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Rachel Lu

A Merkel, a Map, a Message to China?

oldmapofchinaOn March 28, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping at a dinner where they exchanged gifts. Merkel presented to Xi a 1735 map of China made by prolific French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville and printed by a German publishing house. According to an antique-maps website, d’Anville’s map was based on earlier geographical surveys done by Jesuit missionaries in China and represented the “summation of European knowledge on China in the 18th-century.” The map showed, according to its original Latin caption, the so-called “China Proper” — that is, the Chinese heartland mostly populated by ethnic Han people, without Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, or Manchuria. The islands of Taiwan and Hainan — the latter clearly part of modern China, the former very much disputed — are shown with a different color border.

Historical maps are sensitive business in China. Every schoolchild in China learns that TibetXinjiangTaiwan, and the Diaoyu Islands have been “inalienable parts of China since ancient times.” The d’Anville map, at least visually, is a rejection of that narrative. Unsurprisingly, China’s official media outlets don’t seem to have appreciated Merkel’s gift. The People’s Daily, which has given meticulous accounts of Xi’s European tour, elided any coverage of the offending map. More curiously, when news of the map’s presentation reached the Chinese heartland, it had somehow morphed into a completely different one. A map published in many Chinese-language media reports about Merkel’s gift-giving shows the Chinese empire at its territorial zenith, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and large swaths of Siberia. This larger map was the handiwork of British mapmaker John Dower, published in 1844 by Henry Teesdale & Co. in London, and was certainly not the gift from Merkel to Xi. But this mistake was not noted or explained in Chinese reports.

Both versions of the Merkel map have made appearances on Chinese social media, eliciting vastly different interpretations. Those who saw the d’Anville map seemed shocked by its limited territories. Hao Qian, a finance reporter, remarked that the map is “quite an awkward gift.” Writer Xiao Zheng blasted Merkel for trying to “legitimize the Tibet and Xinjiang independence movements.” Architect Liu Kun wrote, “The Germans definitely have ulterior motives.” One Internet user asked, “How is this possible? Where is Tibet, Xinjiang, the Northeast? How did Xi react?”

The Dower map, on the other hand, seemed to stoke collective nostalgia for large territories and imperial power. An advertising executive enthused, “Our ancestors are badass.” Another Internet user hoped Xi would feel “encouraged” by the map to “realize what a true re-emerge of China means.” Some suspected that Merkel tried to send Xi a subtle reminder that Russia had helped Mongolia declare independence from China in the mid-20th century, somewhat like what Russia did in Crimea in March 2014.

To be sure, the d’Anville map does not constitute a total contradiction of the Chinese government’s version of history. In 1735, the year when the Qianlong Emperor began his six-decade reign, his Qing empire’s military prowess was on the ascent. Qianlong quelled a rebellion by Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang, brought the Mongol tribes under closer rule, and appointed officials to oversee affairs in Tibet such as the selection of the Dalai Lama. In other words, Qianlong established the trappings of imperial control over these peripheral territories, which allowed later governments — the Republic of China, then the current People’s Republic of China — to claim sovereignty. Maps published by Western countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries vary in their presentations of Tibet and Xinjiang, but the Dower map is certainly not alone in showing Xinjiang and Tibet as parts of the Chinese empire.

All the cartographic brouhaha may be overblown. One Internet user refused to “overinterpret” the d’Anville map as a message about Tibet or Xinjiang. After all, “You can’t use a map of the 13 colonies of the United States made in 1776 to tell Americans that Texas or California is not U.S. territory.”

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.
  • MRMcCaffery

    Genius on Merkel’s part. The entire narrative fiction of ‘Greater China’ is so flimsily based as to be laughable, except when arrogant China engages in territorial bullying.
    Chinese are completely unaware of the true history of their country due to being cut off and censored. The west, and the rest of Asia should make it a point to blow away their house of cards through original documents and maps, such as the 1735 map from Merkel.

  • rsylianteng

    Claim is not a basis for ownership. Neither is “ancientness” the central issue. Today, we all live in a U.N. world and must abide by that body’s arbitration rules. Not to do so, would destabilize the world, with one race or religion after the others’ skin or neck.

  • Tom De Lima

    “Hao Qian, a finance reporter, remarked that the map is ‘quite an awkward gift.’ Writer Xiao Zheng blasted Merkel for trying to ‘legitimize the Tibet and Xinjiang independence movements.’ Architect Liu Kun wrote, ‘The Germans definitely have ulterior motives.’”
    Say whatever you like, blaming the means and ignoring the message, but THE TRUTH HURTS!

  • maribojoc

    there goes the historical argument spoused by the chinks which becomes their basis for claiming almost the entire west philippine sea.

  • toumanbeg

    Amusing but of no consequence. With the ‘World’s cop’ in full retreat, the criminals are coming out from under their rocks. We need to start a pool on which nation is the first to build nukes. S. Korea or Japan could have nuclear weapons within a month of deciding to build them. Considering that If the Ukraine had kept their nukes, Russia would not have invaded. I expect one of the Baltic states will be the first to nuke up.

    • http://www.noidiotsallowed.com/ Reptilian

      Nuking up is quite a drastic option. Even Russia would not dare threaten anyone with nukes at any point in the foreseeable future. The best weapons of today are economic power (for freeing themselves from Moscow’s grip on energy resources, for example) and non-traditional deterrent forces like light armor and advanced artillery (for when push comes to shove).

      • toumanbeg

        The problem with warfare, be it economic or kinetic, is that it seldom resolves anything. The best results one can expect are kicking the can down the road. Russia IS surrounded. ALL nations are in one way or another. National survival requires a nation learning to live with being surrounded.
        Russia has avoided that by expansion. Russia was surrounded before taking the Crimea, it is surrounded after taking Crimea. When Russia takes the Baltic states, it will still be surrounded. If Russia can conquer Europe, it will still be surrounded. So what’s the point?
        The Russian problem of cultural paranoia can only be solved by Russians. So isolate them and let them work it out on their own. A few centuries and they might have a rational civilization. Using nukes to isolate Russia will result in less loss of life then conventional war. Unless, of course, it gets out of hand. If that happens there will be no more Russians. Which resolves the Russian problem.
        It creates many new problems, which is why it’s not the preferred solution.

  • Trueth Revealleth

    “After all, “You can’t use a map of the 13 colonies of the United States made in 1776 to tell Americans that Texas or California is not U.S. territory.”
    U.S.A. admits it that is not from the start part of their territory and THEY TEACH THIS IS THEIR SCHOOL, and they are ACKNOWLEDGING this fact,
    WHILE CHINA TEACHES that from the start, other territories that it currently holds and tries to snatch are theirs from the start which this map, a clear evidence, disproves.

    They did modifications to the news such as using wrong maps to report on the public!