The photograph on page 349 shows two forms of compass used by the Chinese, with a pack of cigarettes to give the scale. In the lower left is the mariner's compass, the only form used aboard Chinese junks, large or small. Its wooden cover is shown beside it. These compasses cost approximately eight cents apiece, U. S. currency, and four of them form the entire instrumental equipment of a Chinese navigator. The large compass in the upper part of the illustration is a geomancer's compass costing about thirty-five cents, but having a very small and inferior needle. Much ill-advised criticism has been directed at the Chinese compass by who base their remarks upon an inspection of this type, which in reality is never used at sea. It is a magician's compass exclusively, used ashore to cast horoscopes, to locate lucky sites for building or burial, to tell fortunes, and to perform similar mystical feats of geomancy. Only the inexperienced foreigner would confuse such an instrument with the compass used by Chinese navigators.
The wooden case of the mariner's compass is lathe-turned from a single block of wood, lid and all; the hemispherical hollow in which the needle is located is turned out by the same means. In modern compasses the needle is protected from the wind by a glass cover; in former times thin mica was used, a device much admired by Europeans when first they learned of it.
The Chinese method of naming inter-cardinal points is the reverse of ours; that is, where we would say northwest, they say westnorth, where we would say southeast, the north, they say eastsouth. Until recently, the Chinese regarded the magnetic needle as pointing south and placed a distinguishing mark on that end. This was a logical conception. The expansion of the Chinese nation generally speaking, was southward. The earliest foreign trade, which was overland, involved countries to the south of China. When junks began to make oversea voyages, it was to the south that they traded. Nowadays the convention is practically forgotten. A sailor will occasionally speak of the needle as pointing south, but the arrowhead on a modern compass is always on the north-seeking end.
The Chinese compass carries no card; its needle is the sole moving part. The points are painted around the rim, which is a part of the case; in consequence they agree with the actual directions on the earth’s surface only when they have been specifically oriented by turning the case until the needle points to the character representing the north.
Curiously enough, the characters around the rim are not the ideographs for directions. Words such as “north” or “east” are entirely absent. Instead, each of the points is represented by an astrological symbol. The twelve principal points are given the names of the twelve divisions of the Chinese zodiac, which are called after animals, just as we have Aries the ram, Leo the lion, and so on. There are twelve intermediate points, which in some cases have concrete meanings and in others are simply abstract terms relating to certain systems of astrological calculation. Since the Chinese compass thus has twenty-four points and our own has thirty-two, the two methods of designating directions coincide only on the cardinal and intercardinal points.
The principal symbols are used by the Chinese not only to designate the twelve major directions, but also to name the twelve watches of the Chinese day; for instance, the period from 9:00 p. m. to 11:00 p.m. is called the hour of the Dog. Each such Chinese hour is, of course, as long as two of our hours. The diagram illustrates the Chinese system of designating hours and directions as compared with the European. The inner circle gives the names of the Chinese hours, compared with our own divisions in the next circle. The next three circles give the English terms for Chinese compass points, where translatable; next the Chinese name for each point, and finally the actual Chinese character as placed on the compass rim. Outside of everything is shown the marking of a European compass. The geometrical devices in the center of the figure are the eight trigrams, a set of magic talismans much used in divination and astrology. Each is appropriate to the cardinal or intercardinal point upon which it is shown, and the series of eight figures is very often marked upon the lid of a Chinese compass.
The twelve principal zodiacal symbols appear not only in the designation of the hours of the day, but also in the Chinese calendar, which is founded upon a cycle of sixty years where ours is based upon tens and hundreds. The basic indicator is the planet Jupiter, which makes a complete revolution of the zodiac in twelve years. There being twelve divisions of the zodiac, Jupiter spends a year in each sign, which gives its name to that year. The reckoning of dates, hours, and bearings have all three the same terminology; so that the twelve symbols are so frequently used as to be, in the Chinese mind, entirely interchangeable with the numerals one to twelve.
The compass aboard ship.—The compass is kept in a sort of cupboard when not in use; this cabinet partakes somewhat of the nature of a shrine. It is usually decorated with carved members, and has sliding doors by which the front opening may be dosed; these are frequently ornamented with red votive papers. Mounts for candles are provided, partly for lighting the compass at night but also from sacrificial motives, since sockets are also fixed in which incense sticks may be burnt. Under way, the compass is set on a table or athwartships trestle immediately forward of the helmsman. To prevent this table from sliding about, sockets are let into the deck to receive the legs; this also makes it easy to set the compass always in the same place. In some installations the cabinet and table are made in one piece, so that the instrument remains in its shrine at all times.
The Chinese do not use the double gimbals in which a European compass is set. Sometimes they suspend the instrument from the overhead by cords; but usually the compass case is bedded in a box hall full of dry sand or grains of uncooked rice. Although they cannot keep the compass level, these grains cushion the instrument against shock and vibration. Such a box frequently contains three compasses, for the same reason that a ship carries three chronometers, if one should go wrong, the other two will make that fact apparent. If there were only two instruments and one went wrong it would be impossible to know which was the correct one. The pilot usually has a fourth compass in his berth, for ready reference.
The technique of using a Chinese compass aboard ship differs sharply from the manner in which a Western pilot uses his instrument. Chinese compasses are not fixed in place, nor do they have a lubber’s point of the same character as ours. Since the needle does not support a card, but points to symbols painted on the rim of the case, it is necessary to orient the compass case by hand so that the needle points to the character for north. Unless this is done the directions on the rim of the case will not correspond with their proper portions of the horizon. Once the case is thus oriented, the helmsman has only to keep the needle opposite the character for north; in so doing he will hold the ship's head upon whatever course she was making at the moment when the pilot oriented the case.
The method has several advantages, which are especially valuable in case the helmsman is ignorant or unintelligent. He needs to be able to read only one character— that corresponding to North. He does not even have to remember what the course is—no matter what the course may be, the duty of the helmsman is always the same, simply to keep the needle pointed at the north mark. Even when the gale is howling its loudest, there is no danger that the helmsman may fail to hear a change of course, or fail to understand its amount correctly—dangers never to be forgotten when conning a Western ship. Aboard a junk, the pilot effects changes in the course by actually resetting the corner, pass case with his own hands; he need not even speak to the helmsman.
In practice, this procedure amounts to using the north point as a movable lubber’s mark, offset by the angle of change desired. The Chinese have no lubber's line as we understand the term, since with their type of compass no such device is needed. As a convenience to the helmsman, the cases of most steering compasses do have a brass wire running from the north point to the south point, above the needle but below the glass. This is merely an aid to the steersman's eye, emphasizing the alignment in which the needle is to be kept. Such a wire coincides with the fore-and-aft line of the ship only when the course happens to be due north or south; it is not a lubber's line.
Since changes of course are controlled by the manipulation of the compass case, the junk pilot has in effect a "follow-the-pointer" system by which he governs the helmsman. By slowly rotating the case, he may cause almost imperceptible corrections to be applied to the ship’s head. For larger changes, two methods are available. In the first, the pilot rotates the compass case until the character for the course desired is aligned with the fore-and-aft line of the hull. To get his needle back to the north point, the helmsman must then put the ship on the course corresponding to that character. The other method is more convenient when piloting by known landmarks, using the compass as an aid in conning the helmsman. Under these circumstances, the pilot puts the junk on the desired heading by specific orders to the helm; when steadied on the new course he sets the north mark on the compass to agree with the point of the needle, instructing the helmsman to keep it so thereafter.
In all these operations the pilot’s eye is constantly measuring the angle between the compass needle and the fore-and-aft line of the ship. There are no marks on the compass cases to assist him, but the box in which the three cases are mounted is fixed in its relation to the ship’s structure, and has its forward and after edges notched to show the ship’s center line. By stretching a black thread between these two notches, readings may be made with sufficient precision, as the thread bisects the faces of all three steering compasses, showing the exact relation between the fore- and-aft line and the markings on the compass rims. For the convenience of the pilot, one end of such a thread is permanently fastened to the forward notch. A small weight, permanently fastened to the other end of the thread, makes it easy to drop it into the other notch. The thread is not left in this position permanently, but is stretched for a moment whenever a reading is to be taken. Not being used in steering, but only when the pilot is checking or changing course, it hangs down clear of the compass faces the rest of the time.
A theoretical knowledge of the variation of the compass was brought to the Chinese court by Jesuit missionaries in the first part of the seventeenth century. It is certain that the phenomenon was known to at least some of the royal astronomers thereafter. That this knowledge percolated downward to pilots and merchant sailors has not been shown; even today an understanding of variation is not widespread among junk masters. The practical sailor, however, must have been aware of the existence of this variable error in his compasses, for the Chinese have established true north by the pole star from a very early period. When steering in waters known to him the junk skipper does make an allowance for variation, since he uses compass courses which have been ascertained by experience. This amounts to establishing the variation by trial and error.
The origin of the compass.—Accounts relating to the time and place of the invention of the compass belong almost to mythology rather than to recorded history. The device has been variously attributed to the Finns, Etruscans, Greeks, Arabs, and Hindus as well as to the Chinese. The dates ascribed are even more varied than the places. Some theories are demonstrably false, many are patently dubious, and not one is established as firmly as its advocates could wish. The properties of lodestones were known in Europe in 400 B.C.; in China some of the principles of magnetism were understood in 700 B.C. Between the discovery of an abstract principle and its practical application many centuries usually intervene; so that we cannot assume the invention of the compass as flowing in either place from a mere knowledge of certain magnetic properties.
Specific mention of the mariner’s compass appears in European literature of the twelfth century, and in Chinese writings of a trifle earlier. Certain weighty authorities are thereby convinced that the compass originated in Europe and spread to China. Others are convinced that the compass originated in China and spread to Europe. Still others take a middle ground and deduce that the compass originated in India and spread both ways.
For the inconclusiveness of this evidence we may chiefly blame two factors. (1) In the literature of any age references to contemporary ships are scanty and almost wholly lacking in detail. When ships are mentioned at all, it is by travelers who are vastly more concerned with the wonders of strange lands than with the craft which carried them there. The professional mariner who might have left us exact descriptions of gear, instruments, and nautical practices has always been an unlettered man. (2) The compass was not so important an instrument in the past as it has become during modern times. The compass became of decisive value only after the modern steamer had conferred upon shipmasters the ability to hold exactly to a prescribed course and speed. Before this became possible, in the days when ships were dependent upon the whims of the wind, they did well to make progress in the general direction of their destination. An exact course was not to be dreamed of, and such confirmation of the ship's head as could be got from a glance at sun or stars was fully sufficient for the needs of the pilots of that era. Moreover, when commerce was almost wholly coastal, and trade routes followed the turnings of the shore line, it was not particularly essential to keep track of the vagaries of the course from hour to hour.
Aboard European vessels, the compass was originally only a cloudy weather expedient, since they possessed the astrolabe. With this, directions could be calculated with considerable accuracy as long as the sun was visible. It was only after considerable hesitation that European mariners came to a general use of the compass. Even in the thirteenth century writers allude to it with noteworthy infrequency. One thing which impeded its adoption was the superstitions of European sailors. As late as 1260 it is recorded that masters feared to make use of the mysterious needle lest they be suspected of witchcraft, and that when the presence of such an instrument aboard ship became known, crews would sometimes refuse to put to sea.
The prevalence in the West of abysmal superstition is one of the principal reasons for believing that some oriental nation invented the compass and diffused its use. Europeans of that era were hardly the people to invent scientific instruments; they would not even tolerate the advances made by others. In art and science alike they were the reluctant and ungrateful pupils of the more erudite East; and when their explorers finally came into contact with the shipping of the Orient, they found oriental vessels, charts, and nautical instruments all superior to their own. Moreover, European accounts of the origin of the compass, diverse as they are, agree upon one thing. Every mention ascribes the device to some port between the writer and the Indies, the clues pointing ever eastward. It is hardly to be doubted that traders and Crusaders found the compass in the eastern Mediterranean, and took it thence to their respective home ports.
A small but significant indication of the origin of the instrument will be found in the lettering of the Chinese mariners' compass. As previously noted, these characters do not signify directions except by the sanction of long usage; primarily they are astrological symbols, and are taken bodily from one of the many concentric circles of lettering which cover the face of an astrologer’s compass. This would indicate that the Chinese seaman received his compass from the astrologers ashore. Now Chinese astrology is extremely ancient; if it has any roots outside China they go back to some unknown connection with a Central Asian civilization whose very existence is not fully demonstrated. Had the Chinese sailor received his compass from the seamen of other nations, it is unlikely that he would have borrowed a more or less irrelevant terminology from ashore; his compass would in all probability be marked with characters which actually refer to directions, either in Chinese or in the language of the country of its origin.
The marking of the compass indicates that it was a Chinese invention, and that it was first devised as an astrologer’s instrument ashore. Among those who credit the Chinese with the invention of the compass, the belief is general that it was used ashore for a long time before its adoption afloat. It appears to have been used by armies and caravans sooner than it was used by ships. This is extremely reasonable; Chinese sea commerce did not really need the compass until it began to branch away from the coastal tracks and into transoceanic trade. This evolution was a comparatively late one, begun in the last few centuries before the Christian Era. The earliest specific mention of a compass on a ship is in the latter part of the eleventh century; there is another and very definite one under the date of 1122 at Ningpo. However, 2,200 years before that it is recorded that some Annamese ambassadors were presented with a “southpointing needle.” About 300 A.D. there is mention of a device called a “south-pointing ship” which quite possibly was a hollow magnet floating in a bowl of water. “South-pointing chariots” are said to have been used ashore in warfare about 800 A.D. One may doubt the accuracy of these references, but one can hardly explain them on any other grounds than that the Chinese had compasses and that at a date far in advance of the West. There is much to support the contention that the Chinese had the compass during the first centuries of the Christian Era, whether or not they used it afloat so soon.
The earliest compasses were of the “wet” type. The needle was made to float on the surface of a bowl of water by placing it in a hollow reed, by providing it with floats of wood or cork, or by the use of hollow needles which were buoyant in themselves. When the compass was first introduced in the West, the Arab traders of the Levant used float compasses, as did the Italians. The pivot compass is a European invention, of which the earliest description is dated 1269. For centuries these compasses were dry; the pivot replaced the float instead of supplementing it. Not until 1813 was it observed in Europe that a compass whose bowl contained water was less subject to vibration and shock, and less given to prolonged oscillation of the needle. Gradual improvement then brought about a general return to “wet” compasses by the beginning of the present century. In the type in almost universal use on shipboard today, the needle is mounted on a pivot, but the bowl is filled with a fluid, which by supporting a float attached to the needle takes most of the load off the pivot and greatly reduces friction. The liquid also checks oscillations of the needle when the ship is yawing or changing course, damping out the resultant vibration and bringing the needle to rest more quickly than is the case with dry compasses.
More than 300 years before the general adoption in the Occident of the pivoted, wet compass, those in use in Japan and China were described as follows:
A magneticall needle of sixe ynches long, and longer, upon a pinne in a dish of white China earth filled with water; in the bottom whereof they have two crosse lines, for the foure principall windes; the rest of the divisions being reserved to the skill of their Pilots.
From the descriptions given by European traders, it is evident that the type of compass in use in the Orient varied in different parts and in different periods. There appears to have been a fairly general adoption of the dry compass, after European ships came to China, and even the importation of needles of European manufacture. The Chinese retained their usual originality, however, and as late as 1802 the Chinese compass is spoken of with admiration. Their short needles (one to three inches) made them less subject to dip than the European design; a covering of "transparent talc" (mica) over the box protected the needle from disturbance by wind; and their mode of suspension gave the needles not only a bearing unusually free from friction, but an excellent balance due to the low center of gravity.
Improvements begun about 1810 have brought the European compass to questioned superiority over the instruments of the Chinese. Western writers who claim that ascendancy for a much earlier date are by no means lacking. It should be noted that such assumptions were seldom or never based upon comparative examination of the two instruments. On the contrary, they were predicated upon the readiness with which European vessels stood boldly out to sea, while junks confined their movements to tracks close inshore, passing from headland to headland.
Why Chinese ships seldom sail far away from the coast line.—The foregoing contrast has been the occasion for much derogatory comment on the part of foreign observers. A surprising number have been ready to assume that Chinese ships hug the coast line because they fear to lose sight of land, and that in consequence Chinese navigational methods must be fit only for piloting alongshore. As a matter of fact, the contour of the Chinese coast is such that most trade routes lie close inshore; to follow them reflects no discredit upon the sea-keeping ability of the junk or the capacity of her navigator.
Almost invariably, the shortest track between two Chinese ports involves hugging the land as closely as the draft of the ship will permit. The coast of China, from latitude 21 N. to latitude 35 N., bulges into the sea in a long and sweeping curve. This great arc is uninterrupted by any peninsula of noteworthy size. Measured as a smooth a curve and taking no account of a multitude of minor irregularities, it is over 1,200 miles long. If laid down in the Atlantic would span the North American coast from Hatteras to southern Cuba. On this arc are found the gateways to the rich and populous basins of the Yangtze and the West rivers, while the coastal ports of this great curve are the most important to China. From any harbor in this region to any other, the shortest sea route lies close against the land, a circumstance more plainly apparent on a globe.
At the extremities of the above-mentioned arc, the shape of the coast is also her such that the usual tracks do not pass out of sight of land, be except for a few runs of short duration. The Gulf of Tonkin at one end, and the head of the Yellow Sea at the other, are both so nearly surrounded by land as to make dead reckoning entirely sufficient for all passages.
Another important consideration which inland keeps the ships of the Orient close to the land is that they are and always have been opportunist traders. They were never common carriers, with a cargo sold in advance of loading and consigned to a definite purchaser at a definite port. The packet boat, operating from scheduled ports on an inflexible time-table, is a Western device and ultra-modern at that. As their predecessors of the past did, so do junks today operate as roving tramps, picking up freight wherever they are fortunate enough to find it, and selling it in any port where heaven is pleased to provide a purchaser. If the route of such a ship lies in the general vicinity of any rich port, it would be not to stop there. Good business sense causes junks to trade from each port to its next neighbor up the coast, omitting none of any importance. In this manner, economic pressure holds the trade routes to the coast line.
Methods of position finding.—The Chinese pilot has no knowledge whatever of the mathematical side of astronomy; but he is familiar with the appearance of the constellations and knows the general bearings of the prominent stars at different seasons. It would be jumping to an unwarranted conclusion to say that he makes no use of navigational methods based on astronomy. That the Chinese mariner takes no observations of celestial bodies has been frequently stated; but this is true only to the extent that no instrumental measurements are taken. By day and by night the junk pilot is constantly scanning the skies. His lack of a sextant, chronometer, and table of logarithms renders his conclusions approximate but they are by no means valueless or unscientific.
Written allusions to Chinese methods of navigation are few and indefinite; but there are indications that ships have checked their course by the pole star for many centuries. Star myths concerning the constellation of Ursa Major are abundant, and that constellation appears frequently upon flags used in the decoration of ships on festival days. The coast of China Proper covers a sufficient arc of latitude to render a change in the appearance of the heavens very apparent as one journeys between north and south. It is extremely probable that sailors had noticed this phenomenon even before the beginning of the Christian Era, and if they did not do so previously they cannot have escaped making the observation after junks began to trade between North China and the equator, covering over 40 degrees of latitude. The ability to estimate latitude from the height of the North Star above the horizon followed almost inevitably. With practice, a remarkably accurate altitude of Polaris can be taken with the naked eye. The ability to make such an observation is possessed by the navigators of peoples far more primitive than the Chinese, even though the cognizance taken is in some cases purely subconscious.
Even in the hands of a capable mariner, the navigation of a junk is never a matter of exact reckoning. The art of conducting a ship upon her course with such precision that her position traces upon the chart a predicted line from port to port belongs to the era of high-powered steamers. It is as modern as the telegraph. A sailing ship, even though she be the best of the clippers, is still very much at the mercy of such winds as it may please providence to bestow, and may reach no nearer to a desired line than luck permits. Up to the last few centuries the command which a captain held over his ship’s track was a flimsy one. In storms and adverse winds the high-sided, shallow hulls of both Occident and Orient were little more Weatherly than so many haystacks.
Their usual practice was to lay a course for the broadside of a continent, deferring details such as gulfs, bays, and individual ports until after the coast had been made. Once out of sight of land, a captain’s control over his course and his knowledge of his position were sketchy in the extreme. Mariners had no charts worthy of comparison with modern ones, and could not have used them in the modern manner if they had. Inability to keep their ships on a designated track caused captains to coast as much as they could, which lessened the demand for accurate charts.
It is only a short while that Europeans have had better means for ascertaining the position of a ship at sea than were possessed by oriental shipmasters of the corresponding period. The precision instruments used by the navigators of today are little older than the rest of our mechanical civilization. The quadrant was not invented until 1540, the astrolabe and cross-staff being used prior to that time. The revolving log was invented in 1578 and the barometer about 1665. Mercator’s projection, the system upon which most charts and maps are drawn today, was invented in 1568, but did not come into general use until about 1630. Although the use of the terrestrial globe in navigation dates back to 1495, the advantages of the "great circle course" were not generally understood until disseminated by Maury about 1850. To the same officer is due the credit for the first attempts to collect and correlate hydrographic information for distribution to mariners. Before his time no systematic study of the winds and currents of the sea had been attempted. As late as the nineteenth century, watches and clocks could not surpass the sand glass in reliability.
In the field of mathematics, today’s methods of calculation derive chiefly from the discovery of the "line of position," made by Captain Sumner no longer ago than 1837. Until about 1750, when the precision chronometer was perfected, longitude was not determinable anywhere on earth except by dead reckoning. The observations of the navigator gave him his latitude only.
The Chinese navigator has never felt the lack of means for determining longitude. His trade routes followed a coast which in general ran northeast-southeast, and in many sections nearly north and south. At any time, he could "run his westing down" and fetch up against the mainland of Asia. Instrumental methods of navigation were not greatly needed in ancient times, nor is their absence felt today by the junks which use those same paths.
The junk pilot never adopted the elaborate navigational equipment of the West for the fundamental reason that he did not feel any need for it. It is highly significant that the Chinese of the Tang and Sung dynasties do not even mention the astrolabe used by the Arabs. This exhibits an indifference which in our times has been extended to the chronometer and sextant. His failure to adopt the scientific instruments and exact astronomical methods of Western navigators is mainly due to the fact that his particular requirements are very well filled by simpler means. The waters cruised by Chinese junks are especially suited to the most elementary methods of position keeping, by the reason of configuration of the boundary shores and the uniformity of their trade winds. Navigation is mainly a matter of piloting, and seldom does the need for a sextant and chronometer become acute.
From the beginning of their sea trade, Chinese ships have made a practice of cruising before the monsoons, constant in direction and uniform in velocity within reasonable limits. For such conditions the most elementary methods of dead reckoning are entirely adequate. Moreover, the monsoons blow parallel to the general trend of the coast. If the pilot wishes to find land, he has only to bring the wind on the quarter and make a little more westing. As a study of the map will reveal, the China Sea's pilot is in little danger of being lost in the trackless wastes. Usually he has the broad face of a continent immediately at his elbow; and a large proportion of his voyaging is in semi-enclosed waters. He is never under an imperative need of making a landfall on an isolated island, a tiny rock, or any other point hard to pick up. No matter how far off his course he may get, it is a rare occasion when a landfall of one sort or another does not present itself across his bows. He may go aground but he won't have to wonder where.
The navigator of a sailing vessel in the China coast trade does not need a micrometer sextant so much as he does a busy lead line and a pessimistic turn of mind. I have been told by various junk masters that their first dependence is upon a personal acquaintance with the appearance of every headland and landmark on their route; their next reliance is the lead. The use of the deep-sea lead, armed to bring up a specimen of the bottom, was recorded among the Chinese as long ago as 1090 A.D. and is doubtless older.
The Chinese of today, traveling along familiar sea paths, make little or no use of carrier pigeons or other land-seeking birds. It is possible that they did so in the past, when developing unknown territories, but it is more likely that this expedient was confined to the ships of the Arabs, who have left the record concerning it. A junk equipped with a compass would have had little need to carry birds to indicate the bearing of land invisible from the ship.
The crudity of the Chinese navigator’s equipment, and the entire absence of many items which we have come to regard as necessities, does not so much indicate an incapacity for mathematics as it attests a superb acquaintance with his route. By centuries of trade in the China Sea, junk masters have accumulated a vast store of information about wind and weather, courses and distances, shallows and deeps, which does not need to be recorded on paper so far as they are concerned. Most of the meteorological, geographic, and navigational data required by a Chinese pilot is carried in his head. He spends his life on one run as a rule, becoming better acquainted with it than with the arrangement of streets in his native city. Until very recently, junks were family enterprises and floating homes. More frequently than not, pilots acquired their training while growing up aboard their fathers’ ships. Perfect familiarity with the route serves Chinese shipmasters better than detailed and elaborate cartography.
Chinese charts.—It has never been the custom of junks to carry many charts; in fact, the vessels which trade in an area well known to the crew never carry any charts at all. I have visited scores of small merchant junks without ever finding a single chart aboard one.
Of the charts used by the Chinese prior to the advent of European explorers little is known. There is a record of a Chinese wall map of 84 pieces, painted on silk about 265 A.D., and later reduced to a chart 10 feet square. Under the date of 1400 A.D., sea charts of Chinese origin are mentioned.
Early explorers and traders, whether European or Asiatic, were very scantily furnished with geographical information. They depended upon the journals of other travelers, the reminiscences of merchants, and the half-legendary accounts of natives. In place of meticulously accurate surveys, they had to rely upon bald and indefinite scraps of information to the effect that such-and-such a place was two days’ sail to the northeast of so-and-so. Where they possessed maps, these were the compilations of geographers similarly impoverished for data. In them, the positions of important ports were often as apocryphal as the monsters with which their oceans abounded. Maps particularly designed for the use of seamen did not appear in Italy until the end of the thirteenth century, and the first was imported into England in 1489. In 1497, Vasco da Gama found that the Indian and Arabian mariners had better charts than he, and superior instruments for measuring altitude.
Even when drawn in the form of maps, Chinese charts are not precise records of accurate surveys. They are sketch memorandums of the general shapes of bodies of water whose actual proportions it is unnecessary to depict. Important features are drawn large, and others either mini mixed or omitted, as in the sketch one gives a friend to show him the way to reach a suburban destination from City Hall. Some charts are incised on dried gourds, a circumstance which has led certain writers to conjecture that Chinese mariners understood the sphericity of the earth.
Most charts, however, are not projections of the shape of land and water in the manner used by cartographers; they are a series of pictures of the shore line as seen from an approaching ship. The purpose of these panoramic outlines of scenery is to enable the recognition and identification of landmarks. In this they correspond to the illustrations in pilot's handbooks and sailing directions, or the border of photographs of prominent objects which is placed on modern aviation charts. In the middle of the last century the commander of H.M.S. 13onetta pronounced Chinese charts "very useful when once understood, and not so rude as their appearance indicates." The comment is illuminating, since it applies with equal force to almost everything which the Chinese makes for his own use, and has been made again and again by observant foreigners about devices ranging from a fish net to a junk.