Maps, Poems, and the Power of Representation
Zhang Longxi (張隆溪教授)
On a chilly day in the autumn of the year 228 B.C., Jing Ke, the
famous assassin in ancient China, approached the King of the powerful
state of Qin in the palace at Xianyang, presenting to the King a
wooden box that contained the head of a renegade general whom the King
wanted dead or alive, and another box with a map of the fertile Dukang
area in the state of Yan. In a passage of breath-taking suspense and
action that has immortalized Jing Ke as the archetypal assassin and
tragic hero in Chinese imagination, the great historian Sima Qian
(145-90 B.C.) wrote:
Ke took the map and handed it over. The King unfolded the roll, and
when the roll of the map came to the end, a dagger suddenly appeared.
Ke held the King by the sleeve with his left hand, while his right
hand grabbed the dagger and started to move toward the King's chest.
Before he could reach it, however, the King was startled and rose up
so violently that he ripped off his sleeve. The King tried to draw his
sword, but the blade was long and firmly stored in the sheath. In that
moment of shock and chaos, he was unable to pull out the hard sword.
So Jing Ke chased the King, who fled by running around the pillars in
The rest of the story is known to almost every Chinese: Jing Ke failed
his mission and was killed, and several years later, in 221 B.C., the Kingdom
of Qin vanquished Yan and the other states to become the first unified
Empire in Chinese history. What is of particular interest for our purposes
here is the tremendous value obviously attached to the map of Yan, which
was so attractive to the King of Qin that by presenting this map, Jing
Ke could win the initial trust of the King to have an audience with him
in person. Sima Qian did not describe that map in any detail, so it is
difficult to visualize what it would look like, but it is possible that
the map provided the state of Qin with valuable geographical information
that might have helped it in its conquest of Yan some years later. The
two things Jing Ke brought to the King - the map and the head of a renegade
general the King wanted to kill so badly - represented two vital elements
for gaining political power that the King desired most, namely the elimination
of internal enemies and the further expansion of his territory to the outside.
This famous episode of ancient history occurred in a time known as the
period of the Warring States. When war was the major business for a king
or prince, maps were valued mainly for the information they provided in
warfare and in conquest of new territories. "All those who command an
army must first of all examine and know the maps," as we read in a very
early text, the chapter on maps in the book of Guanzi. "Only when
one has the situation of a place, its ins and outs and all the intricacies
completely in one's mind, can one move the troops and attack cities. To
help one know what to do first and what next in action without ever losing
the advantage of one's own position: that is the unfailing efficacy of
In the famous Art of War, the great militarist thinker Sun Wu also
says: "The shape of the terrain is an aid in war. . . . He who knows this
will win the war, and he who does not know this will suffer defeat."
The importance of maps for military use is certainly not lost on Chinese
writers of literary fiction. In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms,
the most popular historical novel in traditional Chinese literature, there
is the episode of Zhang Song presenting to Liu Bei a map of Western Sichuan,
which was crucial for Liu Bei in gaining a foothold in the war of rival
forces and in the establishment of the Kingdom of Shu. When Zhang Song
urged Liu Bei to take control of Sichuan, Liu hesitated and said that it
was a notoriously difficult area to march into, but Zhang Song showed him
a detailed map and said: "Once you look at this map, it will take you
no more than one day to know all the roads in Sichuan."
Another episode in the same novel tells the story of a powerful labyrinth-like
trap set up by Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei's prime minister, the so-called ba
zheng tu or "Eight Formations Diagram." That is a huge maze made
of piles of stones in eight sections, and its name obviously refers to
some kind of a drawing or a map, according to which the maze was built.
These stone piles were described in mythological terms, for they were said
to form such an intimidating deterrence to the enemy that they were equal
to the force of "a hundred thousand fine soldiers."
Once the enemy general led his troops into this complex labyrinth, they
could never find the way out, and that certainly shows the power of the
map in military action.
From historical narratives and literary representations, then, we may
see that the value of maps is very much related to their power and military
use. This is not just the case in China, but also in the West. "Much of
the history of European cartography," as Jeremy Black argues, "centers
on its military rationale and application, and much of the cartography
was prepared under military aegis, or for military purposes."
Maps provide useful information not only about the space for the movement
of troops, but also about the location of enemy positions and distribution
of their forces. "Intelligence gathering was and is a central aspect of
the relationship between cartography and military concerns."
This may help us understand the importance and high value of maps as we
see in the historical and literary examples mentioned above. We may see,
then, that maps have a special relationship with power that is closer than
that of any other kind of graphic representations.
"If power is about space, spaces were created through the exercise
of power," Jeremy Black observes. "Cartography could be seen as central
to this process."
In European history, map-making has been related to the power of representation,
and cartography became not just a craft based on scientific observations
in the age of Columbus, but a popular motif in art and literature stimulated
by European discoveries and conquests in the sixteenth century. "Terrestrial
space was overcome by the sixteenth-century voyagers, who had already circumnavigated
the globe and were now seeking the north-east and north-west passages,"
as M. M. Mahood points out in discussing the poetic works of John Donne.
Writing in an age when new spaces were created through the exercise of
power and increasingly accurate mapping of the globe, Donne described how
quickly "On a round ball/A workman that hath copies by, can lay/An Europe,
Afrique, and an Asia."
There are many references to maps and cartography in John Donne's writings,
and anyone familiar with metaphysical poetry would know his famous conceit
that compares two lovers to a pair of compasses, an instrument indispensable
in map-making, as we see held in the hands of Vermeer's masterpiece, "The
Geographer." The soul of his love, Donne writes, is "the fixt foot"
that stays in the center, while the other foot obliquely circles around
till it eventually comes back to be reunited with his love at home.
These references to map-making clearly show that the discovery of the
New World and increased knowledge about hitherto unknown territories had
an impact on the entire sixteenth-century European society, and not just
the scholarly community of scientists and natural philosophers. It is therefore
not surprising that Donne, in a poem of seductive persuasion, would chart
the lover's body as a map of the newly discovered America in making this
Licence my roaving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! My new-found-land,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one
The new-found America symbolizes the mysteries of the unexplored virgin
or virgin land as well as the desire to take possession of the body as
a small world all its own. The map image here is of course based on the
idea of the human body as a microcosm corresponding to the universe as
a macrocosm, a traditional idea imbedded in the medieval scholastic cosmography
in which everything is related to everything else in the "Great Chain
of Being." But the effectiveness of the image certainly depends on the
power of maps that made the discovery of America an important event in
Europe at the time. Here perhaps we have a most telling image that illustrates
the relationship between maps and empires, knowledge and power, the excitement
of new discoveries and the desire of possession that led to the colonization
of the New World.
It would be a mistake, however, to fault John Donne for simply endorsing
the colonization of America and the control of the female body as a carnal
kind of colonization, for love is quite content, the poet argues, with
exploration of its own world rather than the conquest of the world at large.
Here the map of America is used as a contrast to the self-contained domain
of love rather than a comparison with the body as a
because love "makes one little roome, an every where," says the poet:
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let Maps to other, worlds on world have showne,
Let us possesse one world, each hath one, and is one.
Not only that, but Donne also compared his own body to a map in one
of his later poems written when he was sick and thought of dying. And this
time, the map image and the metaphor of discovery have implications quite
different from those as we saw earlier. The poet says:
- Whilst my physitians by their love are growne
- Cosmographers, and I their Mapp, who lie
- Flat on this bed, that by them may be showne
- That this is my South-west discoverie
- Per fretum febris, by these
streights to die.
The map and scientific exploration became prominent poetic topoi in
Donne's works because science and poetry - indeed, Scholarship and Beauty
as we have it in the title of our Colloquium - were not separate, and the
excitement of new discoveries made possible by the advancement of learning
fed the poet's imagination as it did the scientist's admiration of the
wonders in nature. In John Donne and the other sixteenth-century metaphysical
poets, as T. S. Eliot famously put it, "a dissociation of sensibility"
had not set in between the rational and the imaginative, and poetry still
integrated thought and feeling as one.
We can read the works of the great seventeenth-century poet John Milton
in the same spirit. As William Kerrigan comments, Milton's "is an intellectual
universe composed of theories, causes, explanations, arguments."
The nature of knowledge, both human and divine, is a major concern in Milton's
most important work, Paradise Lost, and in that connection we may
understand why he would describe the Angel Raphael as equipped with "the
Galileo," that is, the telescope, in surveying the "Imagin'd
Lands and Regions in the Moon."
Perhaps nothing can pay a greater tribute to the power of map-making than
Milton's depiction of the creation of the world, in which he portrays
the divine Creator in the image of a geographer or map-maker:
and in his hand
He took the golden Compasses, prepar'd
In God's Eternal store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created things.
One foot he centred, and the other turn'd
Round through the vast profundity obscure,
And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World.
Like the compasses and map-making in John Donne, Milton's imaginary
picture of the Son of God charting the world out of chaos by using a pair
of golden Compasses clearly indicates how powerfully such imagery of scientific
inventions must appear to sixteenth and seventeenth-century poets and their
Milton was fully aware of the scientific knowledge and inventions of
his time. At the beginning of Book VIII when the Angel Raphael discoursed
with Adam on astronomy, he implicitly raised questions about the Copernican
theory of the heavens as contrasted with that of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and
the medieval astronomers:
Whether the Sun predominant in Heav'n
Rise on the Earth, or Earth rise on the Sun,
Hee from the East his flaming road begin,
Or Shee from West her silent course advance.
In the end, the poet left the questions open, but, as a devout Christian
humanist, Milton discouraged the pursuit of such questions and had the
Angel admonish Adam not to think of things beyond his capacity to know,
because, says Raphael,
Heav'n is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise.
For poetic and religious purposes, Milton's universe remains traditional
and terracentric, and whatever admiration he might have for scientific
knowledge and the great inventions of his learned contemporaries, he subordinated
science to philosophy and Christian doctrine. The map of the world in his
poetic imagination also remains traditional, and he located China or Cathay
in that traditional map at the uttermost east. In Book XI, Milton mentioned
the Great Wall of China, "the destin'd Walls/Of Cambalu, seat
Cathaian Can," and also "Samarchand by Oxus,
Temir's Throne," and "Paquin of Sinaean Kings."
Knowledge about China in his time was still limited, as the geography of
the world was still understood largely in the biblical framework inherited
from the Christian Middle Ages. The medieval mappamundi, as Alessandro
Scafi observes, "was essentially a cartographic encyclopaedia. Its function
was to provide a visual synthesis of contemporary knowledge. The makers
of mappaemundi used texts and images to frame and display Christian
history and belief in a geographical setting." It is therefore pointless
to blame them for inaccuracies of representation since "geographical exactitude
was not the main objective of these maps."
An old European world map in the HKUST Special Collection originally published
in Hartman Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493 may serve as a
good example of the medieval mappamundi. In this map, the world
is divided among Noah's three sons, Japheth at the western corner, Sem
at the eastern corner, and Ham down in the south. The world in this map
hardly resembles the geographical shape as we recognize in later and more
precise maps, and the many illustrations, including seven fantastic figures
of barbarians and monsters painted in a column to the left, all provide
us with fascinating and valuable information of how the world was conceived
by European cartographers and their viewers before 1500. European world
maps changed significantly after 1500, which is a significant year that
marked, as Scafi asserts, "the shift from medieval to modern thinking,
from a holistic to a fragmented view of reality, from a mapping which sought
to penetrate the mystery of the whole universe beyond human boundaries
to a mapping which is contained strictly within the framework of analytical
thought and Euclidean geometry, and from cosmography to geography."
Perhaps we may see medieval mappaemundi as powerful in a different
sense, that is, they show the power of Christian ideology over the scientific
interest in geographical knowledge, and they become powerful means to create
a certain image of the world in the viewer's mind rather than representing
the world with any concern for cartographical precision.
Chinese maps before the sixteenth century and even long after show
a similar tendency to impose an ideological understanding of "All under
Heaven" upon the shape of the represented world. Although the Jesuit missionaries
brought to late Ming China Western map-making techniques and Matteo Ricci
made world maps that first showed China as one of many countries in the
world, geographical knowledge did not make appreciable advancement in China
till the very late nineteenth century. As Zou Zhenhuan observes in a recent
study, "Western geographical knowledge was disseminated in late Ming and
early Qing within limits of a very small circle of scholars and was far
from becoming part of the geographical common sense among the average Chinese."
Richard J. Smith also observes that "Chinese depictions of foreigners
and foreign lands prior to the twentieth century indicate a clear emphasis
on the 'cultural' and 'administrative' functions of maps and other
illustrations over their value as 'scientific' documents. . . . Until
forced to reconsider their craft by new political and cultural priorities,
Chinese map-makers and other illustrators tended to depict the world not
so much in terms of how it 'actually' was, but rather in terms of how
they wanted it to be."
We are all familiar with the consequences of such a Sinocentric view of
"All under Heaven" and therefore need not go into any detailed discussion
except to say that modern Chinese culture has been enriched to the extent
that it has stepped out of the shadow of this inadequate understanding
to a more informed view of the world not only in terms of geography, but
also in terms of culture and tradition.
In recent decades, maps and cartography have been put under scrutiny
in Western scholarship, a phenomenon Denis Cosgrove described as "a startling
explosion of academic, artistic and cultural interest in 'cartography'
as an object of critical attention."
In understanding the nature of map-making not as a mere compilation of
geographical information based on scientific observation and measurement,
but as a construction of knowledge tendentiously defined by cultural norms
and dominant ideologies, such critical scrutiny of maps has a close relationship
with the postmodern endeavor to deconstruct all Enlightenment categories
of truth, rationality and objectivity. Jeremy Black mentioned the works
of Brian Harley as exemplary of such postmodern revision that "saw maps
as essentially documents that contribute to the discourse of power," "as
a form of control, even surveillance."
The changed emphasis led to a different set of questions, and for Harley,
the focus was on "the morality of maps and the ethics of cartography."
A recent book by Denis Wood, The Power of Maps, offers yet another
example. Wood maintains that moral and political questions are more interesting
than scientific ones: "What is the significance of getting the area of
a state to a square millimeter," he asks, "when we can't count its population
Who cares if we can fix the location of Trump's Taj Mahal with centimeter
accuracy when what would be interesting would be the dollar value of the
flows from the communities in which its profits originate What is the
point of worrying about the generalization of roads on a transportation
map when what is required are bus routes Each of these windows is socially
selected, the view through them socially constrained no matter how transparent
the glass, the accuracy not in doubt, just . . . not an issue."
Well, is accuracy not an issue at all in maps Is the dollar amount the
only thing one cares about with regard to a big building
The disclosure of the ideological position and cultural content of
maps and map-making certainly has its value, but its findings are hardly
surprising or even intellectually interesting. In fact, as Jeremy Black
argues, such ideological determinism "suffered from a number of weaknesses,
including a tendency to state the obvious, a simplification of, and a failure
to understand the nature of, power systems, and a preference for style
over substance. pater les bourgeois might be fun - it certainly
gave life to lecture, or at least to lecturers - but it was, and is, strangely
With regard to maps and the geographical information they provide, and
to science in general, I would argue that they are valuable precisely for
their accuracy and usefulness. Here as in many other cases, knowledge is
power. Francis Bacon's famous remark has often been misinterpreted as
justifying control and hegemony, but the hegemony in Bacon's time was
religion or Christian theology, from which he sought to establish the legitimacy
of science and scientific exploration. Bacon often asserts that truth is
twofold, that religion teaches the higher truth of God, while science explores
the lesser truth of nature that is accessible to the necessarily limited
and finite human intellect. What this means, as Basil Willey argued long
ago, is that "Bacon's desire to separate religious truth and scientific
truth was in the interest of science, not of religion. He wishes to keep
science pure from religion."
Today, when science has become more predominant than religion, we may perhaps
better appreciate the human and spiritual truth of life that is not to
be exhausted by scientific methodology, but it would not be helpful to
discard scientific truth completely from an overly politicized ideological
position. A much more helpful attitude and much better balanced is to appreciate
both science and whatever is beyond science, both knowledge and imagination,
or again, as our Colloquium calls for - the appreciation of Scholarship
Zhang Longxi (張隆溪教授)
Chair Professor of Comparative Literature and Translation
& Director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies
City University of Hong Kong
Sima Qian司馬遷, Shi ji史記[The Great Historian's Records],
juan 86 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1959), pp. 2534-35.
Dai Wang戴望, Guanzi jiaozheng管子校正[Guanzi with Amendments],
Zhuzi jicheng諸子集成[Collection of Distinguished Philosophical
Works], 8 vols. (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1954), vol. 5, p. 159.
Cao Cao et al.曹操等, Sunzi shijia zhu孫子十家注[The
Art of War with Ten Commentaries], Zhuzi jicheng諸子集成[Collection
of Distinguished Philosophical Works], vol. 6, pp. 176, 177.
Luo Guanzhong羅貫中, Sanguo yanyi三國演義[The
Romance of the Three Kingdoms], eds. Shen Bojun沈伯俊and
Li Ye李燁(Chengdu: Bashu shushe, 1993), chapt. 60, pp. 604-05.
Ibid., chapt. 84, p. 854.
Jeremy Black, Maps and Politics (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), p. 147.
Ibid., p. 163.
Ibid., p. 18.
M. M. Mahood, Poetry and Humanism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970), p. 93.
John Donne, "A Valediction: of weeping," in Louis L. Martz (ed.),
English Seventeenth-Century Verse, vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), p. 59.
Ibid., "A Valediction: forbidding mourning," p. 88.
Ibid., Elegy 19, "Going to Bed," p. 38.
Ibid., "The Good-Morrow," p. 43.
Ibid., "Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse," p. 130. Per fretum febris:
fretum means both strait and raging heat (of fever), thus "through the straits
T. S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets," Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot,
ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), p. 64.
William Kerrigan, "Milton's place in intellectual history," in The
Cambridge Companion to Milton, ed. Dennis Danielson, 2nd
ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 255.
John Milton, Paradise Lost, V.261, in Complete Poems and Major
Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), p. 308.
Ibid., VII.224., p. 351.
Ibid., VIII.160, p. 366.
Ibid., VIII.172, pp. 366-67.
Ibid., XI.287, p. 441.
Alessandro Scafi, "Mapping Eden: Cartographies of the Earthly Paradise,"
in Mappings, ed. Denis Cosgrove (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), p. 63.
Ibid., p. 70.
Zou Zhenhuan鄒振環, Wan Qing xifang dilixue zai Zhongguo晚清西方地理學在中國[Western
Geography in late Qing China] (Shanghai: Shanghai guji, 2000), p. 13.
Richard J. Smith, Chinese Maps: Images of "All under Heaven" (Hong
Kong: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 78.
Denis Cosgrove, "Introduction" to Mappings, p. 3.
Black, Maps and Politics, p. 18.
Ibid., p. 19.
Denis Wood with John Fels, The Power of Maps (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 21.
Black, Maps and Politics, p. 23.
Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background: Studies in the Thought
of the Age in Relation to Poetry and Religion (New York: Doubleday
Anchor Books, n. d.), p. 37.