The tumultuous journey of the Map of Hami

The tumultuous journey of the Map of Hami

In late-stage imperial China, the state of the nation declined as a result of internal factions and a succession of invasions by Western powers. All throughout the land, people lived in famine and misery, while a number of precious documents went missing. During this time of immense global change, classic works of literature were either transported across oceans and seas; passed on from one person to another; or destroyed in the fires of war. They experienced the adversity of war much like the people did. The artefact introduced in this article, the Map of Hami, was originally kept in the Qing archives, and is now stored in the "rare documents" section of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

For the moment, the Map of Hami has not been revealed to the public, making it impossible for us to know what this precious Qing court artefact truly looks like. However, by looking at certain historical sources, we can ascertain basic information about it: for instance, it is scroll-bound and drawn in color; the meridian and parallel lines have been included; and it features a number of annotations in both Manchurian and Mandarin Chinese. It is quite large, at 1.505 m tall and 3.855 m wide. Just based on these simple details, we can assume that the map is an impressive sight to behold.

Image 14: The Newly Compiled History of Five Dynasties from the Vault of the Grand Secretariat, now stored in Taipei

Image 15: Exterior of the National Beiping Library

The Map of Hami was first stored in the Vault of the Grand Secretariat, an imperial archive where the most important documents and books were kept during the Qing Dynasty. The archive is extremely diverse: not only does it boast the works of Ming Dynasty writers Tian Qi (1621-1627) and Chong Zhen (1628-1644), as well as old records of Shenyang before it was captured by the Manchus and made capital of China — there are also a number of documents, images and examination papers dating from the Manchu rule on file. These documents are categorized by their text type, such as: hongben or tiben (reports to the emperor); shishu (historical records); shilu (recorded facts), shengxun (sage's teachings), qijuzhu (inner palace diaries), chishu (decrees), zhaoshu (edicts) and biaozhang (manuscripts), as well as other kinds of documents and maps. It also contains a number of literary artefacts from the Ming Dynasty, as well as ancient documents written in Manchurian.

The Vault of the Grand Secretariat of Qing is located in the southeastern corner inside the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City, to the east of the secretariat itself. It comprises two large storerooms: one for books and essays, and the other for hongben. Hongben (literally "red books") was the name for administrative reports (ti ben) on which the opinions of the emperor have been transcribed using a brush dipped in red ink.

In the second year of Emperor Xuantong's reign, as a means of promoting the new regime, Zhang Zhidong and others proposed the foundation of the Imperial Library of Beijing (later known as the National Beiping Library, and finally as the National Library of China). The library was originally located in the monastery of Guanghua Temple at Houhai Lake, in central Beijing; it was overseen by the Xuebu (the Qing Ministry of Education) and was therefore also known as Xuebu Library. In 1915, the library moved to the old residences of the Imperial College in Fangjia Alley (also in central Beijing), where it remained until 1928. During the initial fundraising period, it was decided that the library should primarily store the complete copies and excerpts of classic texts that had previously been kept at Hanlin College, the Imperial College and the Vault of the Grand Secretariat. It is particularly worth noting that over one hundred maps from the Ming and Qing Dynasties were selected for the library's archives from the Vault of the Grand Secretariat's hongben collection. A special set of serial numbers was created for these maps in recognition of their uniqueness and rarity.

Image 16: Exterior of the National Palace Museum in Taipei

In May 1928, the Imperial Library of Beijing was renamed the National Beiping Library. In 1932, the library's Department of Maps composed the Beiping Library Catalogue of Maps from the Vault of the Imperial Secretariat, in which 295 items belonging to 184 categories are recorded. One of these items is the Map of Hami. In 1935, following the Japanese army's invasion of Nanjing, Northern China found itself in extreme danger. The Beiping Library ordered for a selection of precious books, copies of Buddhist scripture from Dunhuang, ancient maps from the Ming and Qing Dynasties; rubbings of bronze and stone inscriptions; as well as classic works of literature to be transported to the Shanghai Concession and Nanjing.

In 1949, these artefacts were transported yet again — this time, to Taiwan. The circumstances surrounding their transportation are recounted in detail in one of the National Library's publications: "The night before the War of Resistance Against Japan broke out, the library sent the maps from the Vault of the Grand Secretariat, as well as other rare maps that they had purchased over the years, to Nanjing. Later, when the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, eight boxes comprising over 300 maps were sent with them and are currently stored at the National Central Library in Taipei."

The National Central Library was originally founded in Nanjing in 1933 by the nationalist government. It relocated to Taipei in 1949 following the communist army's victory in the civil war. Although it is still referred to by its old name in English, its Chinese name changed in 1996, from Guoli Zhongyang Tushuguan ("National Central Library") to Guojia Tushuguan ("National Library"). In the library's catalogue from 1985, the Map of Hami is recorded as coming from "Beiping" — i.e. the Beiping National Library. In other words, the Map of Hami has been in this library's collection ever since it arrived in Taiwan. In 1985, the Ministry of Education in Taiwan decided to move the Map of Hami, as well as rare works that had originally been kept in the Beiping National Library, from the National Central Library to the National Palace Museum.

The documents in the hongben storeroom of the Vault of the Great Secretariat are reports written by government officials of varying ranks, which have been read by the emperor and upon which the emperor's commentary has been transcribed in red ink. As the Map of Hami was kept in this storeroom, we can reasonably assume that it was originally created as part of a Qing official's report to the emperor concerning ministerial affairs. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, in the lead-up to the Imperial Library's foundation, these maps were taken from the vault to be included in the library's collection. During the War of Resistance Against Japan, the maps were transported along with other precious documents from the Beiping National Library to Nanjing. Later, they were transferred to Taipei. Initially, they were stored in the National Central Library; now, they belong to the National Palace Museum.

Over the years, the Map of Hami, over which the emperor once cast his gaze, has completed an immense journey — from the imperial palace, to institutions in Beijing, to Nanjing, and finally across the seas to Taiwan, where it has remained to this day. Maps and atlases of Xinjiang from the Qing Dynasty are already rare enough — let alone an official map of this scale, complete with details in color. Being able to view the map in person and research it would, as far as I'm concerned, be an immense privilege.

Main references:

Wang Yao: An investigation into the journey of the Map of Hami, currently in the collection of the Taipei National Palace Museum. China Frontier Studies (Volume 3), Social Sciences Academic Press, 2015.