HKUST has built up an important collection of historical maps of China, set to go on show at Shaw Auditorium in 2023/24.

The Lee Shau Kee Library is undoubtedly a memorable place for alumni. Many remember borrowing books, working on group projects with friends, and studying hard for upcoming exams. Yet one of the things that our alumni may not know is that the Library also plays host to important historical maps that document the development of Western trade and diplomatic relationships with China.

The valuable collection, which has been amassed since the 1990s, will be featured in a large scale exhibition in 2023/24. While small parts of the exhibition have been previously at The HK Chiu Chow Chamber of Commerce Ko Pui Shuen Gallery in the Library as part of a "Tartary" from Marco Polo to the Enlightenment tour, the showcase next year will be on a much deeper level.

A grand total of 70 items will be on display, including recently acquired items in a 2021 auction. They will outline the image of China developed in European maps, while showing the contrast between European and Chinese cartography, and are part of a larger collection of more than 120 items. HKUST acquired these items either by purchase, or even by simply asking for facsimile copies from academic institutions globally.

Together, these items are a fascinating trove of western portrayals of China, from maps based on the stories of travellers such as Marco Polo; Jesuit maps meant to curry favour with dynastic rulers, to newer cartographical works that display a high degree of accuracy.

Highlights are far and wide. They include a map by Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607), the only other copy is in the Jesuit archives in Rome. There is also a complete map of the Qing empire based on research originally presented to the Qianlong emperor by Huang Qianren [黃千人] in 1767. Other stunning artefacts include a 1137 Song dynasty map of China, and a Japanese manuscript copy of the Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) map of the world, which places China right at the centre.

We meet Dr Marco Caboara (Digital Scholarship   Archives Manager, University Library) at special collections where we get a glimpse of maps of China from different eras. “For four years we have been on a mission to get an original or copy of every single map of China printed in Europe,” says Marco.

Excitement as guests officiate the Opening Ceremon

It is a spectacular and worthy undertaking, and when meeting Marco one gets the strong impression of his passion in research and acquisitions, and his endeavor to put together a fascinating exhibition in 2023/24. “We will be displaying a mix of Chinese and Western maps, to demonstrate the varying perspectives on trade and relationships, which is both fascinating and insightful on the development of this region,” Marco says.

In a low-lit room we survey originals and copies, some of which are so fragile that we tiptoe around them, lest we accidentally come close to damaging any of these rare treasures. Listening to Marco, his absolute dedication to the task is clear, which uniquely combines his knowledge and experience in Chinese Manuscript Studies, Syntax and Rhetoric, Chinese Folktales, and Narratology, and background in history of the Silk Road and Classical Chinese Linguistics.

His fascinating background and experience has brought him far and wide, and offered access to some of the world’s most exclusive archives. To acquire the map by Michele Ruggieri, he had to visit the Jesuit archives in Rome, which might be regarded by some as intimidating, almost the stuff of cloak and daggers. “It was incredibly interesting, it’s nothing secret like Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code),” he says with a laugh. “But at the same time, I could only enter because of a friend, and it is a big building with nothing on the door that tells you what it is. You push a button and someone looks at you and they open it without a word,” he adds.

Joining us is Diana Chan, Director of HKUST Library, who is set to leave her post soon following years of dedicated service. “I’m so delighted that Marco is able to explore previously uncharted realms through the China map volumes, and I was able to be part of HKUST hosting one of the world’s most important collections of cartography on China,” Diana says. “We now have one of the largest collections of Western maps of China, with the addition of Chinese and Japanese maps. Aside from this, the Library has some of the most outstanding antique maps and rare books collections in East Asia, of which we are justifiably proud,” she adds.

For HKUST staff, students and alumni, the exhibitions are not only a milestone, but an opportunity to learn, witness, and reflect on the development of the West and China in an inimitable and exceptional manner.

(Left to right) Gabi Wong, Head (Research Support Services) of the Library, Diana Chan and Marco