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The Illustrated Album of Yangzhou Prefecture in the Chinese Rare Book Collection

(The following is a post by Yuwu Song, Chinese Reference Specialist, Asian Division.)

One of the Chinese rare book collection’s most beautiful items, the “Yangzhou fu tu shuo” 揚州府圖說 (Illustrated Album of Yangzhou Prefecture) is a handmade Chinese map album created during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE) and has been fully digitized for viewing on the Library’s digital collections website.

Located adjacent to the Yangtze River near China’s eastern coast, Yangzhou had been a major trading port since the Tang Dynasty (618–906 CE). It is also close to the Grand Canal, the longest and the oldest canal in the world, which played an important role in China’s economic development during and after its construction from 500 BCE to 618 CE. It was during the Wanli Era (1572–1620 CE) that Yangzhou came into being as a prominent prefecture and an economic and cultural center in China.

It is estimated that the “Illustrated Album of Yangzhou Prefecture” was created in the late 16th century. Scholars have noted that there are many similarities between the Yangzhou map album and a map album of Nanjing, the ancient capital of China, that was created around the same time. For example, the painting styles of the two maps are quite similar. But the main difference between the two is that the Nanjing map album was an official version done by professionals on silk with bright colors, beautiful decorations, and refined calligraphy, while the Yangzhou map album was probably created by an amateur painter with lighter colors and less sophisticated calligraphy. Most experts agree that the central government created most of the map albums produced during the Ming dynasty and that there were very few private works. Because the album from the Library’s Chinese rare book collection is obviously different from the works produced by the Ming government, it seems likely that this copy could be one of the oldest examples of privately produced Ming map albums extant today.

Painted on paper, with a height of 38 centimeters and a width of 19 centimeters, the folding album contains 12 maps with corresponding descriptions of Yangzhou Prefecture and 11 of its constituent counties and cities: Jiangdu, Guazhou, Yizheng, Taixing, Gaoyou, Xinghua, Baoying, Taizhou, Rugao, Tongzhou, and Haimen. The method of painting resembles the techniques of modern handmade maps, which evidences a cartographic tradition that has continued in China for more than 400 years. One striking feature of the maps is the meticulously detailed rivers and mountains around Yangzhou. In addition, the maps include the major towns, temples, dikes, gates, canals, water conservancy facilities, all levels of military garrisons, and historical sites. One can see the Little Qinhuai River passing through Yangzhou on the left side of the city. There are four bridges on the river: Xin Bridge, Kaiming Bridge, Tongsi Bridge, and the Taiping Bridge. The Wenchang Pavilion is marked right below Kaiming Bridge. As recorded in the local gazetteers at that time, the Wenchang Pavilion on the map, a historic landmark which still exists today, was built in 1585 during the Wanli Era.

Map of Yangzhou. One can see Little Qinhuai River passing through Yangzhou on the left side in the city. There are four bridges on the river: Xin Bridge, Kaiming Bridge, Tongsi Bridge, and the Taiping Bridge. “Yangzhou fu tu shuo” 揚州府圖說 (Illustrated Album of Yangzhou Prefecture), Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division.

It should be noted that the administrative establishments of the governments of counties and cities in the map album are identical to those recorded in “Ming Shi” (History of the Ming Dynasty), which was compiled during the 17th and 18th centuries. While the map of the full Yangzhou prefecture measures 38 x 19 centimeters, the maps of the 11 counties and cities are 38 x 38 centimeters. All of these individual maps can be connected together to form a contiguous whole.

The focus of the album is its illustrated maps, while the textual descriptions play a supplemental role. The album does not identify its creators, but it does provide textual and visual evidence documenting the geography of Yangzhou at the end of the 16th century. It also references lesser known historical events. For example, the description of the map of Tongzhou records the raids of the Chinese coastlines by Japanese pirates known in Chinese as wokou 倭寇 that occurred in 1554.

Map of Tongzhou. Here one can see the East China Sea, Tongzhou city walls, military training grounds, and government offices for inspection, household registration, and taxation. “Yangzhou fu tu shuo” 揚州府圖說 (Illustrated Album of Yangzhou Prefecture), Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division.

Description of Tongzhou, which mentions that Tongzhou is located to the east of Hailing County, an administrative region established in Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). It also mentions the raids of the Chinese coastlines by Japanese pirates in 1554. “Yangzhou fu tu shuo” 揚州府圖說 (Illustrated Album of Yangzhou Prefecture), Chinese rare book collection, Asian Division.

Although this album was not professionally produced, its detailed illustrations and interesting historical notes provide us with a better understanding of Yangzhou Prefecture and the geographic and social importance of its many rivers in the late Ming period.

This map album is part of the Asian Division’s Chinese rare book collection. Access to this item and other items in the rare book collection is only by prior appointment. Please use the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form to contact Chinese reference staff or to ask a question about the collection.

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