The "Da Ming Hunyi Tu": Repurposing a Ming Map in Sino-African Diplomacy

Alexander Akin, Bolerium Books
Detail of poster by Guo Hongwu, 1975: Geming youyi shen ru hai 革命友谊深如海 (Revolutionary friendship is as deep as the ocean).
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In 2002, an exhibition at South Africa’s parliament included a reproduction of the Da Ming Hunyi Tu (Amalgamated map of the Great Ming), citing it as the earliest world map to depict the entire African continent. As part of its broader efforts to shape a narrative of long-standing and peaceful international relations with Africa, the People’s Republic of China formally presented a replica of this map as a gift to the South African government in conjunction with the exhibition. In official statements and popular media coverage alike, the map was described as evidence of a distinctly Chinese approach to global relations, based on benevolence and mutual respect. In particular, the map was ahistorically intertwined with the legacy of Zheng He’s diplomatic expeditions, which reached the East African coast in the early 1400s. To the cartographic historian, however, the depiction of Africa in the Da Ming Hunyi Tu is clearly derived from non-Chinese sources that predate Zheng He’s expeditions. This article examines the ways in which the map has been divorced from its original context to suit modern needs, exemplifying the deployment of cartography to deflect anxieties about the nature of Chinese economic influence in South Africa.

Keywords: Da Ming Hunyi Tu, China, South Africa, cartography, diplomacy, Zheng He, Ming