AMONG THE gifts brought by Lord Macartney, who came to Beijing in 1793 on a historic embassy intended to open China to British merchants, was a map of the world, which the Emperor Ch’ien-lung found unacceptable because the Middle Kingdom was represented on it as too small and not in the middle. As it happened, Macartney’s compatriots had already established their own cartographical supremacy. During the eighteenth century Greenwich was adopted as the prime meridian of longitude, a convention internationally ratified in 1884, and imperial maps using Mercator’s projection made Britain seem greater than it really was. Toward the end of the Second World War, American writers such as Nicholas John Spykman and Neil MacNeil urged that their country’s dominant geopolitical power should be recognized by redrawing maps of the world to put the United States at the center.
Today, the question arises with increasing urgency: Is China set to occupy pride of place in the global picture as it had famously done in the time of Marco Polo?
THE WAKING of the Asian giant, which was dormant for so long but has just overtaken Japan as the second-largest economy on the planet, is one of the most astonishing developments of the modern age. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1958, an attempt to collectivize agriculture which resulted in a famine that killed some 25 million people, appeared to show what might be expected from a Marxist dictatorship. Yet twenty years later, then–leader of China Deng Xiaoping initiated a “second revolution” which realized the vast potential of what was, at the time, one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world.