Mr. Selden’s Map of China

A work of history, biography, cartography, and literary mystery, Mr. Selden’s Map of China unlocks the secrets behind a Chinese map four centuries old, long lost in a library basement, and paints an unexpected portrait of the world just as global trade changed everything.

The map arrived at Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1659, part of a bequest from John Selden, a fiddler’s son who became a member of parliament, was twice a political prisoner under two different kings, and rose to be arguably the greatest constitutional lawyer and Oriental scholar of the 17th century. The map excited a bit of interest at the time, but was eventually consigned to the bowels of the library until an inquisitive reader called it up four years ago.

When Brook saw it, he realized that the Selden map, as it is called, was “a puzzle that had to be solved”: an exceptional artifact so unsettlingly modern-looking it could almost have been a forgery. But it was genuine, and what it can tell us is astonishing. It shows China as a part of East Asia, not cut off from the world but an actively participating in the embryonic network of global trade that fuelled the rise of Europe — and now powers China’s ascent. The map raises many questions: How did John Selden acquire it? Where did it come from? Who imagined that the world looked like this? What are those lines drawn across the oceans? And most importantly, what can it tell us about how the world was changing at the moment it was drawn?

Like a cartographic detective, Brook takes his readers across the map in search of answers. From Japan to Java, from China to India, Brook follows the clues on the map to tease out the trade routes that came to define this crucial period in China’s history and remake the world. Nick Thran in The Globe and Mail praises Brook for putting on “the hard-boiled, whodunnit fedora when it suits the narrative” and then taking it off to be “a true practitioner of the broad, rich and currently endangered concept of the humanities.” Another reviewer writes: “This book is a gem. Schedule it for your gift list this Christmas and give it to yourself as well. It’s a mystery with a difference. Nobody gets killed (well, hardly anyone) and nobody gets robbed or attacked (well, relatively few).”

More Reviews

The Globe & Mail
The Economist
The Telegraph
The Financial Times
South China Morning Post
The Literary Review
The National Post
Seattle Times

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