Sun, Aug 05, 2001 - Page 17 News List

Filling in the blanks on Taiwan's map

Making maps of Taiwan has taken centuries, having been held by indifference on the part of colonial powers, China and more recently, the military, which has closely guarded all materials on the island's topography

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

A Japanese map from the early 20th century shows a panoramic view of the northeastern coast of Taiwan. The Japanese colonial administration in Taiwan undertook comprehensive mapping of Taiwan at the turn of the last century.


When a story about the formation of Taiwan's first map-collectors' club hit the pages of local newspapers last month, the club's founder, Wei Te-wen (魏德文), was not amused. In fact, he felt quite insulted by the brief article.

As general manager of SMC Publishing (南天書局), one of Taiwan's leading publishers of geographical and historical books, Wei has built up a significant collection of historical maps and charts over the years. Along with 20 other map enthusiasts, he founded the club to promote the beauty, the historical significance and, more importantly, the everyday use of maps.

Instead of focusing on any of these issues, however, the offending newspaper article concerned itself with the monetary value of many of the maps and charts. The report gave great play to the fact that some of the Antique Map Club's (古地圖俱樂部) members had reportedly amassed collections of over 1,000 valuable charts and that others had paid over NT$300,000 for a single map.

Wei and the geographers, scholars, teachers and students in the map-collectors' club felt the article had completely missed the mark. They insist the club's aim is to elevate the understanding of maps and increase people's awareness of their usefulness, and not an eccentric, pricey hobby.

Wei believes that underexposure to maps and their usage is one of the reasons a large number of people in Taiwan are directionally challenged. According to Wei it's not uncommon for people to be unaware in which direction north, south, east or west lie in relation to their present location.

"It's safe to say that Taiwan is a nation unable to read maps. If I went to Roosevelt Road and asked a dozen or so people directions only one or two would be able to tell me which way I need to go," says Wei.

"And even then, hardly anyone would use north, south, east or west in their explanations."

According to Tang Chia-ching (唐家慶) of the Chinese Taipei Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (中華民國航空測量及遙感探測學會), one of the main reasons behind many people's map illiteracy has to do with the 40-year era of martial law. It wasn't until 1987 that the data to enable private individuals and companies to pursue cartographic publishing were made available to the public. Photographs from aerial surveys and satellites had until that time been guarded closely by Taiwan's military.

"Map reading was never taught in schools, and the geography that was taught in school was about China rather than Taiwan. I'd say over 80 percent of what was taught in schools had nothing to do with Taiwan until the late 1980s when Taiwan's geography was included on the curriculum," Tang said.

Lien Feng-tsong (連鋒宗), chief editor of at the Sun River Culture & Map publishing house (大河文化), agreed with Tang's assessment that martial-law policies were the main culprit behind the lack of interest and knowledge of maps. But Lien also feels that recent geographical phenomena in Taiwan have contributed to greater interest in the nation's geography.

"It might sound grim, but after the 921 earthquake a lot more students began to take an active interest in geography," states Lien. "And it's not just the earthquake. When typhoons hit, interest rises and so on. It's as if it takes forces of nature to get people interested in the environment and the place in which they live, rather than people having a natural interest in the place they live."

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