China's Classroom Maps Put the Middle Kingdom at the Center of the World

China's Classroom Maps Put the Middle Kingdom at the Center of the World
Chinese world map, drawn by the Jesuits (early 17th century). Reproduction in "Historic Maritime Maps" Donald Wigal. Photo Credit:Wikimedia Commons public domain

What you need to know

This has not changed much since the earliest known Chinese world map was printed in 1602.

"China" (zhong guo) is made up of the Chinese characters for middle (中) and country (國). Dating back to around 1000 BCE, inhabitants of what is now China believed their empire to be the Middle Kingdom, as in, at the middle of all of Earth. Indeed, that sentiment prevailed to some extent right up until the past few decades, and some would argue that the Chinese government still teaches its children that China is the center of the world. At least, its maps suggest as much.

The Western world is so used to seeing itself as the most critical part of the globe that it is always a bit odd seeing Europe and North America nudged off to the sides of a world map like casual afterthoughts, or the relish that got squeezed out of a hot dog. That is how they tend to look on the maps you see today in Chinese classrooms, which have not changed all that much since Kunyu Wanguo Quantu — the earliest known Chinese world map printed in the style of the European maps — which dates back to 1602.

Photo Credit:準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia @flickr CC BY 2.0
Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (坤輿萬國全圖)

The map, which can be translated as "Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the Earth," has been traced back to the Chinese cartographer Li Zhizao (1565-1630) of Hangzhou. It was created under the oversight of Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, who arrived in China in 1583 on a Jesuit mission. Thanks to Ricci, it is apparently the first Chinese map to show the Americas at all.

Nowadays, the world map hanging on millions of walls in China looks a bit more geographically accurate than the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu, but the basic outline — and message — remains the same. In this version, China may not be the very middle of the world kingdom, but it definitely comes the closest of anybody (aside from the entire Pacific Ocean, which constitutes almost half the map).

So who, or where, can accurately call itself the Middle Kingdom? We will leave it to the U.S. and China to battle it out.

Photo Credit:Harald Groven @flickrCC BY-SA 2.0
A Chinese modern-day world map.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Atlas Obscura here. (Atlas Obscura is the definitive guide to the world's wondrous and curious places.)

Editor: Olivia Yang