Sunday, April 16, 2017

A short review: The Mapping of Taiwan

The Mapping of Taiwan
Jerome Keating
Available at eslite, Bookstore 1920s and elsewhere
(Photo coming soon)

I've had this book for awhile, but until recently had only really used it to peruse the gorgeous maps inside. That's really the main purpose of this slim, oversize book: to have large-size prints on hand of some of the most well-known maps of Taiwan through history. I'd go so far as to say that for that purpose, it is essentially a coffee table book.

And my, does it look good on a coffee table. The cover is gorgeous and the maps engaging. Years ago someone gave me a calendar of old maps of Taiwan (I saved the pages for later art projects), and was pleased to see many of the calendar reprints I'd lovingly découpaged to gift boxes, file folders and cards present in this book.

What this means is, if you're looking at this book as an academic resource, you will be disappointed. Will you learn something? Sure - I had not known, for example, that Koxinga was able to land his invasion thanks to a small inlet that would allow ships into the harbor near Tainan at high tide, for example. I had known that Taiwan was, at one point, portrayed on some maps as three islands but did not realize how common this was, or the plethora of other ways it was inaccurately drawn or placed. I had not been aware that cartographers used to regularly place Taiwan above or below, rather than directly situated on, the Tropic of Cancer where it belongs. All of this was engaging enough to keep me reading.

There isn't much to read though - which perhaps is appropriate for the The Mapping of Taiwan's ultimate purpose as a repository for, well, maps. The entire book, sans references, is perhaps 120 pages long. Of those, whole sections are devoted entirely to maps. You could read the text of the book in one ambitious morning. That's a good thing - the generous dimensions of the book make it an infeasible choice to bring to a cafe to read.

The text of The Mapping of Taiwan is ambitious and comprehensive in its breadth, covering the Dutch spice trade, the Spanish Asia-to-Acapulco route, Portuguese ambitions and even the colonization of the Philippines (in very broad strokes). The depth in these areas is perhaps lacking, but a deeper cut into such a wide swath of cartographic history would take volumes. Where I'd have liked to have seen more depth was in the portions of text devoted to Taiwan itself. For example, much of present-day Tainan is on reclaimed land: the littoral borders of the area have changed significantly since the Dutch colonial and Ming loyalist eras. Maps demonstrating this must exist, and would be a fascinating addition to this volume. The book is divided into sections by era: in one of the later sections, more in-depth text, with accompanying maps, of cities in Taiwan under the Japanese, or maps of indigenous areas by tribe would have also been worthy additions.

This, all in all, leads to my biggest criticism of the book: there are many, many maps of Taiwan as a whole, but very few of specific regions or cities. This makes sense in the early chapters when novbody who made maps knew enough about Taiwan to depict it in such detail (or even depict its overall shape correctly). Later, however, a great wealth of maps exist of growing Taiwanese cities and regions - several gorgeous maps of Taipei under the Japanese exist. I've seen them (one of my favorite bookshops, in a rambling shophouse near Longshan Temple, has a huge one framed in the main room). These ought to have been included and would have been more worthy additions than, say, a photograph of a Russian ship that is not related to the main narrative.

These might be more pointed criticisms for a more academic work, but, as a short narrative full of large illustrations with great aesthetic value, I would not say this is a fatal flaw. I would still recommend it as an engaging read, a personal collection of beautiful maps, a worthy addition to a tabletop, and certainly as a gift.

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