Stanford historian sees new perspectives on Chinese border disputes in declassified Qing dynasty maps

Through a study of late 19th-century Chinese maps, doctoral student Eric Vanden Bussche has discovered border development origins that offer a new historical perspective on China's territorial disputes today.

National Palace Museum, Taiwan Pictorial map

This pictorial map of Yunnan province, dating from the Qing dynasty, illustrates the administrative hierarchy on the Sino-Burmese frontier, a focus of interest for Stanford doctoral candidate Eric Vanden Bussche.

Chinese historical maps are a bit like gold for scholars. A limited number exist, and China's government restricts access to many of those dealing with sensitive topics, like border disputes.

One collection of rare maps used in Sino-Burmese border negotiations during the 19th century was taken to Taiwan during the communist revolution of 1949. There the maps, declassified by the Taiwanese government in 2007, remained unnoticed in basement archives.

Until, that is, Stanford scholar Eric Vanden Bussche brought them to light.

A doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Stanford, Vanden Bussche studies how the border between China and Burma was negotiated. The decades-long process, which began when the British annexed Upper Burma to its colonial domains in 1885, was not fully resolved until 1960.

After an investigative saga that included eight months in Taiwan, combing multiple archives, several false leads and exhaustive consultations with Chinese researchers, Vanden Bussche finally got his hands on the collection.

Looking at them for the first time, Vanden Bussche could finally understand how the Chinese and the British approached cartography differently during the border negotiations and how these distinct approaches led to unintentional and intentional misunderstandings.

Of particular note, Vanden Bussche says, "There is a very big effort on both sides to draw on each other's spatial paradigms and notions of territorial sovereignty in order to make their demands palatable to the other side."

For example, the Qing dynasty negotiator, Xue Fucheng, produced a map that resembled a British map. But Vanden Bussche could see from the Chinese notations that this did not indicate an embrace of Western cartography. "Xue's project was to strengthen China's territorial claims, and he did this by employing an array of sources and practices: British maps, imperial gazetteers and even his own interpretation of international law," Vanden Bussche said.

According to Vanden Bussche, the British embarked on a similarly opportunistic strategy, basing their claims on their own maps, while also relying on geographical descriptions in Chinese gazetteers.

Importantly, Vanden Bussche points out that these historical interactions have implications for international relations today. "Among other conflicts, China has never resolved its border with India, and for decades has been involved in a dispute with Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea.

Another example is China's long-running dispute with the Philippines over parts of the South China Sea. The Chinese argue that the disputed area used to be part of an ancient Chinese fishing region, and for this reason it should be under their control.

"So you see that in this case the Chinese are doing what they did in the 1890s. That is, repackaging certain concepts from the late imperial period in order to advance their territorial claims," Vanden Bussche said.

Geography vs. cartography

"Most of the scholarship on modern Chinese state building assumes that border demarcation happens in a predictable way. Two nation-states map the region, and then they negotiate a linear boundary that cuts through it," Vanden Bussche said. He contends this was not the case with China.

The late 19th century was a period of imperialist expansion throughout Asia. The Qing court realized it had to start defining its boundaries in order to protect its territory. But when the Chinese and the British sat down to negotiate the border, there were problems.

First, there were some areas that neither party was able to enter and survey because they were controlled by chieftains. "At times, these chieftains pledged allegiance to China, at times to Burma, at times to both, and at times to neither," Vanden Bussche said.

When Vanden Bussche viewed the maps in Taiwan, he was struck by how much of the borderline passed through blank space. "These un-surveyed areas would remain terra incognita for the next few decades. As a result, the 1894 treaty marked the beginning rather than the end of the demarcation process."

Another problem Chinese and British negotiators faced was that each party had a distinct concept of how a territory should be most accurately represented, Vanden Bussche says.

"The Chinese understood the function of maps differently from the British. Chinese mapmaking practices did not emphasize mathematical projections. For the Chinese, a map was a broad illustration of a region based on written sources. "

A typical 19th century Chinese map shows regional hierarchies and landmarks, such as the prefecture seats depicted as walled compounds, the trade routes marked by passes, and the areas controlled by various chieftains.

And unlike western maps, the Chinese maps themselves rarely contained distance measurements. Textual descriptions indicated distances between various landmarks. "The Chinese believed that maps could not adequately convey the geographical knowledge found in written sources."

Strategic mapping

The case of the Sino-Burmese border is propagandized by the Chinese as a model of success, and of their willingness to compromise, Vanden Bussche said. But he is interested in revealing how these negotiations were more complex than a straightforward success story.

In his effort to reconstruct the negotiations, Vanden Bussche visited 13 archives in four countries, where he viewed dozens of maps and other primary sources. One rare collection was of special interest: the original Qing dynasty maps prepared by the Chinese for use in the Sino-Burmese border negotiations in the 1890s.

"I knew of the existence of these maps from the correspondence between the Chinese negotiator in London, Xue Fucheng, and the imperial court in Beijing," Vanden Bussche says. "But I didn't know if they were available."

He suspected the maps might be in Taiwan or Beijing, the two major archives of Chinese historical materials, but since they had not been catalogued, there was no way to request them. Given China's restrictions on archival access, he had little hope of seeing them if they were housed in Beijing.

"I was wrapping up my research in Taiwan," Vanden Bussche remembers. "I had gone to the National Palace Museum to look at a late 16th century map." Rather than the map he had ordered, the archivist mistakenly brought him a 19th century Sino-Burmese border map. It was exactly the type of map he had given up hope of finding.

"So I asked the head map archivist, ‘Do you have more of these?' " Vanden Bussche said. "Over the next two weeks he brought me about a dozen maps from that period."

Because they hadn't been digitized, making copies was not possible, so Vanden Bussche sketched the maps in his notebook. "Some of them were huge. They took up a whole conference table." Many of the maps were literally falling apart.

The collection Vanden Bussche viewed in Taiwan included not only the original Chinese maps, but also British maps of the region with detailed notes in Chinese, added by the Qing negotiators and surveyors.

"Xue was aware that the map was the medium through which the Europeans constructed and negotiated space. He had to use a map rather than written sources to advance Chinese territorial claims."

As Vanden Bussche's research has revealed, it was one strategic choice of many that would ultimately contribute to the way China conceived of space and sovereignty. 

Rachel Smith is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,