Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Mr Selden's Map of China

Being obsessed with the history of East Asia, and in particular with the history of China and her neighbours during the early modern times, I have bought and read Mr Selden’s Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart and the South China Sea by renowned Sinologist Timothy Brook (Profile Books).

The book is an account of how a detailed map of the East and South China Seas came into the possession of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, accompanied by many considerations about sea voyages in the 17th century, mapmaking in the East v mapmaking in the West, and social mobility in early modern England. In the end, I was slightly disappointed by the fact that the main focus of the book was not 17th century China, but 17th century England. The so-called Selden Map of China, which gives its title to the book, was made by a Chinese mapmaker in the East Indies (certainly not in China, where it was forbidden to give maps of the country to foreigners — under pain of death) for a factor of the British East India Company. It was later bequeathed to the English scholar John Selden, who willed it to the Bodleian Library.

As I've mentioned above, on top of dealing with maritime travel and trade in East Asia at the beginning of the 17th century, the book also provides intensive insight into English society in the early modern period, with a particular focus on the rapid social advancement of people like Samuel Purchas, John Saris, or John Selden; people born at the lower end of the social ladder but who managed to climb close to its top thanks to the patronage of various powerful people: bishops, members of Parliament, wealthy traders...

I think the book can give great input for two different but highly important aspects of a 17th century Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign game:

1) How to introduce player characters to wealthy patrons. This can provide a (somewhat railroad-y) spark for many scenarios: “OK I buy you equipment but you go and pilfer <insert MacGuffin> from this rival of mine.” or: “Can you please escort me to this old abandoned mansion I have inherited from a childless uncle?”
It can also explain how some lowly ruffians (the player characters) can get information about important facts in the realm.

2) It gives detailed information about the inner workings of the British East India Company, which can be very useful should the referee want to set up a maritime campaign.