Yu Ji Tu, an example of traditional Chinese cartography

Yu Ji Tu 禹跡圖,  Map of the Tracks of Yu Gong
39°55′N 116°23′E
1:4 200 000

The Yu Ji Tu 禹跡圖, or Map of the Tracks of Yu, was made by an unknow Chinese mapmaker under the Song dynasty (907-1276). This map has several particularities that make it an exceptional cartography object. First of all, it is a square map of 0.91m side, engraved in stone. Its title indicates that it was made in honor of Yu or Yu the Great (2nd millennium BC).
Also called Yu that controls the flood, he was the one who saved China from the many floods it suffered. He took advantage of his experience with rivers to drain them into new canals rather than building dykes. In this way, the natural flow of the rivers was preserved. After 13 years of work he was considered the highest virtue person of the empire by Emperor Shun. Later he was appointed emperor and was the first ruler of the first Chinese dynasty: the Xia dynasty. (Yu the Great).

Another particularity of the map is the exceptional precision of the representation. The coastline of China and the river systems are clearly defined and precisely located on the map. This is remarkable because the purpose of this map is to represent the 9 provinces and their irrigation established by Yu the Great and described in the Yu Gong. It is a form of homage to the man who controlled the floods.

Ji Li Hua Fang, the grid system well ahead of its time

Finally, what makes this map renowned is the way it is represented. It is the oldest remaining map to employ the Ji Li Hua Fang 吉利华芳, a rectilinear grid system. This square division divides China into nearly 5000 tiles. Each square represents 100 li out of 100 li. The li is a Chinese unit of measurement of distance that has evolved over time. However, when the map was made under the Song Dynasty, the li was about 416m (today it is equivalent to 500m). Therefore the map covers a distance of about 3000km in width. An exceptional distance for the time. This type of representation is remarkable because of its precision and will be used much later by European cartographers.

Dated 1137, the contents of the map suggest a cartography initiating more than 60 years before the completion date. The stele was also used as an imprint allowing the printing of copies like the one visible below, long before European typographic printing. This incredible map meticulously identifies roughly 380 administrative districts, nearly 80 rivers, 70 mountains, and 5 lakes. The map shows the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and its tributaries, the coastline, Taihu Lake, Dongting Lake and Poyang Lake, the Bohai See and the Shandong Peninsula to Hainan, Sichuan, and the South China Sea.

Slide the image below to see a negative of the copy, making it easier to identify the different components of the map.

Before After Yu Ji Tu, Chinese traditional stone cartographyYu Ji Tu, Chinese traditional stone cartography Readable Map

Discover here a georectification of the map. Alexander Akin and David Mumford have superimposed the stone map on the current map of China, which allows to judge its accuracy.
Read here an english translation by James Legge of
the Yu Gong 禹貢or theTribute of Yu. It’s a chapter from the Book of Xia 夏書 describing the legendary Yu the Great and the 9 provinces.

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