Cosmography and sources

In 1402, ten years after the foundation of the Chosŏn Dynasty in Korea, Confucian master Kwŏn Kūn (1352-1409) was commissioned by royal decree to create a universal map of the world which would place China at the center and the Kingdom of Korea on the right.

The original map has been lost, but a copy on silk executed in 1480, containing 4428 textual entries in Chinese, is preserved at the Buddhist Ryūkoku University in Kyoto. Known as Kangnido, this map predates that by Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464) and is the earliest Asian map to include, in addition to Korea, Japan, and China, also the western regions of Eurasia: the Caspian Sea, the Arabian peninsula, a circumnavigable Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean Sea.

The rendering of China is based on a Chinese map of 1330, the period when the Franciscan monks and Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324) visited Mongolia and China. The representation of the Nile with the legendary Mountains of the Moon, and that of the Caspian Sea enclosing two islands, permit us to confirm the Korean cartographers’ indirect use of Islamic maps derived from the Geography by Ptolemy (ca. 100-ca. 178).

Notwithstanding differences in language, cartographic semiotics, and cultural contexts, the Kangnido and Fra Mauro’s map have many similarities in terms of size and the quantity and complexity of their contents.

Although coming from different cultural and geographic perspectives, both maps represent all of Eurasia, depend upon the existence of the 13th- and 14th-century Mongol empire, and derive from sources further elaborated on during the Mongol-Chinese Yuan Dynasty. Moreover, both maps depend upon Islamic geography and even upon Ptolemy. Bringing together Venice, the Yuan dynasty, and the Korean Chosŏn Dynasty, the two maps manifest a convergence of commercial interests and geographic knowledge arising from the mediating influence of Islamic, Arabic, and Persian cultures.