How maps create nations

by Isabella Chua

Maps are powerful, albeit low-key, tools that inscribe and shape how people perceive themselves, or understand the outside world. By looking at the traditional maps of Siam (modern day Thailand), China and Japan, the influence Western technologies had on them, we can uncover their culture, beliefs, fears and priorities.

What is a map?
Reimagining the map

An example of a world map in the Mercator projection.

How did indigenous maps look like?

The Traiphum manuscript, 1771, the National Library of Thailand, taken from Thomas Suárez’s “Early Mapping of Southeast Asia”.

Huang Qianren. Complete Geographical Map of the Everlasting Unified Qing Empire (“大清萬年一統地理全圖”), 1796–1820, taken from Richard A. Pegg’s “Cartographic Traditions in East Asian Maps”.

Matteo Ricci’s Mappamundi, commonly known as A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World (“坤輿萬國全圖”). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Cao Junyi. A Complete Map of the Nine Border Towns, Allotted Fields, Human Presence, and Travel Routes of All under Heaven (“天下九邊分野人跡路程全圖”), 1644, Harvard Yenching Library Map.

Rokashi Zuda (Hōtan). Map of All the Countries of the Jambudvipa (“Nansen bushū bankoku shōka no zu”), 1710, John Carter Brown Library Map Collection, Brown University.

Upper left corner of Map of All the Countries of the Jambudvipa depicting Europe, Holland, Italy, France and England. Imaginary lands, such as the “Land of Dwarves” (小人) and “Land of Long Hair” (長毛國) from the Chinese classic text, “Classic of Mountains and Seas” (山海經) are also depicted. Waseda University Library.

Yoshiharu Koyano. Outline Map of All Countries on Earth (“Bankoku Ichiran Zu”), 1809, University of British Columbia Library, Rare Books and Special Collections.

How modern maps construct a new worldview

Photograph of King Mongkut on His Throne, by John Thomson. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Making wars, making maps
Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at
Recommended Stories
Kontinentalist's - Latest Stories Stamp