Co.Design

The Cartography Of Geopolitical Chaos

Countries use maps to make their case for territorial sovereignty, but cultural differences in cartography complicate the process.

Every map in some way reflects the biases of how its cartographer sees the world—enforcing the arbitrary notion that north should be at the top of the map, or skewing our perception of how big Africa really is. Sometimes, these cartographical biases even shape political borders.

Starting in 1885, the British (who colonized Burma) spent decades negotiating over the border between Burma, its colony, and Burma’s northern neighbor, China. The two countries’ very different approaches to cartography in the late 19th century played a role in shaping the border, according to new research from Eric Vanden Bussche, a Ph.D candidate in history at Stanford University.

"The Chinese understood the function of maps differently from the British," Vanden Bussche told Stanford News. "Chinese mapmaking practices did not emphasize mathematical projections. For the Chinese, a map was a broad illustration of a region based on written sources." For instance, 19th-century Chinese maps depicted landmarks and trade routes, but didn’t feature distance measurements.

A map of the Yunnan province dating from the Qing dynasty, which lasted until 1911.National Palace Museum, Taiwan

Xue Fecheng, a Chinese diplomat in London in the 1890s, "was aware that the map was the medium through which the Europeans constructed and negotiated space," Vanden Bussche says. "He had to use a map rather than written sources to advance Chinese territorial claims."

Neither side had accurately surveyed all the land in question, since much of it was controlled by chieftains who would change allegiance between Burma and China regularly. Much of the border drawn, therefore, just went through blank space on the map. But both countries tried to adopt each other’s mapping practices to be more persuasive about their territorial claims. They based their claims on their own methods of mapping, but the Chinese produced maps that resembled British maps, and the British relied on the written descriptions produced by Chinese gazetteers. "There is a very big effort on both sides to draw on each other's spatial paradigms and notions of territorial sovereignty in order to make their demands palatable to the other side," he says.

And Vanden Bussche points out that these kind of disputes aren’t a thing of the past. China is still engaged in a border dispute with India, and is tussling with Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea and with the Philippines over territorial claims over parts of the South China Sea—and China is still using maps like this one to make its case. Our knowledge of geography may have expanded considerably since the 1890s—thanks to satellites, you can examine the topographical features of land half a world away—but when it comes to drawing up the maps, there's still no such thing as objectivity.

Read more about his research from Stanford News.

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