The Cartography of National Humiliation and the Emergence of China’s Geobody
Like a debutante on the world stage, China has been modeling national images for its ongoing coming-out party. After decades of revolutionary diplomacy that challenged the international system, since the 1990s the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has worked hard to ease the concerns of countries that used to be targets of its revolutionary activities. China as a “peacefully rising” great power that aims to create a “harmonious world” is Beijing’s latest narrative that seeks to present the PRC to the world as a cuddly panda rather than a ravenous dragon.
Maps are an important part of the continual self-crafting of any nation’s image. As the Chinese maps examined here will show, the very material borders between foreign and domestic space are the outgrowth of the symbolic workings of historical geography and the conventions of Chinese cartography. These maps do much more than celebrate the extent of Chinese sovereignty; they also mourn the loss of national territories through a cartography of national humiliation. In this way, the messy geopolitics of disputed borders is informed by the contingent biopolitics of identity practices.
The maps in figures 1 and 2 give a sense of the complexities of China’s engagement with the world. The map in figure 1 is evidence of China as a confident world power that has global influence. It charts the Ming dynasty voyages of Admiral Zheng He from China to (what we now call) Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, eventually reaching Africa’s east coast. What is noteworthy about this particular map from 1418, which was discovered by a Chinese collector in 2001, is that it also charts Zheng’s voyages to the East, suggesting that the admiral “discovered” America before Columbus.1 And as we know, “discovering America” is part of the symbolic politics of being a great power.2
If figure 1’s map asserts a confident outward-looking China, then figure 2’s map represents China’s fears of national disintegration. This map, which was published on the cover of the best-selling hypernationalist book China’s Road under the Shadow of Globalization (1999), presents China as the victim of an international conspiracy to divide up the PRC into a clutch of independent states including Tibet, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, East Turkestan, and Taiwan.3 The authors tell us that this is a popular map in the West and have the “original” English-language version of this unraveling of China on the back cover, with a Chinese translation on the front cover. This map thus is taken as evidence of Western plans to keep the PRC from achieving its rightful status as a major power on the world stage.
Although both maps assert their authenticity as evidence of either Chinese discovery or Western conspiracy, it turns out that neither map is authentic in the sense of representing what it purports to represent. Because it is full of anachronisms and has an unclear provenance, there are serious doubts about the authenticity of the world discovery map — most people now see it as a hoax.4 Although the authors of China’s Road say that it is a popular map in the West, no one has been able to track down its source.5
Yet a search for “authenticity” misses the point of such maps: they are not reflecting reality so much as asserting a normative image of China. These two maps are aspirational, first in the positive sense of presenting China as a united and great power with global influence, and second in the negative sense of what China does not want to be: “carved up like a melon,” to use a popular Chinese phrase from the early twentieth century. Indeed, this is not strange; even many official Chinese maps are actually imaginative and aspirational, inscribing territories that are not under state control — but could and should be part of China’s sovereign territory: PRC maps record Taiwan as a province of China, and until recently Republic of China (ROC) maps included Outer Mongolia as well. This illustrates how national maps are not simply scientific reflections of the territory of the “real world”; maps are technologies of power used for political projects. Chinese atlases from the early twentieth century, for example, characteristically state that the new Republic (founded in 1912) needed national maps to know just what it was ruling.6 The title of a recent academic article describes the enduring goal of Chinese cartography: “A Century of Anticipating the Unification of the Motherland.”7
Here I follow those who treat maps and cartography as political practices that seek to produce what Thongchai Winichakul calls the national “geobody,” which is “not merely space or territory. It is a component of the life of a nation. It is a source of pride, loyalty, love, . . . hatred, reason, [and] unreason.”8 As massproduced visual artifacts, maps are more than scientific representations of “reality”; they constitute a symbolic discourse that can mobilize the masses. In this way, maps not only tell us about the geopolitics of international borders; when they inscribe space as a geobody, maps also tell us about the biopolitics of national identity practices.
Maps and cartography thus are deployed in the dynamic of cultural governance and resistance in China and Asia. In this sense, the region is not unique; it is participating in the process of capitalist modernity, where the state seeks to match territorial and cultural boundaries not only through military coercion and fiscal regulation but also through a management of identity practices. Since the state can never exhaust cultural production, resistance to these centralizing efforts takes the form of alternative cultural productions, including alternative maps that inscribe various alternative geobodies.9
In this sense, producing and regulating the geobody is a technique of “biopower,” which, as Michel Foucault explained, expanded the notion of politics from juridical concepts of power that restrict action under the threat of death to a productive understanding of power that emphasizes the fostering of life.10 Biopolitics is especially useful for understanding the emergence of a national body politic in China because the country was known as the “Sick Man of Asia,” whose life needed to be saved (jiuguo). As we will see, re-membering territories that had been dismembered ( fenge) is a key way of imagining — and then managing — China’s geobody in a way that combines biopolitics and geopolitics.
Hence the borders of the Chinese geobody are neither obvious nor fixed; they are contingent on historical events and are framed by cartographic conventions. China’s borders are the product of debate and struggle as the country has gone through major transitions first from an empire to a nation-state in the early twentieth century, and now from an isolated revisionist state to an engaged superpower at the turn of the twenty-first century. Hence the struggle about the proper size and shape of China is not only with foreign countries along frontier zones but within China in debates among different groups, which each draw different “national maps” to support their preferred geobodies. While it is popular to analyze Euro-American images of China to critique Western orientalism, this essay is more concerned with the identity politics of Chinese images of its own region, which as we will see grow out of the collision of imperial Chinese cartography and modern scientific maps.
Thus, rather than just trace the geopolitics of how the shape of China has changed in its encounter with modernity, the maps discussed in this essay raise a set of conceptual issues. To understand the Chinese geobody, we need to engage in comparative cartography — but rather than compare East and West, we need to consider China’s uneasy shift from premodern unbounded understandings of space and territory to bounded understandings of space and territory in the early twentieth century. Simply put, I question the common argument that there has been a shift from the late imperial Chinese concept of unbounded domain ( jiangyu) to a modern understanding of bounded sovereign territory (zhuquan lingtu).11 The maps will show how imperial domain and sovereign territory both still work — often in creative tension — to inscribe the PRC’s twenty-first-century geobody on the Chinese imagination.
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I would like to thank the many people who helped me find maps at the National Library of China, the Library of Congress, the British Library, the Academia Sinica (Taiwan), Harvard University, Cornell University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Hoover Institution Archives. For their help and critical comments, I thank Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Richard J. Smith, Michael J. Shapiro, Gordon C. K. Cheung, Daniel Bertrand Monk, Sumalee Bumroongsook, David Kerr, Kirk W. Larsen, Robert J. Kibbee, and Min Zhang. This research was funded with grants from the centers for Chinese studies at Durham and Manchester Universities, the British Academy, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Chinese are my own.
- “Chinese Cartography: China Beat Columbus to It, Perhaps,” Economist, January 12, 2006, www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=5381851. Gavin Menzies has adopted this map, which he calls the “1418 Map,” and posted it on his “1421: The Year When China Discovered the World” Web site, www.1421.tv/assets/images/maps/1418_map_download.jpg (accessed January 15, 2008).
- Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 219 – 313.
- Wang Xiaodong, Fang Ning, and Song Qiang, Quanqiuhua yinxiang xiade Zhongguo zhi lü (China’s Road under the Shadow of Globalization) (Beijing: Shehui Kexue Chubanshe, 1999).
- See, e.g., Joseph Kahn, “Storm over 1418 Map: History or Scam?” International Herald Tribune, January 17, 2006, www.iht.com/articles/2006/01/16/news/map.php. Menzies’s argument that China discovered America in 1421 is also seen as a hoax by most historians. Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year When China Discovered the World (New York: Perennial, 2003).
- See Roger Des Forges and Luo Xu, “China as a Non-hegemonic Superpower? The Uses of History among the China Can Say No Writers and Their Critics,” Critical Asian Studies 33 (2001): 498, 507.
- See, e.g., Chen Gaoji, preface to Zhongguo xin yutu (New Atlas of China) (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1925).
- Zhao Dachuan, “Shiji qipan zuguo tongyi” (“A Century of Anticipating the Unification of the Motherland”), Ditu (Cartography), no. 2 (2000): 39 – 44.
- Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 17. See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 2006), 170 – 78.
- See Michael J. Shapiro, Methods and Nations: Cultural Governance and the Indigenous Subject (New York: Routledge, 2004), 49; and William A. Callahan, Cultural Governance and Resistance in Pacific Asia (London: Routledge, 2006), 1 – 20.
- See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990), 133; and Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975 – 1976 (New York: Picador, 2003).
- Lü Yiran, ed., Zhongguo jindai bianjie shi (History of China’s Modern Borders), 2 vols. (Chengdu: Sichuan Renmin Chubanshe, 2007), 1:1 – 2; for a more critical view, see Huang Donglan, “Lingtu, jiangyu, guochi: Qingmo Minguo dili jiaokeshu de kongjian biaoxiang” (“Territory, Domain, and National Humiliation: Concepts of Space in Geography Textbooks from the Late Qing and Republican Periods”), in Shenti, xinxing, quanli (Body, Mind, and Power), ed. Huang Donglan (Hangzhou: Zhejiang People’s Press, 2005), 77 – 79.