1418 Chinese World Map?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Recently (January 2006) a lot of interest has developed around a Chinese map that purportedly shows the Americas in detail. The text of the map says the map was drawn in 1763 but is a copy of a map from 1418. Not only does the map show the Isthmus of Panama accurately, it even shows what appears to be Antarctica. Needless to say, believers in ancient astronauts, Atlantis, and pre-Columbian global voyages by the Chinese are all a-twitter. So far, nobody has drifted into pseudoscience, but this map will probably achieve a status like the Piri Reis Map.

Above is a simplified version of the map traced from press photographs. Europe and Africa are on the far left, Asia left of center, and the Americas on the right.

First, what areas on the map are drawn with fair accuracy? Three areas stand out: Africa, Central America and Panama, and northern China. More crudely drawn but recognizable features include the Mediterranean, Hudson's Bay and the Bering Strait. Then there are a number of significant errors, omissions, and non-existent features as well.

So what parts of the world are shown so well that the provenance of the map is obvious? The surprising answer is that no part of the world is drawn with very high accuracy.

Above is the map with significant features located. In several cases, labels identify what some interpreters claim to see, and do not indicate that the identifications are correct.

China

Since the text on the map is Chinese, the map is obviously Chinese. Starting with China, the Shandong Peninsula (SP) and Korea (K) are obvious. They enclose the Gulf of Bohai. The Liao River (L) flows into the gulf and makes a sharp bend as shown, although it doesn't extend nearly as far west as the map indicates. The large river emptying north of Korea (A) could be the Amur.

Here's where it gets strange. The great square bend of the Huang He (H) is obvious and unmistakable. The Huang He has switched course repeatedly from north to south of the Shandong Peninsula, so having the mouth south of the peninsula instead of north like it is now is no problem. But the lower course of the Huang He, either side of the peninsula, is fairly straight. The zigzag bends shown (Y) are a nearly perfect match for the lower Yangtze, however.

One possibility is that the cartographer confused the two rivers, about equivalent to an American mixing up the Mississippi and the Rio Grande. Another is that the map dates from a time when the Huang He flowed in a southerly course, but even then the two rivers would have joined well downstream from the major bends in the Yangtze. At the very least, the Yangtze is a major artery of commerce in China and should at least be shown as a major tributary. The unidentified river emptying north of the Shandong Peninsula could be one of the rivers that carries the Huang He flow when it has a northerly course.

Further afield, we can recognize Japan (J), although it is crudely shown. Hainan (H) and Taiwan (T) are recognizable, and the large river emptying near Hainan could be either the Si Kiang or the Red River. Southeast Asia (SEA) is extremely crude as is Indonesia (Ind).

Altogether, China as represented on this map does not achieve the accuracy that the Chinese were perfectly capable of achieving long before 1418. The accuracy of the Gulf of Bohai and the disproportionately large size of that region on the map point pretty conclusively to the map being drawn by someone from northern China. But his knowledge even of Chinese geography once he gets far from home is shaky. Areas the Chinese would have known well, like Japan and Indonesia, are extremely crude. On the other hand, the possible Amur River, and the elongated island north of Japan (Sakhalin?) hint that the cartographer had unusually good awareness of areas immediately north of China. Might he have originally been Korean or Japanese?

Africa and Europe

The general shape of Africa is clearly visible, and major rivers like the Congo (C) and Orange (O) are identifiable. Madagascar (Mad) is represented. The large river in west Africa could be the Gambia (G) but possibly also the Niger. The Nile (N) has a correctly located mouth but is shown as only a minor river. There are no large rivers emptying from east Africa as shown on the map. The Red Sea (RS) is shown, but not the Persian Gulf! (Ar is Arabia) Certainly from their dealings with Arab traders the Chinese would have had accurate knowledge of the Indian Ocean and South Asia, but it is not represented on this map. India (In) is shown and the major river east of it is clearly the Ganges, but the Indus is not shown, nor is Ceylon. If the map used European information about Africa (using other maps than the 1418 source cited) it's odd that Ceylon isn't shown, considering how large Ceylon loomed in European fantasies.

Europe is crudely represented with vague hints of Italy and Greece. Three bodies of inland water are shown, which may be the Black Sea (BS), Caspian Sea (CS) and Aral Sea (AS). Britain and the Baltic are not shown, but there is a large non-existent island (1) west of Spain. The large south-flowing river (6) might be the Rhone.

The Americas

The only part of the Americas that is at all eye-catching for accuracy is the Isthmus of Panama (P). The large river emptying into a deep gulf is probably the St. Lawrence (SL). The other large river (M) might be the Mississippi although it could potentially be any major river. Neither the Gulf of Mexico nor Florida are shown, and the Caribbean islands are so vague as to be unidentifiable. The islands offshore (2) might refer to the Antilles. The large river (5) emptying into the Pacific is unknown. It could be the Sacramento or the Columbia, or even the Colorado. The large river (4) emptying out of the west coast of South America simply does not exist. Note, too, that the Amazon is not shown.

Often, it's not what someone gets right that's informative, but what he gets wrong. Baja California (BC) is shown as an island. Francisco de Ulloa finally showed Baja California was a peninsula in 1539, but well into the next century non-Spanish European maps persisted in showing California as an island. Below are two examples, both from the 1600's. The first is by John Speed, the second by Nicholas Sanson. Note that both show Hudson's Bay and some Arctic islands.

When someone presents accurate information, it may have been copied or derived independently. When the information makes the same mistakes as an inaccurate source, the case for copying becomes ironclad. The cartography on the Chinese map is so similar to the maps above that it simply screams "European source."

The large island between North America and Europe could well be Greenland (Gr). A large non-existent north polar land mass (3) is shown, although this could be a reference to Canadian Arctic islands. The large bay on the northern coast of North America is probably Hudson's Bay (HB).

Other Regions

"Australia" (Au), "New Zealand" (NZ) and "Antarctica" (An) are labeled. Even before European contact, the Chinese would probably have known of Australia. It would be hard for them not to. However, it's shown as a generic round land mass in mid-Pacific, with no cartographic accuracy at all. If the map accurately shows Antarctica (An), what are we to make of the imaginary land mass in the Arctic (3)?

The large river emptying into the Siberian arctic (7) could be the Ob or the Yenisei. The Chinese would certainly have known that rivers in Mongolia and Central Asia flow north, so hypothesizing such a river is not remarkable.

The gap between Asia and North America may or may not reflect knowledge of the Bering Strait. There are only two possible choices in drawing a map; they are either connected, or they are not. Early maps of the Americas showed it both ways. The fact that the Kamchatka Peninsula is completely missing casts serious doubt on the cartographer having any real geographic knowledge of this region.

With the exception of his home region of northern China, the cartographer's accuracy on inland features is zero. He fails to show the Indus or the Himalaya, or the bend in the Ganges. Mountains are scattered randomly with no correspondence at all to real ranges.

Conclusions

Let's assume the map genuinely dates from 1763 (not a modern fake) and incorporates data from earlier Chinese maps that may actually go back as far as 1418. However, let's also consider the possibility that the cartographer incorporated other data as well. He need not have been plagiarizing, but simply synthesizing all the geographic information he had available.


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Created 30 January 2006;  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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