First established in the mid-1990s and gradually expanded since then, the 230 maps dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, not only represent the applied science of their day but also a way to visualize the world through the eyes of people of the past, ahead of mass photography and smartphones. In doing so, they beautifully illustrate two core elements of HKUST: its recognition and championing of the links between science and engineering and humanities and social science as well as cross-cultural connections bridging east and west.
Now another exciting chapter in the collection’s own history is underway: the compilation of the world’s first comprehensive reference book on printed antique maps that are focused on China but produced in the west; a website based on the book; and enriched bilingual Chinese and English annotations to enable the digital versions of the Library’s map collection to better relay their stories to scholars and the public.
External support has come from Dr. Ko Pui Shuen, Chairman of Kingrich Asia Holdings Ltd, with a donation in 2017 that enabled the project to move forward. This followed on from a first gift in 2012 providing for a dedicated space in the Library – the Hong Kong Chiu Chow Chamber of Commerce Ko Pui Shuen Gallery – to display the physical maps and initial digitalization.
The pioneering bilingual reference book, being compiled with major Dutch publisher Brill (which has itself been in business since the1680s), is set to widen the collection’s recognition. Some 35 of the University’s items will be included among the 200 maps, with the rest being sourced from national libraries in various countries. The focus is maps of China itself, not wider maps including China.
Leading the project is Dr. Marco Caboara, Digital Scholarship and Archives Manager at the Library, and his small team. Dr. Caboara, originally from Italy, lists reading in Latin, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Chinese (simplified and classical characters) among his language capabilities, along with effective Putonghua and fluency in Italian and English. As a result, he has a host of intriguing tales to tell about the science behind the drawing and printing of the University’s map collection, the sources of international information in those times (traders and Jesuits in Asia, for example), and intriguing east-west differences in how the maps were viewed.
Chinese maps tended to be functional, printed in black-and-white on single sheets, and as a result have not been passed down, Dr. Caboara noted. “While we know hundreds of maps were printed in the Ming Dynasty, very few remain,” he said. Western maps were often more decorative and, along with being printed as a sheet, were featured in atlases or books, helping them to survive.
Antiques in Cyberspace
Nowadays, it is digitalization that serves to store and share the past for many people, and the scholarly reference book’s content will also be put online through a more popularly oriented website to expand the audience further. In addition, today’s online age makes transferring the HKUST antique map collection as a whole to the cyber realm a critical mission, according to Dr. Caboara. This is why the bilingual annotations supported by Dr Ko’s donation will form an important pathway for future generations to navigate their way to greater understanding of the world and its past.
"If we don’t find a way to engage students in written sources, such as maps, through digital technology, there will be a break in transmission of knowledge," he said. “People must be able to find these materials using their smartphones and iPads for them to be used. Otherwise what will happen is simply conservation.”
Mapping the Future
He is also delighted to be exploring previously unchartered realms through the China map volumes, with the English language edition due out in 2021X. “I found it hard to believe at first but there are no comprehensive books on western-printed maps of China. And no comprehensive books in Chinese on the mapping of China on a country scale,” Dr. Caboara said. He undertook more research, then checked with his long-established publishers. “If you want to do it, you will be the first,” they told him.