China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
The goal of this paper is to determine whether an analysis of Ming territorial maps, and the frontiers they depict, can help clarify the use of the term “empire” as a descriptor of the Ming state. Often overused and underdefined, “empire” has become elastic to the point of meaninglessness. One of the only enduring definitions is that of a state which rules over populations culturally, ethnically, or politically distinct from those ruling from the metropole.
In order to help shed light on this problem, I ask several questions. What terms and features mark the frontier zones on Ming maps? How did the depiction of frontier zones change in maps over the course of the Ming dynasty? Do major alterations in depictions of Ming frontier territory indicate a shifting self-understanding of the scope and identity of the Ming empire? Does the addition or removal of geographic and man-made features tell us something about Ming imperial imaginations?
This is an initial foray into Ming period maps using techniques I have already laid out in previous work on comparing pre-Ming and early-Ming maps. By looking at shifts over time and tying them to major changes in intellectual or political thought, I aim to provide another avenue by which we can connect territorial maps and visions of state-building.