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First Accurate Western Map of Guangdong and Hainan, China

Finely-wrought map of the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Hainan, by French geographer and cartographer Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville. Considered the first accurate map of the region, it features the Pearl River Delta in its modern form.

Guangdong province is highlighted, separated from the interior of China with a dotted line. At the center of the map, the islands of the Pearl River Delta are featured in detail. This area shows the provincial capital of Guangzhou, or Canton (Quang T’Cheou); the Portuguese colony of Macau, and the future site of Hong Kong. The island of Hainan is to the southwest, with highlands in the interior.

Throughout the map, the hilly nature of the region are expressed with tiny mountain chains. Pictorial symbols indicate towns in each province. The map also includes a richly-ornamented cartouche and legend. The legend is surrounded by a chandelier-like motif. The title cartouche depicts a scene of interaction between European and Chinese traders and reflect the orientalist and opulent views that Europeans had about Chinese culture.

This map is one of forty-two maps included in D’Anville’s famous Nouvel Atlas de la Chine, de la Tartarie Chinoise et du Thibet, published in Paris and The Hague in 1737. This atlas would serve as the basis for most maps of China for the rest of the century. D’Anville originally made the map to accompany Father J.B. Du Halde’s Description Géographique, Historique, Chronologique, Politique, et Physique de l’Empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie Chinoise (Paris, 1735).

D’Anville based his atlas maps on comprehensive surveys of the Chinese empire completed by French Jesuit missionaries between 1708 and 1716. In many cases, these maps were the first truly modern, that is accurate according to modern standards of measurement and calculation, general maps of the provinces of China.

Western Mapping of China

In the eighteenth century, the Manchus, who formed the Qing dynasty in 1644, needed accurate maps of the vast territory over which they ruled in order to maintain political control and pursue expansionary initiatives. During the Kangxi period (1662–1722), the scientifically and mathematically trained French Jesuits were given the opportunity to demonstrate their astronomical method of cartography. Satisfied with the accuracy of their initial mapping projects, the Kangxi emperor commissioned the Jesuits to undertake triangulation surveys of the entire empire. The emperor believed that accurate and comprehensive maps would demonstrate Manchu control of the territory clearly to the Europeans. This was especially important in a time of increased trade interactions with European empires.

Completed in 1717, these surveys formed the Kangxi Jesuit atlas, the earliest version of which contained twenty-eight maps and was printed in China with woodblocks. In 1719, a manuscript version with thirty-two maps was produced using forty-four copperplates. A second woodblock edition was printed in 1721. It was this edition that was sent to Europe and used by both Du Halde and d’Anville for their publications.

Neither man traveled to China themselves. Du Halde was a French Jesuit and specialist in China, but his expertise came from geographic information that trickled back to France. He was a professor at the College of Paris and oversaw the Lettres Édifiantes et Curieuses, which were reports and letters from missionaries overseas. Many of these reports served as the basis for his Description, which fueled European interest in China for decades to come. Voltaire said of the work in 1751, "Although it is developed out of Paris, and he hath not known the Chinese, [he] gave on the basis of the memoirs of his colleagues, the widest and the best description the empire of China has had worldwide.”

D’Anville’s map were the visual partner to Du Halde’s descriptions. His atlas was also the first Western atlas to show Tibet and a separate Korea. D’Anville’s highly accurate maps of China remained a standard Western source for depictions of China until the nineteenth century.

Paul W. Mapp, “Imperial Comparisons,” in The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713-1763 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011); “New Atlas of China, Chinese Tartary and Tibet,” World Digital Library, last updated July 8, 2014,; Cordell D. K. Yee, “Traditional Chinese Cartography and the Myth of Westernization,” in The History of Cartography Volume 2, Book 2, Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, eds. J. B. Harley and David Woodward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994),; Mario Cams, “The China Maps of Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville,”Imago Mundi 66, no. 1 (2013): 51-69. AH
Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville Biography

Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville (1697-1782) was one of the foremost French geographers of the eighteenth century. He carried out rigorous research in order to create his maps, which greatly developed the technical proficiency of mapmaking during his lifetime. His style was also simpler and less ornate than that of many of his predecessors. It was widely adopted by his contemporaries and successors.

The son of a tailor, d’Anville showed cartographic prowess from a young age; his first map, of Ancient Greece, was published when he was only fifteen years old. By twenty-two, he was appointed as one of the King’s géographes ordinaire de roi. He tutored the young Louis XV while in the service to the Crown. However, royal appointment did not pay all the bills, so d’Anville also did some work for the Portuguese Crown from 1724. For example, he helped to fill out Dom João V’s library with geographical works and made maps showing Portugal’s African colonies.  

D’Anville disapproved of merely copying features from other maps, preferring instead to return to the texts upon which those maps were based to make his own depictions. This led him to embrace blank spaces for unknown areas and to reject names which were not supported by other sources. He also amassed a large personal map library and created a network of sources that included Jesuits in China and savants in Brazil. D’Anville’s historical approach to cartography resulted in magnificently detailed, yet modern and academic, maps. For example, his 1743 map of Italy improved upon all previous maps and included a memoir laying out his research and innovations. The geographer also specialized in ancient historical geography.

In 1773, d’Anville was named premier géographe de roi. In 1780, he ceded his considerable library to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be used for as a reference library for diplomats. D’Anville is best known for several maps, including his map of China, first published in 1735, and then included with Du Halde’s history of that country (the Hague, 1737). His map of Africa (1749) was used well into the nineteenth century.