Opinion of Dr. Gunnar Thompson Ph.D
1418 Chinese World Map—Discovery & Importance
Liu Gang has found a remarkable antique map that will revolutionize our thinking about 15th century world history. This map shows the entire world as it was understood by Chinese geographers following the early voyages of Admiral Zheng He. The continents, including North and South America, are shown in relative accuracy more than a century before European explorers were able to confirm their existence. It is now clear that Chinese world exploration not only inspired, it also guided the voyages of Renaissance Europeans from Prince Henry to Columbus.
Authenticity of the 1418 World Map
The document the Liu Gang purchased on the antique market in China looks authentic. It has the appearance of an antique map from the standpoint of having the sorts of fading, stains, frayed edges, and holes that we would expect from normal wear and deterioration on an authentic map. It contains text in Chinese indicating that the document is a copy of an original map that was produced in 1418 for the Ming emperor. The date that the copy took place is indicated as 1763; the copyist was Mo Yi Tong.
Even though the map was copied in the 18th century, it has all the morphological characteristics we would expect from an early 15th century map. We are immediately struck by the accuracy of the map with respect to the coastal shapes of Africa and Asia. Beginning with the Sung Dynasty in the 12th century, Chinese cartographers produced a map of the Asian coast that has greater accuracy than any map that Europeans produced prior to the 19th century. Furthermore, we know from extant Chinese and Japanese maps that Yuan Dynasty mariners were engaged in the mapping of Asia and Africa in the 13th century; and subsequently, their maps were improved by new information gained from merchant voyagers sailing on the Indian Ocean. The culmination of these mapping efforts resulted in the highly accurate shape of Africa on the DeVirga map of 1414.
Another marker of authenticity is the archaic portrayal of California Island along the West Coast of North America. Early Venetian maps by Sylvanus in 1511 and Bordone in 1528 show the mistaken concept of California as an island. I have credited this geographical misconception to the early and preliminary surveys of the Yuan Chinese and Marco Polo in the 13th century. I predicted that this island concept would be seen on early Ming maps of the same region; and this is precisely what we see on the 1418 map. Likewise, a caption beside the Island California on the 1418 map describes the natives of this region as “cannibals.” This is most likely a reflection of an ancient Japanese legend concerning the inhabitants of the eastern island of Rasetsukoku (that is, California).
The 1418 map contains several geographical mistakes that help to establish both its antiquity and authenticity. The map wrongly shows the “neck” of Africa at Suez and Cairo as being over a thousand miles wide. In fact, the actual distance is less than a hundred miles. This is the kind of error that a royal cartographer might have introduced due to his rather limited knowledge of the real navigational charts of Chinese admirals. We see this same mistake reflected in the Portuguese King’s Map (or Padrao) that Albert Cantino copied for an Italian duke in 1502. This is an indication that the Portuguese map was partially a copy of a Chinese prototype that was very similar to the 1418 map. Historic accounts confirm that Portuguese agents including Niccolo da Conti and Pero de Covilha traveled to the Indies in order to obtain Chinese secrets. So we can see from the cartographic record that Portuguese spies not only copied the accurate portions of Ming maps; they also copied the errors.
The East Coast of North America on the 1418 map is particularly misshapen. It lacks any clear indication of Hudson Bay, Labrador, Newfoundland, or Florida. In South America, only the main rivers on the West Coast are indicated; the Amazon and Plate Rivers are totally missing. The map includes a bottle-shaped gulf in the region of the Canadian Arctic. Mercator referred to this geographic feature on his 1569 map as the “Mare Dulce” (or sweet-water sea). This is probably a legacy of Marco Polo’s Arctic travels and a visit to Great Bear Lake in this region of Canada. We can thus summarize the 1418 Map as an incredibly advanced cartographic achievement for the early 15th century. Nevertheless, the format of the map is totally consistent with the level of knowledge that we should expect of royal Chinese geographers following the voyages of Zheng He.
The map includes four minor geographical features that might indicate a limited effort on the part of the royal cartographer to “update” the map. The map projection—consisting of two overlapped circles representing the Eastern and Western Hemispheres—is a technique that seems to have entered European cartography in the 16th century. Another apparent modification is the inclusion of four Polar Isles that seem to have been introduced into Renaissance cartography on the 1569 Mercator Map. Mercator mentioned that his source was a 14th century Dutch travel writer who mentioned that the concept was based on Roman legend. It is conceivable that Mo Yi Tong got the idea from equally ancient sources. The two bulges along the coast of South America on the Chinese map and the location of a large Pacific Isle that Mercator identified as “New Guinea” are further similarities between the 1763 copy of the Ming map and 16th century European maps. But this similarity might have resulted from Europeans borrowing from the Chinese. In any case, the Chinese map shows no significant diagnostic similarities to 18th century European charts that would indicate any significant borrowing from Europeans.
Importance of 1418 Map
As the oldest identified Ming world map, the 1418 Map is vital to our understanding of the important contributions that Admiral Zheng He made to the progress of world discovery and the science of geography. By comparing the 1418 map to the earlier Yuan Dynasty maps of Africa, Asia, and the coasts of the New World, we can document the unfolding knowledge of the world through the eyes of Chinese explorers. It is apparent from this map that Zheng He’s explorations and those of his subordinates were worldwide. We see this effort continued in the later Ming map called Shanhai Yudi Quantu (c. 1425-1430). Clearly, Zheng He’s mariners circumnavigated the globe.
Subsequently, European geographers borrowed from copies of the Chinese maps. We see portions of the 1418 map reflected in the Cantino (1502) and the Waldseemuller Map (1507) that were derived from Portuguese sources. And the historic accounts of Prince Pedro, Niccolo da Conti, and Pero de Covilha identify Chinese sources for their intelligence. This early access to accurate knowledge of world geography enabled the Portuguese to reach the Indies in 1498 ahead of all other European competition. Unfortunately for the rest of Europe, the Portuguese were very secretive about their foreign sources. They used a deceptive map by the agent Martin Behaim to mislead rivals into thinking that Cathay (or China) was situated directly west of Europe.
Liu Gang’s discovery is a vital piece to the puzzle of ancient history. He has found a map that fits neatly into the unfolding record of cartographic documents. Taken as a whole, these documents support the thesis of Gavin Menzies that the navies of Admiral Zheng He charted and navigated the whole world.
The Reviewer is one of the few scholars in the world who has focused entirely on multiethnic voyages to the New World before Columbus. He has written five books on ancient exploration and maps; and he has given formal presentations on early Chinese voyages and cartography before the Society for the History of Discoveries and most recently at the Library of Congress Zheng He Symposium, May 16, 2005. His book on Marco Polo’s secret voyages to the New World will be published in 2006.