Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Short History of Cartography in China

Cartography is naturally an ancient art in China. However, it has gone through numerous changes and has experienced ancient and modern high points.

The first "great" Chinese cartographer/geographer was Zhang Heng. Zhang made a series of star maps, understood the world was round, and the Earth revolved around the Sun. For physical geographers he is known for His most important contribution to cartography was the invention of the grid system. The grid system introduced mathematical precision which made cartography a science.

The golden age of Chinese cartography has its genesis from Pei Xiu. Pei (AD 244-271) worked for the Kingdom of Wei and the Jin Dynasty and while at these posts he standardized Chinese map making. Pei's cartographic style called for standard symbolizations and extremely high detail. But the key signature of ancient Chinese cartography was the grid system it was based on. Each map specified length of sides of squares thus establishing a scale. In turn Pei designed maps which could be combined to create larger maps. Right angles were used constantly in maps to make them orthogonal.

For a long time the Chinese led the way cartography making star maps, maps made by govenors for tax purposes, and navigational maps. Ancient China was much more advanced than the Roman Empire and Persia at the time. Sadly many of the Chinese's regional and "world" maps were lost during the isolationist time. The Emperor's then thought there was no need to concern themselves with the barbarian world. Collections of ancient Chinese maps do exist though and some are online. For a more detailed history of pre and post-Pei cartography one can read the article The Han Maps and Early Chinese Cartography (JSTOR access required).

Today is another high point of map creation in China but to call it another golden age is extremely controversial. The People's Republic of China is leading the pack with GIS technicians creating maps for engineering, construction, and military purposes. The artistic side is gone with very few conventional maps coming out of China. The humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has blasted the Chinese educational and geographical system for creating engineers who do not understand things spatially (thoughts that mirror Catholicgauze's).

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