Mon, Jun 27, 2016 - Page 12 News List

The Emperor’s Mysterious Map and the South China Sea

Is China censoring ancient clues to the secret history of the Spratly Islands?

By John J. Tkacik  /  Contributing reporter

A portion of an original 1602 Ricci Map at the University of Minnesota that has the legend about the Ming Empire’s borders erased.

Photo courtesy of John J. Tkacik

Within the imperial chambers of the Wanli Emperor (萬曆), sovereign of the Ming Dynasty from 1563 to 1620, could be found an encyclopedic work of cartographic craftsmanship unlike anything existing in Europe.

It was a multicolored world map mounted on a six-paneled folding screen, taller than a man and twice that in width, which transfixed the emperor with the revelation that his own empire, vast as it was, was nevertheless a minor portion of all under heaven. It was said that the emperor himself frequently studied it with intense curiosity and ordered 12 more full-size copies for the palace.


The giant map was entitled Comprehensive Chart of the Myriad Lands upon the Foundation of the Earth (坤輿萬國全圖) and depicted a world 20 times more expansive than the emperor had ever imagined. It bore over 850 place names and minutely scripted legends for each kingdom, island and continent. It featured latitude and longitude lines identifying their locations on the spherical Earth.

In the map quadrant encompassing what we now know as the South China Sea was the legend, “The Great Ming is renowned for the richness of its civilization. It comprises all between the 15th and 42nd parallels. The other tributary realms of the four seas are very numerous.”

During the late Ming, the northern borders of the empire stopped at the 42nd parallel along the Great Wall that protected China from northern tribes. In the south, the empire ended at the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) on the 15th parallel in the South China Sea, beyond which were the Ming vassal kingdoms of Southeast Asia.

The map was the collaborative work between an Italian Jesuit missionary in Beijing, Matteo Ricci, and a famed Chinese geographer, Li Wocun (李我存). Li compiled the data points for Ming territories, while Ricci filled in the rest of the world and combined European and Chinese geographic knowledge for the first time in Chinese or in any language.

While the Ricci-Li world maps were famous among Ming officials of the era, Ricci was hesitant to present one to the imperial court.

He reported in his Commentary on China that “the [Jesuit] fathers had never given a copy of the map to the [emperor], nor proffered to do so, lest he, seeing China — which according to the Chinese included the greater part of the world — so small, should be offended, thinking that our people had shown it thus in contempt, such, indeed, being the belief of many Chinese men of letters, who made [com]plaint against us, saying that we enlarged our foreign kingdoms, but made China appear small.”

But such was not the case. Indeed, the emperor was “gratified with the sight of such a fine work, with so many kingdoms and their various strange customs.” Ricci writes that in fact the Emperor “was so pleased with it that he wanted to present a copy of it [on silk] to each of his sons, and other relatives residing in the palace, so that they could hang them up on the walls, by way of pleasant ornamental decoration.”

Ricci reported to the Jesuit Provincial in Macao that “the Fathers were at fault in their fears, because the [emperor] himself, in keeping with his customary good judgment, had no idea that his kingdom would suffer any disparagement by revelation of the truth.”


Ricci’s map is precise documentation that in 1608, Ming sovereignty stretched only as far south as the Paracel Islands. The Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) , a chain of rocks, reefs and sandbars known then as the “Long Sandbanks of Ten-thousand Li” (萬里長沙), however, lay yet another 500km beyond Ming waters, south of the 12th parallel.

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