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
The map is evidence that China’s current claim that the “[Spratly] Islands have been part of the territory of China since ancient times, and that it has indisputable sovereignty over them and their surrounding maritime areas,” is not so indisputable, after all.
In 2010, when a rare, full-sized original woodblock print of Ricci’s map was on display at the US Library of Congress, I jumped at the chance to view it. I noticed something peculiar.
It seems that, somewhere in its 400-year history, one key feature of this particular map was altered. Part of the legend reading “between the 15th and 42nd parallels” had been erased, with ocean patterns painted over the erasure. A clearer view of the same alteration can be seen on a digital version of the same map on the Web site of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota, where it is housed.
Whether this is a recent defacement done to obliterate evidence that China’s historical primacy in the South China Sea is a modern fiction, or an ancient one done to eliminate an error, is a subject for further research.
Who made the erasure? The provenance of the University of Minnesota map is not a matter of public record. In 2009, the library procured it from Daniel Crouch, a London-based antiquarian, for about US$1 million. Crouch says that he was fortunate enough to purchase it from a catalog of an auction — in China — from a “private Japanese collector.” That Japanese collector, Crouch said, had owned the map for 35 years, but about six years ago it wound up at auction “in China” where no one seemed to grasp its significance. Whether the map was physically “in China” when the map was auctioned is unclear.
Nonetheless, several other 16th century copies of the Ricci-Li map exist in Europe, South Korea and Japan, and all display the legend intact. A Qing Dynasty copy is at the Royal Geographic Society in London, also intact. Two other hand-drawn versions of the Ricci map are presumed to exist in China, one at the Nanjing Museum and one in the Liaoning Provincial Museum, but neither has been accessible to scholars outside of China for the last 70 years, perhaps because they are evidence of an inconvenient truth that China’s current rulers would rather suppress.
But it is clear evidence that Beijing’s 21st century claims that “the [Spratly] Islands have been part of the territory of China since ancient times” are unsupported in ancient maps owned and studied by China’s emperors themselves. Nor do Beijing’s claims have any foundation in modern international law, least of all in the UN Convention on Law of the Sea to which Beijing is a contracting party. Without a basis in history or law, Beijing’s claims to maritime sovereignty over seas which carry US$5 trillion in international maritime commerce each year now rest solely on brute force.