Atlas Miller

Atlas Miller The China Sea

The China Sea

This is perhaps the most beautiful chart in the entire Atlas Miller, yet it is simultaneously the falsest, and can categorically be labelled as somewhat fraudulent.
In Ptolemy’s Geography, the Magnus Sinus, “the Great Gulf”, is located beyond the Aurea Chersonesus (Malacca Peninsula), its western border, and stretches eastwards as far as the land mass that supposedly linked China to Southern Africa, thereby closing off the Indian Ocean. However, Ptolemy only shows its maximum latitude as 18° N, which suggests that it was in fact a combination of the Gulf of Siam (whose northern border is at 13° 30' N), the Gulf of Tonking – which Portuguese charts and chronicles called the Cochin China inlet –, and the South China Sea, which reaches a latitude of c. 22º N. The gulf shown in this chart reaches a latitude of 45º N, while its southern border is not known since the coasts on the two sides stretch to the equator, the chart’s lower edge, suggesting that they continue beyond that line. This causes a clear paradox: besides the fact that the two sides of the gulf have different place-names in this chart and in the previous one, the drawing of the west coast bears no resemblance whatsoever to the chart of the “Parts of the South”. In the latter case, the coast ran broadly NE-SW, had two clear indentations and ended at Singapore point, accurately shown at a latitude of 1¾º N. In this map, it runs north-south and has no apparent end. In addition, the chart distances itself still further from Ptolemy by depicting a gulf full of islands, when Planudes’ tables, drawn from Ptolemy’s latitude and longitude tables, show no island at all.
At the time when the Atlas Miller was created, several Portuguese expeditions had already reached China. Jorge Álvares had sailed there in 1513 on a junk that had been purchased the year before in Pegu and jointly fitted out by the crown and Nina Chatu, a rich Tamil merchant from Malacca. In the following year, it was Rafel Perestrelo, who did some fine trade in Canton, while in 1516-17, it was the fleet under Fernão Peres de Andrade, which left Tomé Pires as the first Portuguese ambassador in China. In 1519, the disastrous expedition led by Simão de Andrade, Fernão Peres’ brother, would seriously damage Luso-Chinese relations for many years, although its failure could not have been known in Portugal at the time when the atlas was created. In any case, Francisco Rodrigues’ Book, finished in 1514, shows the coastline of the Celestial Empire quite accurately, even apparently including the city of Peking (Beijing) and perhaps even Japan. In contrast, the Atlas Miller either spurned or was ignorant of this information, merely showing the “land of the Chins” on the west coast of the gulf on the equator (!) and calling the large inlet alongside by its Ptolemaic name of the Magnus Sinus, Grande Golfo do Mar dos Chinas. This appears in a cartouche in the middle of the sea:
 “This is the great gulf of the sea of the Chinese, in which there are large islands where they trade all manner of riches and merchandise”.
 It is interesting to note the use of the Portuguese terms “chins” and “chinas” instead of the Greco-Roman “Sinae” for the region’s inhabitants, and of “Thina” for its capital. As noted, Ptolemaic geography called the gulf, “the great gulf”, yet the map calls the region that corresponds to its eastern side Sinarum Regio or Sinarum Situs, depending on the edition. All these forms ultimately hark back to the name of the dynasty that unified China in 221 BC: the Ch’in (also transcribed as Ts’in or Qin). However, the dynasty only managed to stay in power for fourteen years, and was replaced by the Han in 206 BC, which ruled until 220 AD, despite a brief interregnum between 9 and 25 AD. Nonetheless, the reputation of the Ch’in spread throughout Southern Asia and the name “China” was adopted (and continues to be used) for the entire country in Sanskrit, Persian, Malay, etc. It subsequently also spread to Arabic, a language that does not have the ch phoneme, becoming Çîn, with an emphatic sibilant. Curiously, this term did not survive in China, as the Ch’in preferred to call themselves by the names of two more recent and longer-lasting dynasties, the Han (209 BC-220 AD) and the Tang (618-907). In the west, the name Sinae was replaced during the Middle Ages by the word Cathay, a term made popular by Marco Polo, who transcribed the name of the Khitai or Khitan, a Tartar tribe that founded the Liao dynasty in Manchuria during the 10th century, dominated Mongolia and Northern China from 907 to 1124, and survived in Turkistan until 1201 or 1211. As far as is known, the word “chim” only re-emerged in the so-called Cantino planisphere from 1502. It is also the only concession that the cartographer of this map makes both to modernity and to reality, as all the rest is pure imagination.
Luís Filipe Thomaz
Director of the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Portuguese Catholic University
(Fragment of the Atlas Miller commentary volume)

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