I love watching the Olympic Games, both summer and winter! So with the Winter Olympics starting this week in P’yongch’ang, I decided to dive into our collections to learn more about historic maps of Korea, encompassing what is now North and South Korea. As I began browsing our digitized collections, I was first struck by the beautiful aesthetics of many of the maps such as the two below drawn in the 19th century.
The first map of Korea, then known as Choson, drew my attention with its vibrant coloring. Painted with watercolors, each province has its own color. The name of each province is written in the large white boxes. The capitol of Seoul can also be seen prominently on the left of the map, with a thick black line showing the original wall surrounding the city with its four main gates. The second map, though not as brightly colored, is also a wonderfully detailed hand-drawn map showing the names of the towns with beautifully drawn mountain ranges. The names of the larger cities are circled in red while the red rectangles represent military installations.As I continued to look through historic maps of Korea, I noticed that beyond the beauty of the artifacts, there were a number of maps that were remarkably similar. These, I learned, were a type of map that is uniquely Korean. Called ch’onhado or cheonhado maps, they are circular world maps developed in Korea during the 18th century. The maps are structured with a central continent with historical place names, dominated by China with the Korean peninsula featured on the northeast side. The continent is surrounded by a sea filled with the names of kingdoms. The sea is then enclosed by another circular strip of land with more place names, and lastly another sea on the outermost edge of the circle. A tree can be seen on the east and west sides of the map, marking where the sun rises and sets.
The ch’onhado maps changed very little over the centuries. All told, there are 144 places names on each map, some of historically known countries, well known mountains, rivers, and other landmarks. The majority of the names however, are of imaginary countries, people, or features of the landscape such as “Land of the One-armed”, the “Country of Women,” and “The Land of the Hairy People.” These place names are the same in every map and are even located in the same place the majority of the time. For example, though they were made a century after the map above, even with stylistic differences, the two ch’onhado maps below are structured exactly the same.Despite exposure to other forms of world maps and having higher geographical knowledge, these world maps remained extremely popular in Korea until the late 19th century. The beauty, color, and distinctiveness of the Korean maps I viewed have helped me see the world through a new lens. Though my explorations have barely scratched the surface of Korean maps and the story of the ch’onhado, I look forward to learning more.