Cartographic Orientalism

Picture in your mind’s eye a map of the world. If asked to point to Asia, where does your finger land? The answer to this question has shifted throughout the centuries, depending on who you were and where you lived. For European cartographers of the early to mid-nineteenth century responsible for representing the vast territory also known as the “Orient,” the answer to this question would be etched into copperplate or drawn onto limestone. Many had never set foot outside of Europe, so the maps they created were often compilations based on extant sources rather than transcriptions of first-hand knowledge. Their maps were composite images characterized by geographic and psychic distance between themselves and their subject. This notion of distance, in both geographic and metaphorical terms, is at the heart of orientalism. In 1978 the literary scholar Edward Said contended that the Orient was an elaborate construct of the Occidental imagination (Said 1994). What many scholars have pointed out since the publication of his influential book, however, is that there are ways to complicate this binary, especially if we focus on what actually constitutes the geography of the Orient (Turner 2016; Wells Lewis/Wigen 1996).

The rhetorical power of the terms East and West, Occident and Orient is reliant upon the pliability of the interlocking concepts and—especially in Said’s work—a lack of clear geographical referent. Unlike Africa, whose borders are determined by its seas, “Asia” has historically evaded the constraints of landmass, its territorial and maritime boundaries shifting under the weight of cultural discourse and political conflict. And yet, “Near East,” “Middle East,” and “Far East” still evoke specific narratives and images in each of us because they have become geohistorical concepts rather than precise geographical locations. Consider, for example, that the term “Near East” was introduced in the early 1900s by British colonial bureaucrats and American military strategists to distinguish between Turkey (“Near East”) and China (“Far East”) (Koppes 1976). Near, middle, and far were used in relation to their distance from European metropoles, thus stabilizing the West as the frame of geographic and cultural reference.

Asia as Citation: Berghaus’ Atlas von Asia (1833–1858)

What can maps then offer the study of orientalism? Rather than approaching the map simply as a functional document, we should consider it as a product of collaborative and sedimented knowledge. We can begin by looking at the famed German cartographer Heinrich Berghaus’s Atlas von Asia (1833–1858), published by Justus Perthes in Gotha and residing in the Perthes Collection. Best known for his Physikalischer Atlas (1838–1848) and work with Alexander von Humboldt, Berghaus was trained as a surveyor yet never left Europe. Atlas von Asia contains ten land maps and seven nautical charts derived from British, Dutch, and Portuguese colonial administration, scientific expeditions, and diplomatic missions. While Berghaus’s maps originated between the early 1830s and the 1850s, some of their geographic and hydrographic information was collected over a century earlier, when Jesuit missionaries worked in close collaboration with Qing court surveyors to map the empire (Cams 2017). This was the Asia that was reachable and navigable by the intrepid European—accompanied by local guides and beasts of burden—on foot, by horse, or aboard ships. In this sense, Asia was defined not by geographic markers, but the limits of body and technology.

map on Guandong

An intricate example of bricolage and citation: A map of Guangdong and adjacent islands in Berghaus’s Atlas von Asia.
Berghaus, Heinrich, Atlas von Asia, Gotha 1833–1858, Bl. 16. Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPB gr2°1010.00088f (CC BY-SA 4.0).

If we are to consider the logistics of the atlas, an even more interesting picture emerges. Rather than being sold as a single volume, Berghaus’s maps of Asia could be purchased individually through a subscription service, allowing European consumers to literally assemble an image of Asia that aligned with their interests and income. One could conceptualize an itinerary from the comfort of home. From the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, over the Ural Mountains and down to the South Pacific, each map is a visually remarkable object: they combine alphanumeric notation, hatching and stippling, color wash, and textual narrative to convey decades’ worth of information. Die Chinesische Küste der Provinz Kuang-tung, zu beiden Seiten des Meridians von Macao (1834), for example, depicts the southern coastal region and its adjacent islands in the South China Sea in chorographic and coastal view. In a lengthy explanatory note running down the center of this rare map, Berghaus gives an overview of the oceanic and meteorological conditions of the region and cites the work hydrographers and surveyors of the East India Company as well as the results of the McCartney Mission (1793), the first British diplomatic endeavor to China, which occurred nearly four decades earlier. Berghaus’s Asia transcended continental divides, delimited instead by the legacy of mercantile capitalism and imperial ambition.

map on China and Japan

The opening map of Berghaus’s Atlas von Asia.
Berghaus, Heinrich, Atlas von Asia, Gotha 1833–1858, Bl. 2. Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPB gr2°1010.00088f (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Berghaus’s Asia was also an intellectual project. Viewed together, his disparate maps of territories east of Europe form a cartographic palimpsest that reveal a lineage of Orientalist scholars and their relation to the imperialist imaginary. His map of China and Japan (1843), published as the second sheet in the map sequence, is a product of nineteenth-century philological interest and inquiry. In addition to referencing the work of Jesuit missionaries and the cartographer Jean-Baptiste d’Anville (1697–1782), Berghaus consulted maps created by the prominent German philologist and Orientalist Julius Klaproth (1783–1835), who travelled through the Caucuses and gained expertise in the region’s various tongues. Klaproth was also a cartographer and included a map of the over forty languages spoken in East and Central Asia in his 1823 volume Asia polyglotta. His representations of East Asia, on the other hand, were created not from direct observation, but were a compilation of sources that he was able to decipher in European, Central Asian, and East Asian languages. These included indigenous maps, surveys, and dictionaries. Berghaus in turn adapted this work; his map of China and Japan includes a chart of geographic terms in nine languages, including Turkish, Tibetan, and Ainu, offering a glimpse into the linguistic and cultural richness of the region.

China at the Center: Fauvel’s Province du Shantung (1876)

Fauvel's Province du Shantung: a beautifully coloured and handwritten bilingual map

A unique map that shows the wide scope of the Perthes Collection: Fauvel’s Province du Shantung.
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPK_547$111973562 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

A shift in the European understanding of East Asia occurred in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Treaty of Tientsin (1860) opened Chinese ports to foreign trade, and caravans of geographers, surveyors, and engineers arrived in its wake. Province du Shantung (1876) is a rare, entirely hand-drawn map attributed to the French naturalist and cartographer Albert-August Fauvel that also resides in the Perthes Collection. After having spent extensive time in Shandong Province in northern China researching the region’s flora and fauna, Fauvel worked for the Chinese Imperial Customs Service, a multi-national organization that employed both native and foreign agents. He held the positions of Clerk and Second Assistant for over a decade beginning in 1874. His map was dedicated to Robert Hart, Inspector General of the Customs Service for close to five decades. Hart exerted immense influence on trade and diplomatic relations between China and the West and having lived in China for the majority of his life, he mastered the language, immersed himself in the culture, and was thus trusted by both Chinese government officials and foreign ministers.

Province du Shantung is remarkable not only because it is hand-drawn, but also because it is multilingual. The map compass, located in the upper right quadrant, uses Chinese characters instead of letters from the Roman alphabet. Degrees of longitude and latitude that frame the map contain Chinese characters and Arabic numerals. Names of cities, seas, and borders are indicated in Chinese characters and painstakingly annotated with their Romanized pronunciations. It could thus be argued that the map was to be used by foreign customs agents with limited knowledge of the local language.

Moreover, on the upper right corner is a table of geographical concepts and toponyms: accompanying the Chinese characters for terms like “mountain,” “sea,” “home,” and “West” are their respective pronunciations, as well as their most utilitarian, situationally relevant French translations: the character jiè, for example, is translated as frontière, whereas its meaning in Chinese also encompasses a perception of the external world. kôu retains its meaning insofar as it is used to signify “port” or “bay,” even as it refers more broadly to cracks, fissures, and apertures, whether figurative or concrete. Another form of translation occurs at the bottom right edge of the map, where three standards of measurement—French lieue, Chinese li, and English miles—are shown together, so that the experience of physical distance becomes specific to the standards of empire. Furthermore, unlike most other maps created by Western cartographers, Province du Shantung has Peking as the prime meridian, rather than Paris or Greenwich. With the seat of the Qing Empire as the point from which distances are measured, Fauvel’s map is designed to be used “on site,” rather than in colonial metropoles. China, in other words, has become the frame of reference.

a printed edition of Fauvel's Province du Shantung: reduced in its design

A reduced design and amended contents characterize a later edition of Fauvel’s Province du Shantung.
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPK_547$112658393 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Created four decades after the Berghaus’s atlas, Province du Shantung represents a new era of Sino-foreign relations, in which the flow of knowledge and commodities was facilitated by new transport pathways and technologies, not to mention surveying techniques. And yet, the accumulation of handwritten marginalia on the map demonstrates that this new knowledge was far from being considered as accurate or complete. Later editions of the map, transferred into chromolithograph, show a multitude of revisions and redactions. The maps of Asia in the Perthes Collection represent how the West has imagined and encountered its geographic and cultural neighbor over the centuries. As Berghaus’s atlas and Fauvel’s map demonstrate, this relationship of the West to the East far exceeded the realm of detached fantasy, but instead generated a continual process of citation and translation.


Cams, Mario, Companions in Geography. East-West Collaboration in the Mapping of Qing China (c. 1685-1735), Leiden 2017.

Koppes, Clayton R., Captain Mahan, General Gordon, and the Origins of the Term ‘Middle East,’ Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1976), pp. 95–98.

Said, Edward W., Orientalism. New York 1994.

Turner, Bryan S., Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism. London 2016.

Wells Lewis, Martha/ Wigen, Kären, The Myth of Continents. A Critique of Metageography, Berkeley, CA 1997.

Cite this blog post
Mimi Cheng (2021, September 8). Cartographic Orientalism. Mapping Africa and Asia. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from

Mimi Cheng

Mimi Cheng is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. Her dissertation project, “China on the Horizon,” examines the visual economy of German orientalism as it took form in the built environment in the late nineteenth-and early twentieth-centuries. She was a Herzog Ernst Fellow at the Forschungskolleg Transkulturelle Studien / Sammlung Perthes in 2021. Her research has also been supported by the Social Science Research Council and most recently, the American Council for Learned Societies. She is based in Berlin.

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