Mr. Selden's Map of China
Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer
From the author of the award-winning Vermeer's Hat, a historical detective story decoding a long-forgotten link between seventeenth century Europe and China.
Timothy Brook's award-winning Vermeer's Hat unfolded the early history of globalization, using Vermeer's paintings to show how objects like beaver hats and porcelain bowls began to circulate around the world. Now he plumbs the mystery of a single artifact that offers new insights into global connections centuries old.
In 2009, an extraordinary map of China was discovered in Oxford's Bodleian Library-where it had first been deposited 350 years before, then stowed and forgotten for nearly a century. Neither historians of China nor cartography experts had ever seen anything like it. It was so odd that experts would have declared it a fake-yet records confirmed it had been delivered to Oxford in 1659. The "Selden Map," as it is known, was a puzzle that needing solving.
Brook, a historian of China, set out to explore the riddle. His investigation will lead readers around this elegant, enigmatic work of art, and from the heart of China, via the Southern Ocean, to the court of King James II. In the story of Selden's map, he reveals for us the surprising links between an English scholar and merchants half a world away, and offers novel insights into the power and meaning that a single map can hold. Brook delivers the same anecdote-rich narrative, intriguing characters, and unexpected historical connections that made Vermeer's Hat an instant classic.
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.