A work of exuberant scholarship radiates from a map of China bequeathed to Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1659.
Brook’s (History/Univ. of British Columbia; The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, 2010, etc.) mentor was the legendary “English historian of Chinese science” Joseph Needham, and Brook creates an intriguing intellectual detective story around a map that the author was summoned to examine several years ago. Evidently the work of a Chinese cartographer, it was an enormous and beautifully wrought map that just didn’t fit with the usual work of the Ming period and thus puzzled scholars. It centered on the South China Sea, rather than the landmass of China, and it was strikingly accurate in terms of modern proportions and coordinates. Tracking down the English lawyer John Selden, who had left the map to the library upon his death as part of an enormous donation of books and manuscripts, yielded the writings of this brilliant 17th-century scholar who was embroiled in the raging debates of the day over free trade and the rights of citizens versus sovereignty of the king. Brook works backward in uncovering the provenance of the map, from the first Chinese scholar at Oxford, Michael Shen, encouraged as part of the passion generated for Oriental languages by Selden and others; to the East India Company commander John Saris, who traded in Asian goods and probably brought the map to England as payment of a debt; to the strange and wonderful Chinese characters and symbols on the map itself, which reveal it to be a sophisticated charting of sea routes by a canny cartographer with some acquaintance of European maps and of Southeast maritime trading.
An infectious, satisfying exercise in intellectual doggedness.