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Nationalist Defacement of Maps at Stanford University

Submitted by on February 16, 2016 – 1:43 pm 8 Comments |  

Mapping the world is becoming an increasingly fraught endeavor, with both cartographers and those who use their products being taken to task for their failure to depict the geopolitical framework in a certain way. I have received threatening email messages, for example, after posting maps of India that did not include areas claimed by that country but controlled by Pakistan and China. More recently and more seriously, Russian MP Oleg Mikheyev has asked prosecutors to “list the Coca-Cola company as an ‘undesirable organization’ due to the fact that the soda giant did not include Crimea on a Russian map in an online ad.”

Those who object to certain ways of depicting the world sometimes respond by defacing maps and globes that they regard as objectionable. Unfortunately, Stanford University has seen several examples of such cartographic vandalism. Interesting, the three cases that I am familiar with are all focused on issues of nationalism in East Asia.

Defaced Stanford GlobeI first became aware of this problem several years several years ago when I was admiring a large and gorgeous glass globe in the Stanford Library. As can be seen in the detail posted to the left, someone—almost certainly a Korean nationalist—had scratched out the word “Japan” in the label “Sea of Japan” and had replaced it with “East Sea.” Stanford librarians are aware of this defacement, but there is little that they can do, as the cost of restoration would be prohibitive.

More recently, wall maps hanging in the Stanford Department of History have been subjected to similar forms of defacement. This issue is somewhat different, however, as the maps in question are historical documents, showing regions as they existed in earlier periods. Evidently, the depiction of such historical reality is unacceptable to some viewers, who are instead determined to change these maps so that they reflect current conditions. The result is a misdemeanor not merely against property but also against history.

Defaced Stanford Map 2The first of these maps depicts southeastern Asia in 1968. As can be seen in the detail posted here, someone has crossed out “U.K.” under “Hong Kong” and added “China,” evidently wanting to wish away the period of British rule in this former colony. Oddly, “Port.” (for “Portugal) under Macao was left alone, as were several other markers of colonial status elsewhere on the map.

The final example comes from an undated map of eastern Asia that must have been made before 1971, when the United States returned Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu Islands to Japan. The fact that this archipelago had been controlled by the U.S. for a prolonged period is fascinating and too-little known, but it is evidently disturbing for some, as someone has inked over the Defaced Stanford Map 1red lines indicating what had been the U.S. zone of control. The same person also crossed out the name “Formosa,” as well as that of “Mt. Morrison” (alternatively, “Yushan” or “Jade Mountain”), evidently unwilling to tolerate European terms on historical maps of this corner of the world.

I can only hope that the persons who defaced these maps were not Stanford students. If they were, it certainly reflects poorly on the university.


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  • T.

    It is truly unfortunate when this kind of thing happens, since it comes across as someone choosing to deface a perfectly good map, just because of some nationalist beliefs. Not only that, but, whenever I see something like that, I also get upset, since I enjoy studying and looking at maps.

    Those kinds of actions reflect extremely poorly on the people who foolishly vandalize maps – yet the rest of us end up paying the price.

  • Mainlander

    Damaging someone else’s property is disgusting. They ought to find a better outlet for their pent up political frustrations or go home.

  • Defacing any sort of property is disgusting, agreed, but defacing historical maps is doubly stupid. And yet there is no way to make maps to satisfy nationalists of all stripes. One could argue about the “correct” way to depict today’s reality in questionable cases, but historical maps should just be left alone and treasured for the historical mementos that they are. I am glad you’re drawing people’s attention to this issue!

  • Al Gardiner

    Sadly, this draws eerie parallels to the book the “The Commissar Vanishes” about the alteration of photographic records in order to correct the history to a political preference.

    • Yes! Orwell has a similar theme in “1984” and such instances of “correcting” the photographic/cartographic/historical record were common place in the USSR, which is probably why I feel such strong aversion to it. In my father’s memoirs he wrote that when he was a teen (in the 1940-50s), the family owned a Soviet Encyclopedia and would regularly receive a parcel containing detailed instructions on which pages were to be torn out and replaced by the attached new pages.

      • Fascinating! Are these memoirs available somewhere?
        Be well, Asya, and say hi to Martin

        • Thanks, Andrew! The memoirs are not (yet) available publicly. I found them quite by chance, unfinished and unedited, after my father’s untimely and sudden death. I am not sure if they would be of interest to people outside the family… but perhaps some day I will edit them and publish them somehow…

  • billposer

    There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about a shipment of inflatable globes rendered useless by the customs inspectors of an Arab country who had systematically excised Israel.