Home>; Academic Events>; Anniversary Events>; Master Salon

​Regulating the Earth: Colonization and Map Imperialism

Since its establishment in April 2018, and with the support of the university leadership, the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS), has made remarkable achievements in platform construction and talent training and in conducting exchanges with foreign universities and scholars. On the occasion of its fifth anniversary, the Institute has launched a series of "Master Salon" and "Youth Salon" events, inviting scholars in various disciplines to share their research.

On May 19, the third session of its Master Salon series, titled "Governing the Earth: Colonization and Map Imperialism,”was held at No. 66 Yananyuan. Prof. Song Nianshen from the Tsinghua Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences was the keynote speaker, and Chen Yifeng, associate professor of PKU's School of Law, moderated the session. The discussion was attended by Prof. Zhang Yongle, deputy director of PKUIAS; Lei Shaohua, associate professor of PKU's School of International Studies; Zhang Minyu, assistant professor of PKU's School of Foreign Languages; and Xie Kankan, assistant professor of PKU's School of Foreign Languages as well as postdoctoral fellows from different departments and institutes.

Prof. Song Nianshen began by examining the background of the birth and cartographic process of Martin Waldseemüller's world map, the Caverio Map, the Cantino planisphere and the Padrón Real, linking the world divided by the Treaty of Tordesillas and the Treaty of Saragossa. His research revealed how European empires, under the capitalist urge to amass profits, used maps as a vehicle to explore, understand, conquer and dispose of the earth's geographic space, and thus established a new spatial order pattern.

Afterward, Prof. Song Nianshen took the naming conflict between "East India" in the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum and "West India" in Descripción de las Yndias occidentales made by Juan Lopez de Velasco as an example to reveal how the naming of territories could "create" space and promote imperial ideology. "Tartary," a non-existent political entity, was imposed on the known space and given a specific geopolitical imaginary. Named territories and fictitious territories, as important means of artificially constructing geographical perceptions, gave intellectual rationality and order to space, and thus became a prerequisite for exercising jurisdiction over the corresponding space according to the logic of colonialism. Prof. Song Nianshen pointed out that map surveying was not only a scientific act, but more importantly, a juridical act of regulating space. The discourses on ownership and jurisdiction over unknown land and maritime space by Spanish scholar Victoria, Dutch jurist and scholar Hugo Grotius, and English jurist John Selden became an important source of modern international law.

Finally, Prof. Song Nianshen used the examples of Imperial Federation: Map of the World Showing the Extent of British Empire in 1886 and The Map of the United States of America: With Neighboring British and Spanish Territories to demonstrate the role of maps in highlighting and inspiring imperial greatness. At the same time, US de facto control of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and hundreds of overseas military bases was able to be effectively “hidden” on standard world maps in which the US was depicted as looking no different than any other countries, thereby concealing US hegemony over those places.

In the discussion session, Prof. Zhang Yongle pointed out that behind geospatial concepts are knowledge systems and power structures, and understanding their existence can help deepen the knowledge of the most fundamental issues of area studies (such as the political subjectivity behind the concept of "region"). Prof. Chen Yifeng discussed with Prof. Song Nianshen about the background of those European cartographers and their competition in the map market. Prof. Zhang Minyu raised the question of how to understand the different attitudes of Western cartography toward the indigenous knowledge of the different regions called "India" (South Asia subcontinent, American, Southeast Asia). The participants also discussed with Song Nianshen on the competition between government and society for map power, the political influence of geological exploration maps, the influence of railroads and waterways on the concept of spatial order and international rules, and how the production of area studies knowledge could contribute to the construction of a new knowledge system. In the end, Chen Yifeng gave his view that Song Nianshen's presentation stimulated people to rethink knowledge we often take for granted, and such reflection is of great importance in promoting research in area studies, global governance and international law.