TALK POSTPONED: The Wor(l)d Itself: The Language of Mapping China


The modern study of cartography in China has been substantially defined, in shorthand, by the tension between Joseph Needham vs. Cordell Yee: on the one hand, a scientific positivism that takes mathematical and geographic accuracy as the primary metric of analysis, and on the other, efforts to introduce humanistic perspectives and expand the vocabulary with which maps in China are described, particularly through attention to ‘picture-maps’. While both add importantly to our understanding of cartography in China, they also share certain limitations, most particularly a neglect of the map itself and of the world it purports to describe.

This paper, which comes from early research for a new book, builds on this earlier work while seeking an alternative way forward rooted in methods drawn from art history, landscape studies and cultural geography. Taking the language of maps and mapping, and particularly the word tu 圖, as its starting point, the paper explores what maps ostensibly depict ‒ not just the world as it is, but the world as people individually and collectively imagine it to be. Building on notions of visuality, materiality, and representation, maps may be framed in new ways: as the pictorial expression of human interpretations of the world and material evidence of how we mediate between ourselves and the world around us. The questions raised by this approach are applied here to explore a new framework for the history of mapping China.

Dr Stephen Whiteman is Reader in the Art and Architecture of China at the Courtauld Institute of Art. A specialist in the spatial and visual cultures of early modern and modern China and Southeast Asia, he is author and editor of eight volumes, including Where Dragon Veins Meet: The Kangxi Emperor and His Estate at Rehe (UWP, 2020) and Landscape and Authority in the Early Modern World (Penn, 2023). He was a Visiting Fellow at the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, in 2022 and will be a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow in 2023–2024.