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"Tartary" from Marco Polo to the Enlightenment

Tartary from Marco Polo to the Enlightenment

  • Date: 26 May 2016 – 28 February, 2017
  • Venue: Special Collections Gallery, 1/F, HKUST Library
  • Opening Hours: Monday – Friday: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm; Saturday, Sunday and public holidays: closed

The unique hand colored maps and antique books from the Library Special Collections displayed in this exhibition offer different stunning visions of China and Central Asia spanning three hundred years of European cartography (15th to 18th centuries), from fabulous dog-headed monsters to maps so precise they can be hardly improved upon by modern GIS.

When Marco Polo (1254-1324) went to China, he did not have maps to guide him, just the received knowledge of travellers and old tales from antiquity. At that time, the Silk Road was under the control of the Mongols (known in Europe as “Tartars”). Central Asia and Northern China (Cathay) were therefore known as “Tartary”. When the Mongol empire collapsed in the late 1300s and the Silk Road was blocked, no new information went to Europe for centuries: Europe’s oldest printed maps, dating from the early 1500s show “Tartary” inhabited by monsters and with the Great Khan Kublai (1215-1294) still in command.

When the first Portuguese travellers came to southern China by sea in the 1520s, they followed Marco Polo in calling it “Mangi”. It took the Europeans two more generations to establish that Mangi and Cathay referred to just one country: China. It took them even longer to draw maps that resembled China’s real shape and reflected its native names.

At the eastern and northern borders of European maps of China, though, the names from antiquity and from Marco Polo were still used for centuries; and almost any land from Russia to China was still labelled as unknown Tartary.

Only in the 1700s, with the new scientific approach to exploration and the freer circulation of knowledge, did European cartographers stop using the term “Tartary”. This happened when the Kangxi Emperor (reigned 1661-1722) ordered a detailed survey of his empire, helped by Jesuit scientists, who covertly sent the resulting maps back to Europe, resulting in a large Atlas of “Greater China”. Thus, the “modern” era of western mapping of China was born.

Exhibition Highlights

Hartmann Schedel, 1440-1514 (German)
The second era of the world (1493)

The second era of the world

Sebastian Munster, 1489-1552 (German)
Map of Asia VIII: Scythia beyond the Imaus (1540)

Map of Asia VIII

Abraham Ortelius, 1527-1598 (Flemish)
Map of Tartary, or The Kingdom of the Great Khan (1570)

Map of Tartary

Abraham Ortelius, 1527-1598 (Flemish)
Luis Jorge de Barbuda, fl. 1575-1599 (Portuguese)
A new representation of China, once called the region of the Chinese (1584)

A new representation of China

Jodocus Hondius, 1563-1612 (Dutch)
Tartary (1609)


Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville, 1697-1782 (French)
Most general map of China comprising China, Chinese Tartary and Tibet (1737)

D'Anville Map of China