TITLE:  Kuang Yü T’u or The Mongol Atlas

DATE:   ca. 1320 /1555

AUTHOR:  Chu Ssu-Pen/Lo Hung-hsien 

DESCRIPTION: The culmination of indigenous Chinese cartography is found in the contributions of Chu Ssu-Pen and his successors who, beginning in the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1260 -1368), established a mapping tradition that provided the basis of China’s cartographic knowledge which was not seriously challenged until the early 19th century. The Mongol conquests, besides promoting the unification of Asia and extending its sphere of influence as far as the boundaries of Europe, also combined growing commercial and intellectual contacts with Persians and Arabs to bring to China a wave of fresh information about the countries beyond its borders. Taking advantage of this explosion of knowledge, Chu Ssu-Pen (1273-1337) built upon a scientific cartographic heritage that extended back to P’ei Hsiu (Chin Dynasty, third century A.D.) and the astronomer Chang Hêng (a contemporary of Ptolemy). Chu synthesized and collated the work of his predecessors with new knowledge acquired through both personal travel and the increased contact with the West to produce, between 1311 and 1320, a large roll-map of China and the surrounding regions.

It should be mentioned that, at least by the time of Chu Ssu-Pen, the Chinese cartographers knew the principles of geometry and possessed instruments that would greatly facilitate their mapping activities. The instruments included the gnomon, and a device similar to the groma of the Romans, with plumb lines attached. The Chinese also used sighting tubes and something akin to the European cross-staff for estimating height, as well as poles for leveling and chains and rope for ground measurement. The odometer or carriage-measuring instrument, by which distance is ascertained by the revolutions of the wheels, is referred to in China at least as early as in Europe. Compass bearings, implying the use of the magnetic needle, seems to have been made by the 11th century A.D.; it is assumed that the magnetic needle was transmitted westward to Europe shortly after this period.

It may also be of some interest to note that Chu Ssu-Pen was himself a Taoist, and studied under famous Taoists such as Chang Jen-Ching and Wu Chhlian-Chieh. Chu says in his preface that among other sources he consulted the Yü Chi T’u [Map of the Tracks of Yü] of 1137 A.D. (Book II, #218.1). The reliability of the information on which his map was based was of the greatest concern to Chu, whose attitude was quite modern in this respect. We cannot be sure exactly how far his coverage extended, as his original map is lost, and Chu himself expresses great caution in mapping the more distant regions:

Regarding the foreign countries of the barbarians southeast of the South Sea, and northwest of Mongolia, there is no means of investigating them because of their great distance, although they are continually sending tribute to the court. Those who speak of them are unable to say anything definite, while those who say something definite cannot be trusted; hence I am compelled to omit them here.

From what we know of the original map of Chu’s, which was simply titled Yü T’u [Earth Vehicle (i.e., Terrestrial) Map], it was so large as to be difficult to handle, not dissected, and probably was in manuscript roll form. For about two centuries this great map remained only in manuscript or epigraphic form (rare copies in manuscript and the Kuang Yü T’u inscribed on stone in a Taoist temple lasted until the 19th century). In 1541 the Yü T’u was enlarged, dissected and revised by the Ming scholar, Lo Hung-hsien (1504-1564) and published in the form of a printed atlas in about 1555, under the title Kuang Yü T’u [Enlarged Terrestrial Atlas]. This is the earliest copy, albeit derivative, of Chu Ssu-Pen’s work to have survived. Lo Hung-hsien’s preface to the atlas explains his reasons for the change in format and his respect for Chu Ssu-Pen:

Chu Ssu-Pen’s map was prepared by the method of indicating the distances by a network of squares, and thus the actual geographic picture was faithful. Hence, even if one divided [the map] and put it together again, [the individual parts] in the east and west fitted faultlessly together.... His map was seven feet long and therefore inconvenient to unroll; I have therefore now arranged it in book form on the basis of its network of squares.

The General Map of China, the Kuang Yü T’u

Apart from the General Map of China (#227), there were sixteen sheets of the various provinces, sixteen of the border regions, three of the Yellow River, three of the Grand Canal, two of sea routes, and four sheets devoted to Korea, Annam, Mongolia and Central Asia. The scale used was usually 100 li to the division (square), but sometimes other scales such as 40, 200, 400 or 500 li were employed (3 li = 1 mile).

Two pages or sheets from the Kuang Yü T’u form the general map of China on a grid scale of 400 li to the division or square. The large black band running from the northeast to the southwest, just above the Hwang Ho and Great Wall, represents the Gobi Desert This famous and influential map of China contains most of the previously mentioned symbols that Lo Hung-hsien used for physical and cultural features. The treatment of the ocean with its ‘angry lines’, a common representation in Chinese cartography, perhaps suggests perceptions of the sea as a hostile environment. This may be further evidenced by the rather generalized nature of the coastlines as compared to the detail of the interior possibly reflecting greater familiarity and concern for the land.

As can be seen in the illustrations presented here, the 16th century printed edition of Chu’s map employs quite modern symbolism to indicate physical features and sizes of settlements. Thus, as explained on the table shown on the right of this page, cities of the first order are indicated by a white square, those of the second rank by a white lozenge, and those of the third by a white circle; post-stages are represented by a white triangle and forts by a black square, etc. The use of colors to indicate areas and frontiers are known to have been employed in a military map as early as 1084 A.D. in China, this systematic use of symbolism, with an explanatory legend, is one of the earliest known employments of its kind.

This particular map of China provided the basis for several later European derivatives. Beginning with the one printed in Purchas his Pilgrimes, 1609 (#404, Book IV), and further editions of the Kuang Yü T’u continued to be published until 1799. The atlas of Lo Hung-hsien also provided the foundation for the Novus Atlas Sinensis of Martin Martini published in 1655, the first European atlas of China. The influence of this work can also be seen on Father Matteo Ricci’s world map of 1602 (Ricci arrived in China a mere thirty years after the printing of the Kuang Yü T’u) and the maps of China drawn by Michael Boym in the middle of the 17th century. Indeed Western knowledge of the geography of China, as expressed by or through the Jesuits, was derived exclusively from this atlas until the Jesuits themselves undertook their great survey of China for the emperor Ch’ien-lung between 1756 and 1759.

In addition to those referenced by Chu Ssu-Pen, Lo Hung-hsien naturally drew upon many other Yuan and Ming sources in his revision, including the schematic grid-map Hsi-Pei Pi Ti-Li T’u [Map of the Countries of the Northwest], in the Yuan Ching Shih Ta Tien [History of Institutions of the Yuan Dynasty], 1329.

In spite of Chu Ssu-Pen’s caution about far-distant regions, it is remarkable that, as Walter Fuchs has pointed out, Chu and his contemporaries had already recognized the triangular shape of Africa. Among the map sheets of Lo Hung-hsien’s atlas, one is entitled The Countries in the Southwestern Sea that covers a considerable portion of the Indian Ocean and a large part of Africa.  In European and Arabic maps of the 14th century the tip of Africa is always represented as pointing eastwards (#246, #247 and #249), and this is not corrected until the middle of the 15th century; the atlas revised by Lo Hung-hsien, however, has it pointing south, and other evidence shows that Chu Ssu- Pen must have drawn Africa in this way as early as 1315. Furthermore, in the interior of the continent, two rivers are shown flowing north, one emptying into a large body of water and the other leading further north but terminated by the margin of the map. The name of the latter river was rendered as Ha-na-i-ssu-chin, which is a possible corruption of the Arabic words Al-Nil-Azrak, meaning the Blue Nile. The island off the east coast is called San-pa Nu, apparently designating the source of the Zanzibar Slaves. On the upper left corner of the map, the coastline turns sharply westward, suggesting the orientation of what appears to be the Guinea coast. Between the west coast and the inland water body, one sees an area named Sang-ku, a Chinese transliteration of the Arabic term Zangue, or the Black People, hence the Congo. Below the inland water area and to the southwest of the river discharging into the lake is a name pronounced as Che-pu-lu-ma. The first three syllables combined are recognizable as a corruption of the Arabic word djebel, meaning “mountains”. An obvious conjecture is that it is an elevated area that the Arabs called the Ma Mountains, corresponding closely to the titled plateau of the Drakensberg, and evidenced by a later map produced in 1402 by the Ming cartographer named Ch’üan Chin (#236). Chinese map legend at right.

On the upper right-hand corner of this map, one sees the southern portion of Asia, gridded by vertical and horizontal lines and bulging out toward Sumatra, the largest island on the map, with Java next on the right. Near the edge of the continent are marked such places as Chan-ch’eng [Champa or Vietnam], Mien-tien [Burma], Hsien-lo [Thailand] and Meng-to [the Tenasserim Coast].   Areas covered by a wave pattern are ocean waters stretching from the South China Sea in the lower right to Africa on the upper left and containing a score of island names. The empty portions in the lower left and at the bottom of the map naturally suggest areas totally unknown.

In the absence of longitudinal and latitudinal estimations, distance between places is represented in two ways. On land, it is measured by unit lines forming grid-like squares. In the case of this map, the grid system is imposed only upon the Asian continent, each division or square representing 400 li, or the equivalent of about 133 miles. The locations of major cities and states can best be ascertained in terms of their positions relative to major rivers and, to a lesser degree, mountains as well as coastlines. These methods, again, date back to the time of P’ei Hsiu, the most renowned cartographer of the Chin Dynasty (266 - 420 B.C.), and the publication of the River Classics by an unknown author of the third century and elaborately annotated by Li Tao- yuan in 527 A.D. Although P’ei Hsiu’s work has long since been lost, the established tradition is, again, reflected in the previously mentioned source of Lo Hung-hsien, the Hsi-Pei Pi Ti-Li T’u grid map and is further evidenced in the Yü Chi T’u also previously mentioned as a source used by Chu, which employed the same unit scale as P’ei Hsiu, 100 li  (#218.1).  As distances increased and knowledge became more scanty, the location of far away places becomes increasingly relative to the then known major rivers and mountains as well as water bodies and coastlines. These, then, are the principles underlying Lo Hung-hsien’s atlas and, indeed, those of others such as Ch’uan Chin’s early 15th century map of the world (#236) that conceivably could have been seen by Lo Hung-hsien, especially with regards to its portrayal of Africa.

Hsi-Pei Pi Ti-Li T’u [Map of the Contries of the Northwest]

(oriented with South at the top)

However, for distances over the ocean, the above methods are impractical in making approximations. Chu Ssu-Pen admitted in his brief annotation under the caption of his map that ‘currents in the outer seas are difficult to predict and so is the estimation of distance.’  Also, it is curious to note the absence of the grid-system on the portion of Africa that is depicted. Possibly this follows from the philosophy expressed by Chu that it is better not to relay any information unless it can be reliably confirmed.

His map is the first one to point Africa towards the south. There are several extant copies of the map, not all have the same inscriptions. On the map 35 names are given for Africa. In the interior of Africa he shows two rivers flowing north, one emptying into a large body of water and the other leading further north, terminating at the margin of the map. (One copy of the map however does not have the big lake). The last river is called

        Ha-na-i-ssu-chin [ford of Hanais]. Which might be the Arab Al-Nil-Azrak, The Blue Nile (in Abyssinian called Abai). On the west side of the continent is San-pa nu (the source of the Zanzibar slaves) and on other copies this is Sang-ku-pa this means Zanguebar (wrongly put on the west coast). Beneath this is written Zhebuluma or Che-pu-lu-ma (in the beginning of which we recognize from Arabic Djebel, mountain). In the middle of the map is written twice Sang-ku or Sanggu [from Arab Zangue or black people]. Also on the east coast is an island called Ti-pa-nu [Island slaves, Ti-pa from diva and nu meaning slaves) and Shih-a-la t’u-li-ch’ih meaning Siela-diba being Ceylon. A small island to the south east of Africa is rendered as Ha-pi-la [Kerguelen island?]. Note: the coast of South Africa is rounded, slightly indented in the middle.

    A map based on the work of two other Chinese cartographers which appeared in Korea (Ch’uan Chin and Li Hui) in 1402 even adds a stream emerging on the continent’s southwest coast in the approximate position of the Orange River. Both maps place the southern part of Africa immediately opposite the Indonesian islands, with a string of smaller islands in between, and the tip of India tucked far away to the north. This could suggest that whoever supplied the data on Southern Africa did not get there from the Persian Gulf, by the established Muslim sailing route. But crossed from Sumatra and followed the chain of southerly islands, Maldives, Chagos and Mascarene, which stretch across the western Indian ocean at conveniently short intervals all the way to Madagascar.  There is really a good chance that this information came from Malay sailors going to their settlements in Madagascar and Africa.

The four Khanates of the Mongol Empire (top); a geographical map from The Encyclopedia of Yuan Dynasty Institutions [Yuan Jingshi dadian], ca. 1330 in Wei Yuan’s Illustrated Treatise on the Sea Kingdoms [Haiguo tuzhi, 1842

(re-oriented with North at the top with some place names)

The “Geographic Map of the Land of China to the East”, from Zhipan’s General Records of the Founders of Buddhism, ca. 1270, Map 152.Zhipan, 32:5l-6r

LOCATION:  The Library of the Imperial Cabinet of Tokyo, Japan


*Chang, Kuei-sheng, “Africa and the Indian Ocean in Chinese maps of the 14th and 15th centuries”, Imago Mundi, vol. XXIV, pp. 21-30.

*Fuchs, W., The “Mongol Atlas” of China by Chu Ssu-pen and the Kuang-yu-t’u, with 48 facsimile maps dating from about 1555 (Monumenta Serica, Journal of Oriental Studies of the Catholic University of Peking, Monograph Vlll, Fu Jen University, Peiping, 1946, pp. 32-48.

Ledyard, G. “Cartography in Korea”, The History of Cartography, Volume Two, Book Two, pp. 246-247.

*Needham, J., Science and Civilisation in China, volume 3, pp. 551-555.

*Park, H., Mapping the Chinese and Islamic Worlds, pp. 101, 143, Figures 3.1, 4.2.

*Thrower, N.J.W., Maps and Man, pp. 25-27.


Chu-Ssu-Pen’s 1320 General Map of China as revised by Lo Hung-hsien in 1555  as part of his printed edition of the Kuang Yu T’u, 76 x 27 cm