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The dishonest confidence of political cartography

There is the veneer of authority in a map. A splotch of color bordered by cold, static black lines is the world as it is and as it is for all. Maps, however, are an abstraction of reality. We see the world in a particular way and so we splash this vision onto the page. There is within this a tension.

A fellow editor for this paper recounted to me a story of travels in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. He arrived at the border with a book of maps. Written on certain pages, as in most political cartography, was the term “Israel” — the ink hovering above a portion of land in the Middle East. This was, in the mind of the customs officer, clearly a mistake, one he would promptly fix. Every instance of this word, be it above a squiggle of borders or buried in the index, was totally blacked out. The term was, literally, wiped off the map.

Maps are a statement of the political “reality” as one sees it and in that is the tension. Politics, and so its maps, is now and always has been infused with a strain of postmodernism: no one truth. Many.

This politics of maps has drawn itself into the headlines recently in a way that, were it not for the sour history involved, might be considered cheeky, even comical.

Only a few days ago reports emerged that China's new passports include a map of the country that makes a confident if disputed claim to reality. A dotted line curves across the oceans to the east and south of mainland China. In the process it wraps in its net not only Taiwan, a fairly common habit of Chinese cartography, but also much of the South China Sea, notably the island chains of the Paracels and Spratlys. Meanwhile, to the west, Arunachal Pradesh and the Himalayan region of Aksai Chin, the sovereignty of which India and China disagree about, are included within Chinese territory.

To be sure, such a cartographical “land grab,” as a Filipino or Indian may term it, are nothing new. In 1947, China printed a map that laid claim to much of the territory in the South China Sea, which the country says has been an integral part of their territory for 2,000 years.

1 Comment
November 29, 2012    nhanthai08@
That is how honest, friendly, dishonorable, and good neighborly the F***** China is.
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