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1850 Korean Map of Okinawa, the Ryukyu Islands

琉球國圖 / [Map of the Ryukyu Kingdom]. - Main View

1850 Korean Map of Okinawa, the Ryukyu Islands


Ryukyu's perilous prosperity.


琉球國圖 / [Map of the Ryukyu Kingdom].
  1850 (undated)     8.75 x 11 in (22.225 x 27.94 cm)     1 : 1000000


This is a unique c. 1850 map of the Ryukyu Kingdom (琉球國) published in Korea during the late Joseon period (1392 - 1897). It provides geographic and administrative information on the kingdom, which in this era played a delicate balancing act between Qing China and the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan.
A Closer Look
This map was produced using a combination of engraved woodblock printing and hand-coloring. It is oriented with south at top and north at bottom, and depicts Okinawa and surrounding islands, with important sites and structures indicated. These include:
  1. At left, the administrative center of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Urasoe, as noted here, had been the seat of the Chūzan kings who went on to unify Okinawa. However, it is unclear if the 'king's residence' (王所居) refers to Urasoe Castle, which remained an important royal site even after the capital was moved to Shuri, or to Shuri Castle itself; the distance between the two is only some three miles, negligible at this scale.
  2. At right is Naha, the commercial center of the Ryukyu Kingdom, including the kingdom's 'Storehouse of Treasures' (寶庫) and the national treasury (國庫) that managed tax revenues.
  3. At bottom (north) is Kunigami (國頭), a village and important religious site in Ryukyuan culture.
  4. Surrounding islands are indicated, some of which still retain the names noted here, presumably for navigational purposes.
The Ryukyus – Caught between Japan and China
The Ryukyu Kingdom was founded in the early 15th century when Chūzan (中山) conquered its competitors, Hokuzan and Nanzan, to unify Okinawa under a single ruler. Around the same time, many Chinese immigrants came to Okinawa to solidify Chūzan's tributary relations with the recently-established Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) and to engage in trade. These immigrants and their descendants helped Chūzan and later the unified Ryukyu Kingdom to establish more effective central administration and improve trade links with China.

Ryukyu became an important conduit for trade in East Asia, as the Ming and Japan (at that time a jumble of warring feudal fiefdoms) lacked tributary relations that would have enabled trade missions. As Ryukyu did have such a relationship with the Ming, a loophole was created for Chinese and Japanese traders to conduct exchanges through Okinawa, allowing Ryukyu to become wealthy in the process.

This role continued even after the Shimazu clan of Japan's Satsuma Domain conquered Ryukyu in 1609, enlisting it as a vassal but keeping it nominally independent. Ryukyu maintained tributary relations with China, even as the Ming fell and were replaced by the Qing (1644 – 1911), who were unaware of the full extent of Ryukyu's subordination to Satsuma. When the Tokugawa Shogunate tightly restrained foreign trade in the 1630s, the Ryukyus were one of only three places (the other being Nagasaki and Tsushima) for Japanese to legally conduct foreign exchange.

Unfortunately, this intermediary status became a liability after the Meiji Restoration, when Japan adopted both a strict concept of national sovereignty and an expansionist foreign policy, making Ryukyu a domain (han) in 1872 and then incorporating it outright in 1879. Okinawa suffered horrific destruction in the last stage of World War II and then effectively became a military colony of the United States, which it remains to an extent despite being reverted to Japanese sovereignty in 1972 (a move deeply opposed by Ryukyuan independence activists).
Publication History and Census
The exact provenance of this map is unclear. The phrase Yeojido (or in Chinese Yu ditu, 輿地圖), which could be translated as 'atlas,' was common in the title of maps and map collections in East Asia at least since the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th-14th centuries. There are several works published in Korea bearing the title Yeojido (usually under the title 大東輿地圖 or 天下輿地圖 dating from the 17th to the late 19th century that contain maps resembling this one. This map most closely resembles one in the collection held by Harvard University titled World Atlas (天下輿地圖, Cheonha Yeojido, OCLC 1252343134), published in the early 18th century. However, the present map differs somewhat in several respects, including coloration, the exact names and locations of islands, and other similar details. While it could date to as early as the 17th century, given the relative high level of elaboration, it more likely was produced at some point in the early to mid 19th century.


Average. Areas of discoloration in top margin and along centerfold. Dampstaining at bottom.