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Abraham Ortelius: Chinae

Map: SEAS5165
Cartographer: Abraham Ortelius
Title: Chinae
Date: 1584
Published: Antwerp
Width: 19 inches / 49 cm
Height: 15 inches / 39 cm
Map ref: SEAS5165
This map of China by Abraham Ortelius bears several distinctions. It is the first map of China in an European atlas. It is the first European map to focus on China and the most accurate map of the country known to that time. It bears the first European representation of the Great Wall of China.

Ortelius’s acquisition of the map was complicated. The map is attributed to the Portuguese Jesuit Ludovico Giorgio or Luiz Jorge de Barbuda. Although the map first appears in the atlas in 1584, Ortelius already includes Giorgio on his list of contributors in 1579, with the note that he is expecting a map of China by him. In 1580, the map finally arrived in Ortelius’s offices with the help of Benito Arias Montanus, a great friend of the cartographer as well as the editor of the Polyglot Bible. Montanus was a Benedictine priest and also known to Philip II of Spain, which may have helped in the acquisition of the map from such a secretive source.

There are multiple fascinating details within the map. One of the most striking features is the network or rivers and canals present in the country, making the landscape look almost like an archipelago. This is exaggerated by the artificial narrowing between the east coast and western border. It is also impossible to tell which of these waterways are rivers and which are canals although there are records that China had an extensive network of canals, described in great detail by Marco Polo. The northern section of the map, or on the right, shows a section of Great Wall. The west or top shows a large lake, which previously was erroneously thought to have been Lake Baikal. It has a small panel of explanatory text above it. John Speed, in his version of this map in 1627 has helpfully translated this panel into English, stating that it refers to a great deluge in 1557 which drowned several settlements and caused a great deal of damage. This is most likely a reference to the great Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556, which is still believed to be the deadliest earthquake recorded in history and caused huge floods and earth displacement as well as enormous loss of life. It is certainly possible, in fact likely, that such as major natural disaster would have left a huge lake in its wake.

Outside the country, other features of note are the peculiar curved shape of Japan, which bears a resemblance to its portrayal on Portuguese portolan charts and the presence of the mythical Lake Chiamay, the “mother of rivers” a supposed enormous lake in the upper regions of modern Myanmar which was the source of the great rivers of South East Asia. This lake first appeared on Ramusio’s map of South East Asia in 1554.

Aesthetically, this is considered one of Ortelius’s strongest maps, with multiple images of sailing wagons as described by Marco Polo and the seas embellished with ships and monsters. Several tents are present in the north, beyond the Great Wall.

There were several updates to this map between 1584 and 1612, with the most notable being the addition of the name “Las Philippinas” above the “Sinus Magnus” in 1587. It appeared in all Ortelius editions between those years and even more importantly, became the standard template for maps of China until a new Jesuit survey by Martino Martini was published by Joan Blaeu in 1655.

This is the first edition of the plate from 1584, lacking the name “Las Philippinas” on the left of the sheet. Original hand colour. [Marcel ven den Broecke: "Ortelius Atlas Maps, An Illustrated Guide" (2nd Edition): Ort 164] [SEAS5165]