered in this volume. Of these, Southeast Asia's cartographic artifacts are the most heterogeneous. The area as a whole can hardly be said to have a cartographic tradition. Maps, for instance, bear little similarity to one another even when they come from the same Malay world. Moreover, parts of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Laos, and Cambodia, have not yielded a single premodern noncosmographic map. Writing a coherent chapter on Southeast Asian cartography is therefore a special challenge, one that its author, Joseph Schwartzberg, gallantly tries to meet.

Tibet presents another kind of challenge. A rich cartographic tradition does indeed exist there, but only if one assumes an exceptionally broad understanding of a map. The innumerable mandalas and the chortens (shrines for the housing of reliquaries) can be included in Tibet's cartographic heritage, for they may all be viewed as attempts to envisage and reproduce the Buddhist cosmos, often in a highly schematic manner. Paintings that illustrate Tibetan works of mythology and hagiography are not maps in any sense, yet they, too, furnish maplike components and scenes if one searches hard enough.

The dominant role of religion in Tibet's cultural heritage, which is a distillation of Hindu and Chinese civilizations in almost equal parts, makes the customs and artifacts of that country, including maps, highly distinctive. Mapmaking in Korea and Japan is more mainstream, being part of a large cartographic realm that has China at its historical core. However, despite strong Chinese influence, Korea and Japan have developed their own mapping traditions.

Korea's form of government became highly centralized, after the Chinese model, during the Korea dynasty, from A.D. 918 to 1392. Such centralization necessitated detailed knowledge of local units, including the sort of information best displayed on maps. Moreover, this was a time when the Koreans, even more than the Chinese, were enamored of geomancy, or divination by means of the earth's configuration. The geomagnetic analysis of site and location at different scales required mapping skills. …

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