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Anne-Sophie Pratte, Mapping the Steppe. The Politics of Cartography in Qing Mongolia, 1780-1911

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PhD dissertation, defended on 3rd June 2021 at the The Committee on Inner Asian and Altaic Studies, Harvard University. Advisor: Mark C. Elliott. Members of the dissertation committee: Christopher P. Atwood, Ian J. Miller, Laura Hostetler.

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1This dissertation reconstructs the story of local maps of Eastern Qalqa Mongolia in the Qing era (1644-1911). I ask how local Mongol maps of banners and leagues spanning the years 1780 to 1911 were made, by whom, for which purpose, and what elements explain their trajectory of change over time. The examination of the politics underpinning mapmaking sheds lights on the choices map artists made to successively include and exclude different layers of geographical information in the representation of their territory. Ultimately, I situate these maps within the corpus of the geographical information produced in the early modern world.

2The production of regional maps thus sheds light on the technologies of governance that were deployed in Qing Qalqa and the forms of local advocacy that ensued. From the late 17th century to the early 20th century, Mongol banner princes (ǰasaγ) and their assistants successively drew maps representing the territories of their banners, which then circulated within different administrative offices of the Qing state, from the seat of Mongol banners to Beijing. Local leaders who served as ad hoc mapmakers experimented with an array of practices and technologies aimed at representing space. In response to mapping instructions issued by the central state, local leaders actively engaged with proposed state policies by advocating for customary practices.

3These technologies were not static; they greatly changed from the mid to the late Qing. While the earlier maps display considerable regional variation and appeared anchored in local perspectives on the landscape, the maps produced from the second half of the 19th century onward follow an increasingly strict pattern of standardization. Qing officials from the central state aimed at obtaining a legible geographical corpus through a combination of creation and erasure of geographical information. This led to the imposition of a succession of mapping standards that were designed to create a uniform and continuous geographical representation of the entire Qing realm. Such standards forced local mapmakers to exclude some local perspectives from the maps, while never fully evacuating them.

4In addition to the creation of legible geographical knowledge on behalf of the state, one purpose of the mapping policies was tied to the local administration of Qalqa Mongolia. The state-commissioned maps aimed to implement an idealized view of the steppe as composed of neatly defined administrative units in which inter-banner movement was regulated. This vision of the steppe conflicted with local practices of seasonal migrations that relied on flexible movement in between banners. Different visions on the natural environment of the steppe thus not only dictated how the maps were made, but why they were commissioned and produced in the first place. Namely it was to reconcile the state and the steppe people’s view on geography. But this reconciliation never fully happened, and diverse perspectives and practices with regards to the environment and geography persisted throughout the Qing and continued into the 20th century.

Chapter outline

5Following two initial chapters that provide historical background on the Qing administration of Mongolia and Qing-era cartography, chapters three to six of this dissertation move chronologically along the mapping policies that took place in 1805, 1864, 1890, and 1900s. Each chapter reconstructs one mapping pulse and further situates it as a building block of a longer trajectory of mapmaking in Eastern Qalqa. This chronological approach thus elucidates the pattern of change over time that characterizes these maps from the mid to the late Qing.

6The first chapter offers an overview of the Qing governance in Qalqa Mongolia. In this chapter, I define key terms such as administrative units, official positions, and elements related to local rituals while giving an overview of the basic institutions around which Qalqa political, religious, and social life revolved. The second chapter situates Eastern Qalqa local maps within the larger context of Qing maps. I discuss layers of Qing cartography by comparing Mongol regional maps with Qing imperial maps. I find that the local maps produced by the Mongols included specific information related to the administrative geography of Qalqa that did not appear on Qing-wide atlases. The third chapter elaborates on this by examining maps produced in the early 19th century. The mapping project of 1805 was an attempt to redefine the banners and make their boundaries legible for state actors and for local herders. However, in their responses to the mapping instructions, local banner leaders expressed how these boundaries interfered with customary agreements on pastoral allocation. I find that prior to the mid-19th century, Mongol banners were territorialized, but not bounded by lines of cairns (Cl. Mo. oboγa; Cyr. Mo. ovoo) acting as boundary markers. Banners were separated by tracks of so-called “idle” land (sula γaǰar) that acted as buffer zones or communal land. The existence of such idle land in between banners that was used as common land constituted one of the practices that made banner demarcation impractical. Seeing that, high Qing officials attempted to close the gap between territorial units and required that all land be incorporated into specific banners.

7As shown in chapter 4, it was only in the 1860s that a cartographic system was designed to create systematic correspondences between these boundary markers in situ and those that appeared both on the maps and on the associated addenda. At this time, the Qing Foreign office (Mo. Olan ulus-un kereg-yi yerüngkeyilen sidkekü yamun; Ch. Zongli geguo shiwu yamen 總理各國事務衙門, lit. “Office for the management of affairs with various countries”) became invested in a new mapping project of territories bordering foreign states or ocean fronts, in an attempt to integrate the administration of the oceanic and so-called land frontiers. The Mongolian steppe occupied a sensitive geopolitical space linking the Qing to the Russian Empire and became the site of intensive geographical surveying. In 1864, a coherent system of geographical correspondences was designed and implemented to record places, distances, and boundaries on the Mongol steppe. This system departed from the longitude and latitude system, and enabled the creation of geographical correspondences between the boundary markers illustrated on the maps and those installed on the ground. In this case, contrarily to other empires of the early modern world, the producers of geographical knowledge were local Mongols, not specialized cartographers trained in geometry. These state attempts to reshape the administrative geography of Qalqa Mongolia happened in the context of global imperial expansion in which empires of Eurasia collided and negotiated treaties. To be sure, projects to produce systematic geographical knowledge on Qalqa Mongol lands were not only responses to external pressures on frontiers. They continued existing practices to consolidate the Qing state power over Mongol lands and were aligned with local forms of knowledge production.

8In terms of mapping aesthetics, this 1864 mapping project introduced numerous stylistic changes. Namely, a single bird’s eye view replaced the multiple perspectives – or worm’s eye view – that had characterized earlier maps. Boundaries had to be linear and the geographical features faded to the background as the maps became focused on the marking of boundaries. The production of maps at the banner level was followed by a rigorous process of cross-examination at the league level. League directors compared boundary segments across banners to ensure consistency; the banner rulers and their staff who had not complied with the mapping instructions were admonished and instructed to redraw the maps.

  • 1 The White Beryl (Vaidūrya dkar po) is a Tibetan manuscript on astrology and divination said to have (...)

9In the 1890s, the creation of geographical continuity across all Qing regions became a priority, as demonstrated in chapter 5. This time period corresponds to the years preceding the publication of the Guangxu-era Huidian atlas (DaQing huidian tu). Aiming at “codifying” the land, this standardizing project added a layer of constrains to local mapmaking. As a result, Mongol mapping practices were partially erased from the local maps, without completely disappearing. Maps went from artistic objects conveying familiarity with the landscape to abstract and disembedded territorial representations. For example, prior to the standardizing policies, Buddhist iconography was an important source of artistic influence for local mapmakers. The mountains featuring on the maps before the 1864 standardizing project displayed striking resemblances with those of the “White Beryl”1, a 17th century Buddhist treaty of divination. However, after the imposition of an increasingly small scale and a unified symbology aligned with the Huidian standards, traces of Buddhist iconography were gradually erased. As illustrated on later Qing maps that are now part of the Tenri University collection in Japan, some of the maps were also translated from Mongolian to Chinese. In this translation process, a layer of labels of Chinese names covered the maps, masking the original Mongolian contents. That said, local leaders remained those who made the maps, and their position as ad hoc mapmakers enabled them to continuously negotiate the mapping standards, which officials adjusted following their demands. Notably, they advocated for what they deemed as an appropriate scale to represent their land. They also kept drawing the maps in Mongolian, using the 24-direction system, which maintained a level of discontinuity between banner maps and the provincial and prefectural maps of China proper. As a result of this intense local engagement with state mapping policies, the desired pan-empire geographical continuity was never fully achieved, as Qalqa Mongolian banners never comprehensively figured in the Huidian tu.

10Tensions between state plans and local dynamics were not only manifest in the context of mapping. As global imperial expansion threatened the Qing sovereignty on multiple frontiers, the state responses to tighten its control over Qalqa created new areas of disagreement between the central state and local leaders. As shown in the final chapter, these tensions surfaced as the late Qing state became interested in extracting minerals from the soil, and as settler colonialism became part of developmentalist ambitions in Qalqa. The state began to instruct banner heads to add information on the natural resources present in their respective land. New maps focused on the localization of mineral deposits were produced in the context of increased transnational competition for natural resource extraction. However, Mongol officials opposed a series of Qing proposed policies on natural resource extraction, intended settler colonization, and the mapping of ecclesiastical estates. The religious estates occupied a large share of the Mongol territories but had consistently resisted their incorporation into Qing maps, as they benefitted the most from flexible territorial division.

11Together, the accounts in these chapters illustrate some of the ways in which the encounter between officials from the metropole and banner-level rulers shaped the territorial administration of Qalqa Mongolia. The making of the administrative geography as well as the allocation of resources constituted major points of contention that left indelible traces on local maps. As each group of actors sought to align mapmaking with their respective visions of the politics of the steppe, the resulting maps contain traces of this century-long negotiation whereby alternative agendas either co-existed, conflicted, or predominated over one another. While the creation and maintenance of defined territorial units was a dominant theme in 18th century imperial rhetoric, archival records produced a century later reveal that the goals formulated by the Kangxi and the Qianlong Emperors had been at best short-lived, at most completely ignored. That the state policies fell short of the desired outcome was mainly due to the actions of local banner-level officials who pushed back against central policies, advocated for alternative courses of action, mitigated policies imposed from above, or simply ignored them.


12This project relies on a methodology that cross-examines maps and textual records on their process of production. It also intersects with the field of digital humanities and draws on Geographical Information System (GIS), to georeference the maps and conduct data analysis. The Mercator projection of Qing historical maps not only helps present the evidence, but also reveals important information on the methods used by local Mongol map artists to illustrate the topography.

13I consulted two hundred local maps, most of which held at the National Central Archives of Mongolia and the Central Library, which I studied alongside letters between various offices involved in commissioning the maps, transmitting instructions, and implementing the mapping policy at the banner level. These records are composed of Mongolian and Manchu language material held at the National Central Archives of Mongolia, the National Library of Mongolia, and the provincial museum of Dundgov’. While the vast majority of archives in Mongolia were centralized at national institutions, the Dundgov’ provincial museum included two local Qing maps which I discuss in chapter 5. I also had the chance to spend a month at the First Historical Archives in Beijing, and could access a number of palace memorials and imperial edicts in Manchu language that give insight into the vision of the central state, which I then juxtaposed with local documents. I also consulted documents in Chinese language from collections in Taiwan, such as the Academia Sinica Foreign Relations database as well as the Palace Museum collection.

  • 2 A selection of maps held in Mongolia were recently published in Gerelbadrah & Mönhbaatar 2020.

14Local Mongol maps also made their way in various libraries of the world, and I also had the chance to consult some of these collections. I also used the online collection made available by Futaki and Kamimura. The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin includes 182 Mongol manuscript maps, the Tenri University Library has 45, and there are a small number of Qing Mongol maps held at other institutions, such as the Polish Academy of Sciences in Krakow, the Royal Library in Copenhagen, and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The maps in Berlin are accessible online, those at the Tenri University Library were published, and the ones in Krakow are available on a CD-ROM attached to a book (Wuyunbilige 2014; Tulisow & Polska Akademia Umiejętności 2012)2.

15In terms of the scope of this project, the regional focus was dictated by the availability of documents. While the collection of the National Central Archives of Mongolia follows the administrative structure of Qing Mongolia, not all offices were equally well documented. Considering this, I focused my data collection on the two best documented ayimaγs of Sečen Qan and Tüsiyetü Qan, a regional unit I call Eastern Qalqa. While this choice of circumscribing my research to two specific ayimaγs allowed a more exhaustive search on these two regions, this came at the cost of covering diverse regions of Mongolia. Given the lack of access to the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region archives, I could also not include the Inner Mongolian banners and leagues to this study. Therefore, the findings of this project are most applicable to Eastern Qalqa and more research needs to be conducted on Western and Inner Mongolia to fully document mapmaking in the entirety of Qing Mongolia.


  • 3 Futaki & Kamimura 2005; Kamimura 2014, 2017; Chomongguriru (Cholmongerel) 2015; Kollmar-Paulenz 200 (...)

16This thesis builds on existing scholarship on Qing Mongolian maps. Decades ago, Walter Heissig studied and published some of the maps now held at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin and previously held at the University of Bonn (Heissig 1978; see also Haltod 1966). Recent studies in Europe have continued to examine the maps from this collection, focusing on different dimensions such as the representation of cairns (oboγa) (Charleux 2021) and cosmology (Humphrey 2021). Futaki and Kamimura have added new maps from archival institutions in Mongolia and introduced archival documentation providing additional context on mapmaking, while making some maps available via online platforms and published collections3. My project continues these efforts by presenting additional sets of documentations and unpublished maps to deepen our understanding of the politics underpinning their production, while situating the Mongol maps in the broader historiography on Qing history.

17In sum, the material I introduce in this dissertation not only enhances our understanding of the structure of Mongol banners in the Qing era, but also contributes a new set of perspective to the field of historical cartography in the early modern world. While looking beyond narratives anchored in a single ideal of cartography, one might discover a rich and diverse array of mapping practices, of which the Mongol maps are certainly part of. By documenting how Qing Mongols mapped their land and organized territory, this project brings to the fore a set of practices aimed at making sense, representing, and controlling the natural world. The study of the ontology and modes of change of these local 19th century maps contributes to the discussion of comparative cartography in the early modern world, Mongol history in the Qing era, as well as environmental history.

18In terms of the intersection between maps and the environment, the production of geographical knowledge in Qing Mongolia was at the very core of the “the politics of nature”, a view that redefines the natural environment as the product of political processes (Latour 2004). Mapmaking was thus anchored in a political process that, on the one hand, linked the imperial center with the localities, and on the other, visually represented the environmental component of the politics of the steppe, as it unfolded in the context of an encounter between pastoralists and imperial statesmen of Eurasia. The book project that is based on this dissertation further develops this dimension and brings together methodological tools from the fields of environmental history and historical cartography.

Figure 1. Map section, ǰasaγ Duγarcembel-yin qosiγun-u nutuγ-un ǰiruγ [map of the land of the banner of the ǰasaγ Duγarcembel], 1843, M-460.1.5

Figure 1. Map section, ǰasaγ Duγarcembel-yin qosiγun-u nutuγ-un ǰiruγ [map of the land of the banner of the ǰasaγ Duγarcembel], 1843, M-460.1.5

© courtesy of the National Central Archives of Mongolia

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1 The White Beryl (Vaidūrya dkar po) is a Tibetan manuscript on astrology and divination said to have been written in 1685 by the Tibetan Regent Sangs rgya rgyas mtsho. For a translation into Cyrillic Mongolian, see Nyammyagmar 2015.

2 A selection of maps held in Mongolia were recently published in Gerelbadrah & Mönhbaatar 2020.

3 Futaki & Kamimura 2005; Kamimura 2014, 2017; Chomongguriru (Cholmongerel) 2015; Kollmar-Paulenz 2006; Gerelbadrah 2019; Gerelbadrah & Mönhbaatar 2020; Inoue 2014.

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Titre Figure 1. Map section, ǰasaγ Duγarcembel-yin qosiγun-u nutuγ-un ǰiruγ [map of the land of the banner of the ǰasaγ Duγarcembel], 1843, M-460.1.5
Crédits © courtesy of the National Central Archives of Mongolia
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« Anne-Sophie Pratte, Mapping the Steppe. The Politics of Cartography in Qing Mongolia, 1780-1911 »Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [En ligne], 53 | 2022, mis en ligne le 23 décembre 2022, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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