On & behind the atlas

May 21, 1708. European missionaries at the Qing court first heard that they would soon start mapping the Qing Empire, in close cooperation with a number of court officials. In the beginning of June, after several days of uncertainty, Kangxi nominated several men and provided them with the necessary instruments at the imperial palace. With precisely divided ropes, they started measuring.

Questions & tasks

1. At what point in history did European missionaries start to appear at the Chinese imperial court?
(Place you answer in a global, comparative context) 

2. Were the missionaries in Qing China to evangelize or to aid the Chinese court in its scientific pursuit? 
(Answer this question from different points of view)

3. This atlas was produced during the reign of the Kangxi emperor of the Qing emprie. What are the most salient differences with the representation of imperial space during the Ming?
(Look up the "Da Ming yu di tu" at the digital space of the Library of Congress. Rely on visual observations)

4. Take your time to travel through the map. What are three questions that you would like to find answers to?
(All of them have to be based on visual information only)

5. Find scholars that may be able to answer your questions.
(Keep track of your search)


March 1722. Through secret letters, a select few were granted to entertain direct contact with the throne. Officer Mamboo, who was stationed in Taiwan, wrote to Kangxi on a regular basis, also about the danger of the inlanders:

“Taiwan’s developed locals all live in villages in the flat areas behind the mountains. There they cultivate their lands and hunt for deer. Afraid of the law, they all pay their taxes. The “raw” ones, though, are like wild beasts: when they see unknown humans, they kill them. Never will they come outside of their mountains.” 


In what way is the danger of the inlanders visible in the representation of Taiwan?


These three blanks on the Kangxi atlas are not deserts or lakes, but areas where mapmaking was not feasible. They are testimony to the court’s limitations in controlling even certain territories in China’s heartland. These were the lands of “savage peoples”, as described by the Europeans at the time, tribes that fought the Qing armies who tried to control the area. By leaving these areas blank, mapmakers indicated that no knowledge whatsoever could be gained of these areas.


1. Go to QingMaps.org and search for Shengmiao on the Yonzheng and the Qianlong atlasses.

2. Compare the areas with the area on the Kangxi atlas. Can you describe the visual transformation of the representation of these areas from the Kangxi, to the Yongzheng, to the Qianlong atlas?

3. Try to find some secondary sources on the Shengmiao people (who belong to the Miao people, sheng means "raw"), especially in relation to the Qing court.

4. What does the change of spatial representation of these Shengmiao tell you about the Miao? And about the Qing court?

5. Can you relate this case to modern examples of spatial representation of people?