Curator’s Picks: Marvellous Maps of Asia

The National Library’s latest exhibition, Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography, features over 60 treasures from Asian mapping traditions, many of them on show in Singapore for the very first time. Join assistant curator Jie Lin as she shares some exhibition highlights.

Modern cartographic narratives have often tied maps to Western-centric ideas of science and claims to objectivity. However, as I discovered while curating this exhibition, diverse and creative cartographic practices had long flourished across Asia for two millennia prior to the introduction of Western cartographic practices to the region.

From Buddhist monks to court officials, cartographers from different walks of life produced maps to communicate not only their religious views of the world and ideas of power and government, but also document significant journeys, and more. Many maps of Asia were born out of the knowledge exchanged between the East and West.

Through our Mapping the World exhibition, we are excited to share an Asian-focused history of cartography and its lesser-known but no less fascinating stories. Let’s look at three of my favourites from the exhibition:

  1. A Buddhist view of the world
Map of Jambu-dvipa with a Map of Sun Palace Appended (閻浮提图附日宮图, Enbudaizu tsuketari nichiguzu)
Zonto (存统 d. 1832)
Japan, 1808
Woodcut map scroll on paper, hand-coloured
On loan from Yokohama City University Library and Information Center

Depictions of Jambu-dvipa, or “the southern continent where humans reside”, are a mainstay of Japanese Buddhist maps from the mid-14th to 19th centuries.¹ In Buddhist cosmology, the world is flat and circular, and contains four continents that surround the mythical cosmological centre of Mount Meru.²

I find it interesting how this map features two different worldviews: one from Buddhist cosmology (the top section of the map) and in the other, the world as depicted in Western scientific cartographic practice (from the middle section onwards).

At the top we see the enormous Jambu tree (rose-apple tree), from which Jambu-dvipa derived its name, standing atop Mount Meru. A translation of the cartouche (by our exhibition researchers) reads: “Under this tree, when it rains in the spring, water does not leak through (its canopy). It is not hot in the summer and not chilly in the winter. There are Gandharva and Yaksha spirits living here. The body of the tree has a diameter of 5 yojana and a circumference of 15 yojana. Two of its branches each spread horizontally out over a distance of 50 yojana. When the fruits are ripe, they smell pungent and are as big as earthen jars. In the tree dwell birds so large that they resemble big halls, and macaques that are like 60-year-old-elephants. All habitually feed on the Jambu fruit. When the fruit of the northern branches fall, fish in the river gather to eat them.”³

From the mid-portion of the scroll onwards, a world map more in the Western scientific tradition depicts the Eastern Hemisphere. It is centred on India, the birthplace of Buddhism, which again interestingly shows the Buddhist worldview of its maker!

This is one of three map scrolls produced by Buddhist priest Yamashita Zonto (存统, d. 1832). Another map from the trilogy, the Map of India (天竺舆地图, Tenjiku Yochi Zu), also on display in our exhibition, illustrates the pilgrimage of famed Chinese monk Xuanzang (玄奘, 602–664) from China to India in search of holy Sanskrit texts. These maps were likely created as a subversive response to the influx of Western (in this case, specifically Jesuit) geographical knowledge to Japan and to reconcile Western knowledge with traditional Buddhist teachings.⁴

2. Qianlong’s Journey to the East

Map of the Day and Night stations of Mukden (Mukden-i dedun uden-i nirugan)
Office of Imperial Diaries (起居注馆)
China, Qing dynasty, 1778
Accordion-folded book map, ink and colour on paper
On loan from the MacLean Collection, Illinois, USA

Second on my list (and my favourite) is the exhibition’s only Manchu-language map, produced by the Office of Imperial Diaries (起居注官, Qijuzhuguan)– a court agency that recorded the Qing Emperor’s daily life and activities.

On 10 September 1778, Qing Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–95) departed from Beijing on his third imperial tour (巡幸,xunxing) to the Eastern Qing tombs. This two-month journey took him along the Great Wall of China to the Eastern Qing tombs of Mukden (盛京, Shengjing, present-day Shenyang) and the Eternal Tombs (永陵, Yongling) in Manchuria. His goal? To pay respects to the ancestors of the ruling Aisin Gioro (爱新觉罗) clan and reaffirm the dynastic legacy of the Qing.

This trip was significant for Qianlong as it marked the first death anniversary of his mother, Empress Dowager Chongqing (崇庆皇太后). Prior to her ill health and eventual passing in 1777, the Empress Dowager had accompanied her son on all his imperial tours in the four cardinal directions of the Qing realm, with his southern tours (南巡,nanxun) being the most famed.

Spanning 608 cm in length (shown in three sections in the image above), this itinerary is both a map and a court diary – a prime example of the multi-faceted roles that maps played in Qing China. It meticulously details the names of Qianlong’s stops on every day of his trip in Manchu, the language of official administration in the empire. A red dotted line at the centre marks Qianlong’s route, which presents the undulating natural landscape as framing the emperor’s journey. This map was not meant for public viewing and was historically kept solely as an archival record, so do make sure to catch a rare glimpse – and a motion interactive of it – at our exhibition!

Map of the Day and Night stations of Mukden on display in Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography exhibition

What I find fascinating is that the map provides an intimate snapshot of Qianlong’s day-to-day activities during one of his rare eastern imperial tours. This contrasts with the itinerary maps I encounter here at the National Library, an example of which is the Mao Kun map that was widely used by sailors for maritime navigation.

Detail of Map of the Day and Night stations of Mukden (Mukden-i dedun uden-i nirugan)

Furthermore, Qianlong’s map vividly illustrates his relationship to both the Chinese and Manchurian landscapes and their landmarks. For instance, Mount Pan, located near present-day Tianjin, Hebei Province, is depicted with a white pagoda atop its main peak. In fact, the sights of Mount Pan inspired Qianlong so much that he visited it at least 32 times, wrote 1,366 poems about it, and commissioned many paintings of the site.⁵

Till today, research on this map remains sparse, with only one academic article dedicated to deciphering it. We owe much of our understanding of this map to the assistance of the wonderful Dr Anne-Sophie Pratte, who worked on this map during her time as Research Fellow at the MacLean Collection.

3. A Map of Nagasaki

Map of Nagasaki, Hizen Province (Hizen Nagasakizu)
Kojudo (耕寿堂, first edition), Baikodo (梅香堂, revised edition)
Nagasaki, mid-19th century
Folded map, woodblock-printed, colour on paper
On loan from Private Collection, France

Maps from Asian mapping traditions are also works of art. This map of Nagasaki hails from Nagasaki-e, a genre of woodblock prints that was popular during the Edo period (1603–1867), and was made in the port of Nagasaki. Often sold as miyage hanga (土産版, souvenir prints), they were inexpensive mementos for merchants or scholars who travelled to Nagasaki on business.⁶

At the heart of the map is the artificial island of Dejima (出島, literally “exit island”). First built in 1634, Dejima was the only location where the Japanese could trade with foreigners such as the Dutch and Chinese during the Edo period. Depicted in a fan shape, the similarly-shaped island is surrounded by the harbour, Western and Chinese ships, and the city of Nagasaki. I like that the pictorial style of the woodblock print shows the bustling trade of Nagasaki in such vivid detail and takes the viewer right into the setting.

Panoramic maps and guides to Nagasaki were some of the earliest woodblock prints that originated from the city.⁷ They contain precise indications of the anchorages of Dutch and Chinese vessels on the port, and initial changes in precincts and domains. These popular guides were published for many years without much change in format or details.⁸ This map is one version of numerous similar maps of Nagasaki.

Asian maps tell us many things about the past, including imagined visions of the world – religious, political, and more – as well as the histories of print culture in Asia, especially of the woodblock variety. From emperors to itinerant monks, these rare maps offer a snapshot into the personal lives and cultural beliefs of their commissioners and makers.

There remains so much more to see at the Mapping the World exhibition, featuring over 60 Asian cartographic treasures from international collections. Come visit the National Library and explore our multi-faceted historical relationships with Asian cartography today!

Gallery entrance to Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography at the National Library.

The author thanks Edelweiss Ng and Jacqueline Yu for their research assistance.

Visit Mapping the World at the National Library building, Level 10 Gallery. Happening now till 8 May 2022, the exhibition is open daily from 10 am to 9 pm (except public holidays). Click here to check out our exhibition programmes.

Chia Jie Lin is an assistant curator with the Exhibitions team at the National Library, Singapore. She is part of the France-Singapore curatorial team of Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography.

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I. W. Mabbett, “The Symbolism of Mount Meru.” History of Religions 23, no. 1 (1983): 64–83.

D. Max Moerman, “Buddhist Japan and the Global Ocean.” In The Sea and the Sacred in Japan: Aspects of Maritime Religion, 139–52. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. (Call no: R299.56 SEA)

Viewing Japanese Prints. “Nagasaki-e (長崎絵).” Accessed December 14, 2021,

[1] D. Max Moerman, “Buddhist Japan and the Global Ocean,” in The Sea and the Sacred in Japan: Aspects of Maritime Religion, ed. Fabio Rambelli (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 143. (Call no: R299.56 SEA)

[2] Moerman, “Buddhist Japan”, 140.

[3] Yojana is an ancient Indian unit of distance varying between about four and ten miles depending upon the locality. 100 yojanas is about 600 to 1600 km. For more information on the tree please see I. W. Mabbett, “The Symbolism of Mount Meru,” History of Religions 23, no. 1 (1983): 72.

[4] Moerman, “Buddhist Japan”, 146.

[5] Alfreda Murck, ‘Words in Chinese Painting’, in Martin J. Powers and Katherine R. Tsiang, A Companion to Chinese Art (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2016), pp. 471.

[6] “Nagasaki-e (長崎絵),” Viewing Japanese Prints, accessed December 14, 2021,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.




This is the blog of the National Library, Singapore. We post about stories and fun facts from our shelves.

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