I’m really getting tired of seeing people hold up premodern maps as documents that they believe can demonstrate sovereignty. They don’t, and therefore if people want to demonstrate an historical claim to sovereignty over a given area, premodern maps are not going to help them.


Take the above map, for instance, it shows the Paracels (Hoàng Sa) as a single island, and then above it there are two more “islands,” Liren/Lí Nhân (里仁 – as far as I can tell, this is a place on Hainan, am I wrong?) and Hainan/Hải Nam. Hainan is an actual island, and yet it is presented in the same way as the Paracels. What is more, there is nothing on the map (color, lines, etc.) that distinguishes Hainan from the Paracels.

So does this mean that the Nguyễn Dynasty had sovereignty over Hainan?

What about the western border of the Nguyễn realm? There is no western border on this map. So does that mean that the area of Laos was also the sovereign territory of the Nguyễn Dynasty?

No, what it means is that premodern mapmakers made maps without the idea in their heads that they needed to demarcate their kingdom’s “sovereign territory.” And because they didn’t have that idea in their heads, we can’t use what they produced to demonstrate sovereignty.


The above map likewise demonstrates this point. It shows Hainan island surrounded by blue, just as the coast of the Nguyễn empire was in blue and rivers were in blue. So that seems to indicate water, but where then are the lines that demarcate sovereignty? There aren’t any.


Here is a map of the “entire kingdom” of Đại Nam, and once again it has Hainan in it, and no clear western border.


Finally here we have yet another beautiful map with Hainan, and no borders to the west or to the north.

So how do these maps demonstrate sovereignty? The only way they can do so is if the viewers are selective and only pay attention to some parts of the maps while they ignore other parts of the maps.

Such selectivity, however, means that any effort to use these maps to “prove” sovereignty will ultimately fail, because all the “opposing side” has to do is to point to the other parts of the maps (like I did above) to undermine the logic of the claim that such maps can be used to prove sovereignty.

Sovereignty is demonstrated not by putting something on a map, but by putting a continuous government presence in an area. The Nguyễn Dynasty were the first to attempt to do this in the Paracels, and the French established a more enduring government presence there in the 1930s. That is the evidence that supports a claim to sovereignty.

Premodern mapmakers weren’t thinking about sovereignty when they made their maps. Their maps are beautiful, but they were based on a different way of viewing the world.