Written by Ben Goren.

In his 1941 book General Semantics, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Prevention, Alfred Korzybski made one of the most abiding observations to have ever been so egregiously ignored at such a large cost: “the map is not the territory”. This important lesson in humility has, depending upon your perspective, either been ignored or cynically exploited throughout history by kingdoms and nations ever since the first person sought to symbolically convey an imagined topography of their environment. In making the leap to map our place in the world, we started down a road of discovery not only of unknown geographies but also of ourselves and our identities in relation to others. Maps became receptacles of immense knowledge, imbuing the viewer with a sense of omnispective power, often placing the reader at the centre, in the process creating a visual hierarchy of value. This hierarchy then placed the lesser, or the Foucauldian Other, at or outside the periphery, barely within the boundaries of knowledge and considered of little worth, and further outside that, the mythical and unknown, unseen in the shadowy realm of fearful imagination.

It is perhaps above all this fear, born of a drive for survival, imaginary threats or catastrophic invasions that left psychological scars across generations, which has historically driven the human need to map known and unknown territory. As Jerry Brotton illustrates in his History of The World In Twelve Maps, mapping is an instinctive human behaviour that begins in infancy and remains a critical cognitive tool all our lives. Maps not only help us define locations that are safe or dangerous, productive or barren, facilitate movement or are impassible, they create and project claims of ownership and exclusion. Above all, maps are “intimately connected to prevailing systems of power and authority”. The map allows the sovereign ruler to determine not only what is and is not ‘theirs’ in a particular territory but also record, and covet, the geographical and environmental resources of what belongs to, or is currently utilised, by others. A mountain range, for example, could provide information about the direction of possible threats but also the means for access to potential riches beyond them.

For the modern nation state, and especially one that wields nationalism as a tool to maintain its own internal coherence, legitimacy and authority, the map represents more than just a description of resources or physical barriers – it represents the physical projection of the identity of the State and its subjects. For the contemporary nation-state maps are cartographic foundations of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities, the physical manifestation of the ideological semiotics that generate both the identity of us and them, ours and theirs. If the most psychologically and geographically secure of nations feel the least need to constantly state or contest the topography and identity of the territory they obviously exercise suzerainty over, then those nation-states built upon the ruins of a conquered peoples or land, or those explicitly engineered from ideological and theological constructions or re-imaginings of the territory, will likely not only jealously guard what they have seized, occupied, or built over, but also constantly reiterate and reify their rights to that territory. It is far more likely that they will, especially at times of internal political or economic pressure seek to expand their territory either to gain more precious natural resources or neutralise domestic dissent against the ruling class.

The main problem for the latter kinds of nation-states is that whilst the authorities’ uses of mapping may temporarily produce a feeling of permanence of identity and project ownership into the past and present, it is less useful in the long-run as a tool for securing such properties into the future. The reason for its critical weakness in this respect is twofold.

Firstly, as Marijn Nieuwenhuis notes, “the reality that maps represent is never static or immutable. State territory is rather historically produced and in constant need of reimagining […] Territory is a dynamic and contingent historical process.” As such, any authoritative information that indicates alternative historical title to, or narrative of identity of, a particular territory represents a potentially fatal ideological, even ontological, threat to powers of the State and the individuals invested in, and vested with, that power. As the saying goes, ‘you may be able to fool some of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all the time’. If the governing apparatus of a nation-state has built the national identity and territorial claim upon mappings that are historically, politically, and culturally tenuous or even fabricated, there exists the strong possibility of both nation, identity, and territory fragmenting at some point in the future. This is especially true if a nation-state has been transplanted, been artificially created by outside forces as a result of war, colonialism and imperialism, or has been fabricated from a process of historical revisionism.

Secondly, maps not only in definition fail to represent actual territory but they, no matter how objective or accurate we may believe them to be, are inevitably instantly out of date at the moment of publication for the simple reason that our planet is not a static entity, neither ecologically, politically, economically, socially or historically. In terms of economics alone, David Harvey illustrated in a 2004 interview how ruling authorities constantly struggle, Canute-style, against irrepressible tides of human exchange and migration that redefine the content and borders of territories. A dependence upon mapping generates a “territorial logic which tries to maintain the health and well-being of a particular space in the face of this capillary movement of capital moving left, right, and center, and everywhere.”[sic]  In the contemporary ‘globalised’economy, it is readily apparent that this is a losing fight being fought by nearly every exploiting and exploited nation on Earth, at an immense and ever rising human and environmental cost. As Nieuwenhuis points out, “There exists [a] mismatch between the cartographic need to map territory and the historically dynamic nature of territory itself. Territory is neither a static container nor a de-historicised social relation. It is instead a formative force and a historically contingent category. Maps need therefore to be constantly adjusted to reflect changing political realities […] Territory is revealed to be a process rather than a permanent and truthful reflection of reality.”

Seen through this perspective, most maps of the world that have come to be regarded as stable depictions of territory and identity are not only inadequate representations of the reality on the ground but are manifestations of specific historical outcomes of the contingent use of power and wealth. Advances in transport, communications, and weapons over the centuries have led to waves of imperialism, colonialism, conquest, annihilation, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and forced mass migration. The result is that there is almost no part of the world today untouched by the conflict ultimately facilitated by ever detailed maps used to plan and justify the violent encroachment of one people upon another, driven by insecurity and the hubris of seeking a place in history.

One particular part of the world currently demonstrating an increasing level of conflict between the territorial aspirations of nation-states is the South and East China Seas. It is no coincidence that we also see in the region a number of governments run by elites utilising maps and nationalism as a means to challenge the territorial boundaries of neighbouring states. Although Japan’s attempt at regional imperialism finally failed in 1945, the historically insular country is arguably turning again to a territorial nationalism largely as a result of revived, and increasingly physical, claims upon her peripheral holdings by China. Likewise, both Vietnam and the Philippines have in the last two years found themselves having to counter incursions into their Exclusive Economic Zones by the PRC. A core pillar supporting China’s vigorous expansionism and maritime adventurism is a map submitted to the United Nations that unilaterally annexes millions of square miles of ocean, and the islands and purported natural resources within, all via the use of a map with nine dotted lines. The most common rhetorical device employed by Beijing in defence of this absurd and provocative claim is that the territories were historically part of ancient China, an entity they would have their critics believe to be almost a law of nature, a static unchanging civilisation five thousand years in the making.

Nieuwenhuis deconstructs this hubris neatly and swiftly when explaining that “historical maps depicting the geography of the numerous dynasties conventionally incorporate [Tibet and East Turkestan] into the geographical imaginary of the contemporary territorial state. The territory of China becomes as such a historically immutable and impermeable container that dates back to at least the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) if not earlier. The fact is, however, that territory is neither permanent nor primordial, and China is not an exception to that rule.” In addition, China’s claims of a ‘peaceful rise’ or not historically being an agent of conquest or imperialism run in stark contradiction to the historical record:

“It is often forgotten that China only started to territorialise its Empire at the time of the rise of modern cartography in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Scholars have pointed out that Empire and cartography are intrinsically related. China, despite what the official narrative seems to suggest, was not the mere passive victim of imperialism. It had earlier been an active, and rather successful, imperial agent itself. Mapping and colonialism worked in perfect tandem during the Qing’s territorial aggrandisement of the Chinese state. These cartographic endeavours sowed the early seeds from which the modern Chinese territorial state that we know today could emerge.”

Acting as a subtle facilitator of this politically convenient, spurious, and historically revisionist mapping that the PRC utilises to legitimatise territorial expansionism is the Chinese nationalist Government on Taiwan. Indeed, the very existence of the Republic of China in exile on the Austronesian archipelago of Pacific island indigenous and migratory nations serves in itself as an excellent example of a how a historically contingent and manufactured claim was imposed upon a territory and then sustained purely to uphold the authority of the regime which arrived there in 1949 (in the eyes of Taiwanese at the time) as refugees from a largely foreign nation. Since 2008, the Government in Taipei has been led by a President whose doctoral thesis concerned itself with finding a way to justify and reify Chinese claims upon the Japanese administered Senkaku Islands of the formerly independent Ryukyu Kingdom. It came as little surprise when the President acted to irritate Taipei-Tokyo and Taipei-Washington ties by reviving the ROC claims of territorial sovereignty over the islands and reiterate a long dormant suzerainty over the entire South China Sea, in a move that suspiciously dovetailed with PRC claims upon an almost identical area of the region.

Despite the seeming unofficial coordination between Taipei and Beijing in making these claims and provoking their neighbours, their motivations are quite different. For the Ma administration, the main concern lies with the increasing international and domestic irrelevance of the ROC and its fading legitimacy on Taiwan, a somewhat inevitable process born again of hubristic mapping as a means to compensate for lost territory. Ma is fighting a largely symbolic battle to convince Taiwanese that Taiwan is China and that Taiwanese are Chinese, despite forty years of his own party’s policies of forced linguistic assimilation, indoctrination, censorship and brutal dictatorship failing to accomplish the same task. Expanding out, and confronting neighbouring countries serves as a way of internationalising the ROC and reminding Taiwanese and foreigners that the nation still has some kind of international presence and relations. For Beijing, the motivation to expand outwards, southwards and eastwards, probably lies in a mixture of economic and political insecurity, and partly out of nationalistic hubris that shouts “you will respect our authority”. China wants to regain its position as regional hegemon to which its neighbours pay tribute. This, it feels, is its right. More worryingly is that it has staked its domestic authority and legitimacy on its ability to do so. With its economy developing and slowing, internal pressures are rising to deflect internal dissent and revolt against corruption and governmental incompetence and brutality.  There is a danger that Beijing believes a short contained naval conflict with Japan, Vietnam, or the Philippines which results in gaining absolute control of important maritime passages could be the salve for more than one problem at home, and buy enough time to rebuild its authority.

What seems certain, not just in East Asia, but around the world, is that too many countries are still led by individuals and governments who are so uneducated about history, or at least cynical in their manipulation of it, that the lesson Korzybski was trying to teach us will remain obscured by the insecurity and hubris of people desperate to impose their maps on territories, and to believe the map to be the more real of the two.  As Oscar Wilde once remarked, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.  And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail”.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan and tweets@BanGaoRen.