Selected for The Globe 100 Books in 2013.
A fascinating work of history, biography, cartography, and literary mystery, Mr Selden’s Map of China unlocks the secrets behind a recently discovered map of China like no other of its time.
In 1659, a vast and unusual map of China arrived in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It was bequeathed by John Selden, a London business lawyer, political activist, former convict, MP, and the city’s first Orientalist scholar. Largely ignored, it remained in the bowels of the library, until called up by an inquisitive reader. When Timothy Brook saw it in 2009, he realized that the Selden Map was “a puzzle that had to be solved”: an exceptional artefact so unsettlingly modern-looking it could almost be a forgery. But it was genuine, and what it has to tell us is astonishing. It shows China, not cut off from the world, but a participant in the embryonic networks of global trade that fuelled the rise of Europe — and now power China’s ascent. And it raises as many question as it answers: How did John Selden acquire it? Where did it come from? Who re-imagined the world in this way and, most importantly, what can it tell us about the world at that time?
Like a cartographic detective, award-winning author and historian Timothy Brook has provided answers. From the Gobi Desert to the Philippines, from Java to Tibet, and into China itself, Brook uses the map to tease out the varied elements that defined this crucial period in China’s history.
Historian Brook (Vermeer's Hat) offers the definitive study of the singular Selden Map, an archived and forgotten enigma thought to be from the Ming era. Unexplored prior to this book, the Chinese map is named for 17th-century historian John Selden, who, though unable to decipher its characters, donated the map to Oxford out of his "passion to ensure the survival of knowledge." Brook continues this tradition of scholarly passion with a methodical analysis, exploring the map's anachronisms, its stunning accuracy for the time, and its emphasis on sea routes. These features are explained through histories of the complex trade relationship between East and West in the 17th century. Ironically, the map was of little practical function; it passed quickly from use and into storage, and was made redundant by improved maps that were created only a few decades later making its accuracy "now purely of historical interest." While Brook finds the Selden Map to be the key to a wide range of historic insights, the cascade of names, dates, linguistic analysis, and maritime policy may be daunting for the casual reader. The scholar, however, will appreciate the level of detail, breadth of analysis, and ingenuity in Brook's ability to expound such a wealth of history from a single document.