Maps question China’s claims over Vietnamese islands

Two collections of Chinese maps dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries have been revealed by a Vietnamese historian, with neither of Vietnam’s Spratly or Paracel islands included in China’s territory

A map in the ‘Atlas von China’ (The Atlas of China) published by Germany-based Dietrich Reimer in Berlin in 1885

Two collections of Chinese maps dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries have been revealed by a Vietnamese historian, with neither of Vietnam’s Spratly or Paracel islands included in China’s territory.

The map collections have been kept at Harvard-Yenching Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the United States, and were recently uncovered by Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son, a Vietnamese historian who is deputy director at the Da Nang Institute for Socio-Economic Development.

Dr. Son had previously made trips to Yale University Library and the U.S. Library of Congress to collect proof of Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelagoes in the East Vietnam Sea.

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A map in the ‘Atlas von China’ (The Atlas of China) published by the Germany-based Dietrich Reimer publishing house in Berlin in 1885 (Click on photo to view full-size map). Photo: By courtesy of Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son

No mention of Vietnam’s islands on Chinese maps

Using a reference from Phan Thi Ngoc Chan, a librarian for the Vietnamese Collection at Harvard-Yenching Library, Dr. Son was able to gain access to these extremely rare, original, single-copy materials dating back hundreds of years.

He found and made copies of several valuable materials, of which he paid the most attention to two map collections which sketched China’s territory during the reign of the Qing dynasty in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The first collection was named ‘Qianlong’s Map in Thirteen Rows,’ and dated 1760.

The collection comprised around 200 maps that were printed using the ‘bronze type printing’ method, which sprayed printing ink onto a carved copperplate before pressing it on paper, a technique widely used during the Qing dynasty.

The maps illustrated in detail all the territories that belonged to the Chinese kingdom under the rule of Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796), from mainland China to islands and surrounding waters.

None of the maps drew nor mentioned the so-called ‘Nansha Islands’ or ‘Xisha Islands,’ the names used by the Chinese to decribe Vietnam’s Truong Sa and Hoang Sa.

Notably, one of the maps specified that the southernmost point of China’s territory at the time was the island of Hainan.

The second collection Dr. Son found at the library was the ‘Atlas von China’ (The Atlas of China), consisting of two parts published by the Germany-based Dietrich Reimer publishing house in Berlin in 1885.

The two parts of this collection consisted of 16 descriptive pages in German and 55 color-printed, full-page administrative and geographical maps of the Chinese capital Beijing, as well as 26 other prefectures under the rule of Guangxu Emperor (1875-1908).

The first map in part one of the ‘Atlas von China’ draws the whole Chinese territory at the time, the southernmost point of which is noted as Hainan Island.

Part two of the collection includes administrative and geographical maps of the province of Canton.

However, unlike maps drawn during the late Qing dynasty and early periods of the Republic of China, these two maps of Canton do not include Hainan Island, which are then referred to as Qiong Prefecture.

In ancient Chinese papers, the southern part of Qiong Prefecture (now Hainan Island) was always referred to as ‘the end of the sea and the sky,’ which could be understood as the furthermost land of China, according to Dr. Son.

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The map of Canton in the ‘Atlas von China’ (The Atlas of China) published by the Germany-based Dietrich Reimer publishing house in Berlin in 1885 (Click on photo to view full-size map). Photo: By courtesy of Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son

‘Product of imagination’

It is observable that Chinese maps in official atlases released during the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China period all specified that the southernmost point of China is Hainan Island, Son said.

According to Son, this means that in 1885, when the ‘Atlas von China’ was published, and even more recently in 1933, when the ‘Postal Atlas of China’ came out, the Qing rulers and the government of the Republic of China never acknowledged that Truong Sa and Hoang Sa belonged to China.

In addition to the ‘Qianlong’s Maps in Thirteen Rows,’ Dr. Son has also collected many other separate maps published by the Chinese government since the late 19th century until the 1930s, none of which mention Vietnam’s Truong Sa and Hoang Sa, which the Chinese later referred to as the so-called ‘Nansha and Xisha Islands.’

In a conference on the conflict in the East Vietnam Sea held at Yale University in the U.S. earlier this month, BBC journalist Bill Hayton remarked that the Chinese government was basing their claims on the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ or a ‘product of imagination’ that was invented in 1947.

According to Son, the Chinese government’s inclusion of most waters and islands of neighboring countries inside their imaginary line, and thereby their claim that the area “is part of the longstanding sovereignty” of China, is historically false.

The two maps collections stored at Harvard-Yenching Library are the result of a program to establish national maps initiated and carried out by Kangxi Emperor (1662-1772) over a long period with help from Western cartographists.

The maps, therefore, were drawn in a scientific and clear manner, and came with detailed descriptions, Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son said.

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