Not just a tale of the Han Dynasty: Li Guangting and the Visual Appraisal of the Western Territories

Not just a tale of the Han Dynasty: Li Guangting and the Visual Appraisal of the Western Territories

Li Guangting (1812-1880), who also went by the courtesy name Zhudao and pen-name Huiyuan, was a native of Hualongshanmen Village in the locality of Panyu, Guangdong Province. He passed the provincial level of the imperial exam in the first year of Emperor Xianfeng of Qing's reign (1851), and passed the highest level, jinshi, in the imperial palace the next year. Afterwards, he worked as the Head of the Bureau of Honors (fengyansi) in the Ministry of Civil Office (libu), as well as giving lectures at Yushan Academy in Guangzhou. In the ninth year of Emperor Tongzhi's reign (1870), he published the Visual Appraisal of the Western Territories in the Han Dynasty.

 The Visual Appraisal is a set of historical maps produced during the Qing Dynasty. Much like maps that can be found in elementary school students' textbooks today, such as the Map of Six Kingdoms Unified Under Qing and Battle Campaigns of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, these maps served to represent the state of Chinese civilization at a certain point in its history. However, while Li Guangting's maps claim first and foremost to represent the western territories during the Han Dynasty, they actually pertain to a far greater area and time frame.

Image 32: First map from the Visual Appraisal of the Western Territories in the Han Dynasty

The map shown in Image 32 has a north-up orientation and encompasses the equivalent of modern-day southwest Xinjiang, the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture (in northern Xinjiang), as well as Xinjiang's neighbors such as eastern Kazakhstan and Kashmir (in India). The map depicts the rivers, lakes and mountain ranges of these areas — however, its most defining quality is that attributes both Tang and Han Dynasty place names to landscapes surveyed in the Qing Dynasty. For example, highlighted in red boxes on Image 32, we can see labels featuring both Han Dynasty place names and their Qing Dynasty equivalents: "Kuqa/Ancient Kingdom of Kucha", "Hotan/Kingdom of Khotan", "Yarkand/Kingdom of Shache", and "Kashgar/Kingdom of Shule". Furthermore, there are labels that indicate famous military towns and sites of military campaigns from the Tang Dynasty, such as "Tang: Suiyecheng [the Mandarin name for the silk road city Suyab]" and "Tang: Battle of Talus". Han Dynasty place names are denoted by the symbol gu ("ancient") in a circle, while those from the Tang Dynasty are denoted by the symbol tang in a square. Evidently, the content of the Visual Appraisal is not limited to the Han Dynasty, in that it also includes places and events from the Tang Dynasty. However, this is only part of what I meant when I said that the maps pertain to a far greater timeframe.

The second reason is that this set of maps were highly relevant to the context in which they were published — Li Guangting made them out of a desire to make practical contributions to society during his lifetime. During the reign of Emperor Tongzhi, the state of national affairs was in rapid decline, in part because of immense instability in the northwestern borderlands. From the rebellion led by Jahangir Khoja during the Daoguang reign; to the uprisings of Hui clans in Shaanxi and Gansu during the Xianfeng and Tongzhi reigns; to the invasion of Xinjiang by Yaqub Beg during the third year of the Tongzhi reign (1864); and finally, to the rivalry between Britain and Tsarist Russia in Central Asia for control over Xinjiang, the situation along China's borderlands grew increasingly desperate as the years went by. In this context, Li Guangting's endeavor to create political maps of the borderlands during past dynasties was not purely embedded in academic concerns. As Guangting himself states, "Borderland strategies should know how this region has changed from ancient times until today." In other words, the Visual Appraisal was conceived as a historical reference for use in solving the borderline crisis. Much like the Chinese proverb, "Xiang Zhuang performs the sword dance, though his mind is set on the Duke of Pei" [a reference to Xiang Zhuang's plan to kill Liu Bang that is colloquially used to refer to hidden motives], Li told the story of the Han Dynasty, though his mind was set on helping the Qing Empire.

What do I mean when I say that the Visual Appraisal pertains to a "far greater area" than suggested by the term "western territories"? The "western territories" of imperial China can be divided into a broad and narrow definition. Normally, this term is used to refer to the region to the west of the Yumen and Yang Gates; to the east of the "onion ranges" (today known as the Pamir highlands); and to the southeast of Lake Balkhash, including the region of Xinjiang. However, its broader definition extends as far as Central Asia, Western Asia and even Europe. The Visual Appraisal covers an even greater region: it even features maps of the Americas and Africa. 

Image 33: Second map from the Visual Appraisal of the Western Territories in the Han Dynasty

The map shown in Image 33 represents southeastern European regions such as Turkey and Greece along the coastline of the Black Sea and the east of the Mediterranean Sea. We can see that the information on the map is not all that different from modern maps — on this map from 1870, there are a number of place names that are either still in use or recognizable to modern readers, such as Serbia, the Danube River, Constantinople, Mount Lebanon, Greece and Athens (underlined in red). The map provides an accurate description of the Crimean Peninsula: "The Seleucid Empire was situated on the mountains and had a periphery of 40 li. It bordered with the West Sea. It is surrounded by water to the south, east and north; only the northeast corner is accessible by road."

However, there are certain errors in some of the map's annotations and labels. For instance, the Aegean Sea to the east of Greece is labelled as Mahai, or "Ma Sea". I originally presumed that the Aegean Sea was referred to as Mahai during the Qing Dynasty, but discovered through subsequent research that Mahai was most likely an abbreviated term for the Marmara Sea, the smallest sea in the world, which is circled in red dots on Image 33, near Constantinople (today known as Istanbul). One cannot be too hard on Li Guangting, however — for someone from the Qing Dynasty, his knowledge of these far-off realms is already impressive enough.

Image 34: Map of the world from the Visual Appraisal of the Western Territories in the Han Dynasty

The Visual Appraisal not only depicts European geography in detail — it also features a Complete Map of the World (shown in Image 34). Upon viewing this map, most people would be shocked at how accurate the outlines of different continents are. It is truly amazing to think that, by as early as the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese people had already developed such broad horizons, and such an impressive repository of knowledge about global geography.

This world map is complete with labels that reveal information about international politics at that time; for instance, in the northwestern corner of North America, we can see the label "Russian protectorate" (underlined in red), which tells us that the map was produced prior to the Russian sale of Alaska to the Americans — a deal that seemed profitable at the time, but which the Russians would come to regret.

In June 1741, the Danish explorer Vitus Bering led a fleet of Russian seamen eastwards to charter new lands. On 16 July, they discovered the vast region of Alaska. The Russians built permanent settlements there and declared sovereignty over the region in 1799. In 1854, the Russian Empire contended for hegemony of the Balkan Peninsula in the Crimean War. After losing to the English and French troops, Russia was forced to split up and share the Balkans. Following the war, Russia's finances were in a dire state. Deciding that his empire had little use for this distant expanse of frozen land home only to the Inuit people, the tsar sought to sell Alaska, but no nation expressed an interest in buying it. 

Not long after, when the Civil War broke out in the United States (in 1861), Britain and other major powers saw the United States' inner turmoil as an opportunity to seize their resources. The US reached out to Russia for their help. As a small vengeance for the Crimean War, Russia sent a naval fleet to the port of New York. Although this fleet was not used in the war, the US nonetheless appreciated the gesture. Following the Civil War, the US Secretary of State proposed to buy the territory of Alaska as a means of expressing gratitude to Russia and helping them with their national finances. To the great satisfaction of the tsar, the two nations agreed to the sale of Alaska for the price of 7.2 million US dollars. In 1867, the star-spangled banner was raised on Alaskan ground for the first time. Subsequently, vast oil fields were discovered in Alaska. The strategic advantages of this territory became increasingly apparent during the Second World War and Cold War, causing the Russians to deeply regret the deal.

The Visual Appraisal of the Western Territories in the Han Dynasty covers encompasses so much more information — both spatial and temporal — than its name suggests.