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The Inscrutable Father of Korean Cartography
By Daniel Kane

On one of the twenty-two wood-block maps comprising his Taedong yojido (Map of the Great East). Image Courtesy of National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

in or around 1866 an elderly man, likely dressed in the simple cotton garb of
Korea’s lower classes, was incarcerated in the royal prison not far from the
Kyongbok Palace compound in the Korean capital of Hansong — what is today
Seoul. His anger must have equaled his bewilderment. Only days earlier he had
humbly presented to the Korean regent a freshly printed version of the labor of
his adult life: the Taedong yojido (Map of the Great East), a
comprehensive map of Korea. It was unsurpassed in its detailed layout of the
peninsular kingdom’s eight provinces, including the southerly island of
Chejudo. Distances between points were clearly noted at regular intervals, and
an innovative legend supplied further explanatory detail. Roads, mountain
ranges, rivers and streams, towns and cities, and even local schools were
clearly marked. Especially well documented were points of military import —
military garrisons, ferry crossings, mountain passes, relay stations, and fire
beacons. Divided into twenty-two sections printed from hand-carved wood-blocks,
the finished work was a marvel of both cartographic detail and the engraver’s
craft. It also stood as a testament to decades of unceasing labor on the part of
its creator, Kim Chong-ho. Given Kim’s expressed hopes that more detailed maps
could aid the Korean monarchy in central administration and national defense, it
was only natural that he dedicate his work to the Korean regent, a man who had
already demonstrated a clear penchant for autocracy.

these were troubled times. Instead of greeting this valuable new contribution to
national cartography with enthusiasm or gratitude, the regent flew into a rage,
claiming that Kim’s overly accurate maps revealed sensitive information
pertaining to the defense and security of the realm. The regent had the elderly
Kim unceremoniously arrested and thrown into prison, where he soon languished
and died.

ended the life of perhaps Korea’s greatest cartographer, who over a long
career created the most accurate and innovative maps of Korea of his day. Yet
the man who is so tightly linked not only with the cartographic history of his
country but also with the development of modern Korean nationalism is shrouded
in a complex interweaving of fact and fable. Though the marvel of his maps is
undiminished, the outline of his life remains so vague as to border on oblivion.

on the dates of his earliest maps, it can be safely surmised that Kim Chong-ho
was born around the dawn of the nineteenth century. His close amity with the
gentleman-scholar Ch’oe Han-gi (1803–79), in a Confucian society where
friendships were not feasible across generations, also suggests a birth date
round 1800. Based on Kim’s own meager writings within the context of his map
texts as well as remnants of oral tradition, most scholars believe that he was
born in Hwanghae Province, which borders the Yellow Sea in what is now North
Korea, though even this is open to debate.

sparse account of Kim Chong-ho comes from the pen of the early twentieth-century
Korean scholar Yu Chae-son. Yu, whose I’hyang gyonmunnok (Record of
Hometown Observations) briefly depicts the lives of 308 non-aristocratic men of
distinction during Korea’s late Choson dynasty (1392–1910). The work offers
few details on Kim’s life (and none on his death), but his inclusion suggests
that he was a commoner. Additionally, the name Kim Chong-ho does not appear in
any regional or clan records, which would have indicated a lineage to the
important aristocratic-scholar class, whose power was based upon centuries of
recorded pedigree.

does relate that Kim Chong-ho also went by the name of Kosanja and displayed a
great interest in maps and a talent for their production, and he describes how
Kim even carved the wood-blocks for the printing of his own cartographic
creations. Indeed, it was Yu’s acquisition of one of Kim’s exquisite maps
that likely ensured Kim’s inclusion in Yu’s work of homage. Finally, Yu says
that Kim passed away before completing the final edits of his Taedong chiji
(Geography of Korea) — a sort of gazetteer that appeared in 1866.

Kim’s provincial and class origins, it seems almost certain that by the 1830s
he was living in the Korean capital at Seoul, in the vicinity of the Great South
Gate. And whatever his chosen profession — scholars suggest he may have been a
merchant, soldier, or aide to a high-ranking official — he was clearly an
accomplished and innovative publisher, producing masterpieces of wood-block
prints of his own maps as well as those of others.

was in Seoul that Kim somehow cultivated the friendship of the private scholar
Ch’oe Han-gi, whose patronage was pivotal to Kim’s development and thus to
his subsequent contributions to Korean cartography. Ch’oe Han-gi’s family,
which belonged to a privileged and hereditary scholar-official class, had long
since fallen into a more humble existence, and Ch’oe was little known in his
time and never held an official position or title. Today, however, he is noted
as one of the outstanding exemplars of the Sirhak (or “practical learning”)
school of the late Choson period. Though not members of an established school
per se, Sirhak scholars, whose intellectual origins may be traced back to the
mid–seventeenth century, espoused scholarship for its potential to make
practical and beneficial social contributions, rather than as an exercise in
metaphysical or theoretical musings. Such a practical outlook found outlets
across a wide range of scholarly activities, from agriculture and weaponry to
monetary policy and cartography. It had been these so-called Sirhak school
scholars who enthusiastically greeted the Western ideas and technologies carried
surreptitiously into Korea from China by the Jesuits.

collected translated works of Western science and natural philosophy, and his
personal library was filled with atlases and maps — of Chinese, Korean, and
European origin. Later in his life Ch’oe wrote Chigu chonyo
(Descriptions of the Nations of the World), a treatise based on both European
and Chinese cartographic works that introduced world geography and Western
cosmography to a Korean audience. Ch’oe Han-gi also believed in the official
recruitment of talented men, regardless of social background. Thus, it comes as
little surprise that a man of the scholar class cultivated the friendship of Kim
Chong-ho, in all likelihood a commoner who displayed an uncommon love of

access to his friend’s library surely helped inspire his own passion for
cartography and stimulated his ambition to produce an accurate map of the Korean
kingdom. As Ch’oe would later relate, Kim carefully scrutinized the maps of
Korea in Ch’oe’s possession and concluded that all of them were impractical,
all of them too primitive to locate a specific area.

Chong-ho first emerges from obscurity in 1834 when, in collaboration with
Ch’oe Han-gi, he carved in woodblock a copy of a Chinese map, the Chigu
(Diagram of the Earth), in Ch’oe’s library. In the same year he
also made his first effort at original cartography: the Ch’onggudo (Map
of the Green Hills), a map of Korea that took its name from the traditional
poetic sobriquet for the country. Ch’oe Han-gi contributed the preface. It is
a highly impressive work, even though it represents Kim’s early and unrefined
efforts at a comprehensive map of his country. Indeed, that it was such an early
work only emphasizes its merits. In the words of one scholar, it was the result
of “a long and arduous labor in assembling, relating, and refining
cartographic source materials of many kinds.”

aspects of the Ch’onggudo already mark Kim as an innovative thinker in
the realm of cartography. His overall methodology was unique. Rather than
separating his work into the traditional “eight maps of the provinces” (p’aldo
, at the time the conventional approach to national mapping, Kim
subdivided Korea into twenty-two sections, each covering an area 100 by 70 li
(a li is approximately 3.2 kilometers). Each numbered wood-block map was
printed on one page of the two-volume Ch’onggudo. The scale in distance
was clearly marked across the side and top edge of each sheet, making distance
calculations fairly straightforward. A front index sheet depicting the gridded
national map indicated where to find each numbered section. Further, by placing
the even and odd numbered lines of maps in different albums, Kim made it
possible to simultaneously examine consecutive north-south maps by opening both
albums side by side, while consecutive east-west sheets could be viewed by
simply turning the pages of one album. Even at this early juncture Kim clearly
was thinking practically and not just cartographically.

sheer scale of the Ch’onggudo, the largest map yet undertaken for
Korea, also allowed for a more precise rendering of topographical and man-made
features within the context of a national map. Kim showed the full boundaries of
local districts and sub-districts, as well as district seats, and located post
stations (indicating their size and the number of horses kept at each), signal
fire stations (and their heights), ferry points, pasturage, mountain passes,
bridges, and warehouses, among other features. Kim identified such features
through the use of a legend, an innovation that owed something to the influence
of Western maps and which was first used in Korean maps in the eighteenth
century. Kim further augmented his map with notations on the historical
background of locales or commentary on certain unique geographical features,
such as “the true source of the Han River” or “twin peaks thousands of
fathoms high.”

The Ch’onggudo
was never actually printed as a complete, finished document, perhaps for
financial reasons. Rather, prints were made of the rectangular sheets, left
blank except for the national outline and the distance scale printed along the
margins. After reading Kim’s introduction and explanation, the armchair
cartographer could “create” the map himself. Thus, surviving copies of the
map exhibit a great variety in quality, coloring and detail.

its pioneering qualities, Kim’s Ch’onggudo took most of its
geographical data from previous maps or royal surveys. Kim relied primarily upon
an eighteenth-century map, Tongguk yojido (Comprehensive Map of the
Eastern Country), by Ch’oe Sang-gi (1678–1752), for a general outline of
Korea and used information from court-sponsored surveys and national works on
geography to fill in the details. And though it was more detailed in general
than anything that had yet appeared, the map repeated the inaccuracies of its
forebears, in particular regarding the course of the Yalu River along the
Korean-Chinese frontier and the dimensions of Korea’s eastern coastline.

Chong-ho vanishes from the historical record after his brief appearance in 1834,
not to reemerge until 1861, with the appearance of his completed masterpiece,
the Taedong yojido. Unlike the Ch’onggudo, it was carved by Kim
himself, on a series of wooden blocks. Legend has it that Kim’s daughter
helped her now elderly father in carving the wooden originals. Apparently the
first edition of 1861 was popular enough to necessitate a second printing in

had changed in Korea between 1834 and 1861. In 1834 Korea was relatively
peaceful and secure, threatened neither by internal disturbances nor Western
ambitions. But by the inauguration of the boy-king Kojong (reigned 1863–1907),
monarchical power was at its lowest ebb in centuries just as peasant uprisings
were erupting with unprecedented frequency. Since the 1850s the illicit foreign
heterodoxy of Catholicism had been making alarming inroads into the populace, in
some instances finding secret adherents within the court itself. Court
factionalism was paralyzing government, and corruption and mismanagement were
rampant. Even more ominous was the high-handed intervention of “Western
barbarians” and their gunships in regional affairs. Japan had been forced open
by the “black ships” of the American commodore Matthew Perry in 1854, and
word of further foreign encroachments in Southeast Asia reached the Korean court
throughout the 1860s. Russians clamoring for trade were beginning to appear out
of the north. Most alarming of all, the Chinese imperial court had been forced
to submit to new and more humiliating Western demands in 1861, a clear sign to
many in Korea that China was losing the “mandate of heaven” and that the
task of preserving the virtuous path of the ancient sages had fallen to the tiny
peninsular kingdom of Korea itself.

the new king’s minority status, his father, the guileful Yi Ha-ung
(1820–98), known by his official title of Taewongun — or “Prince of the
Great Court” — positioned himself as de facto regent. He came to power in
1864 and announced a policy of strict isolation. In 1866 nine illicit French
Jesuit priests were rounded up and executed, setting in motion a campaign to
purge the land of Catholics. France launched a retaliatory military campaign.
Though the French attack ultimately failed in its objectives (the French, for
one thing, lacked accurate maps), a siege mentality took hold of the Korean
court, an attitude conveyed on thousands of stone markers: “Western barbarians
invade our land. If we do not fight we must then appease them. To urge
appeasement is to betray the nation.”

Chong-ho was not immune to such sentiments. The Taedong yojido reveals
his own grave concerns regarding Korea’s security in the face of foreign and
domestic threats. In the map’s preface, Kim wrote of his hope that his map
“will be used to defeat the enemy and suppress violent mobs when the nation is
troubled, and to carry out politics, govern every social affair and enforce
economic policies in time of peace.” This patriotic sentiment has added even
more heroic luster to Kim’s reputation among both North and South Koreans. But
how would his map prove to be so useful?

Taedong yojido developed new concepts while pushing old ones to new
practical limits. It is divided into twenty-two maps, each comprising a separate
folded manuscript. Traditionally, atlases had been organized in album format, as
was the case with Kim’s Ch’onggudo, albeit with the unique
arrangement of odd and even numbered rows of maps in separate volumes. Kim now
chose to arrange his comprehensive map into separate and freestanding sheets, so
the viewer could simultaneously examine as many sections of the map as he wished
(or floor space allowed — the dimensions of the entire map when laid out are
seven by five meters). Each sectional map of the Taedong yojido
represents a north-south range of 120 li and an east-west range of 80 li.

also eliminated what might be termed the “cultural narrative” on the map
face. Gone are historical notations or anecdotes on certain locales. In their
place is a more intense focus on distances between points as well as the use of
symbols to denote topographical features. Indeed, the Taedong yojido may
be seen as a triumph of symbols over narrative. Kim’s map is almost totally
dependent upon the use of such symbols, which dramatically clears up and
streamlines the map.

The Taedong
also reflects a deeper concern with features of military or logistic
importance, no doubt an echo, expressed in the preface, of Kim’s anxiety over
his nation’s future security and prosperity. Along with elements of cultural
narrative, some of the less important prefectural boundaries have been discarded
(later to be found in Kim’s supplementary Taedong chiji, the gazetteer
of Korea rich in local details and cultural history). In their place are symbols
for military garrisons, ferry points, mountain passes, harbors, relay and signal
stations, and the like.

made another improvement in marking the map’s scale. Instead of delineating
scale along the map’s margins, as he had in the Ch’onggudo, Kim shows
it through the use of ticks. He drew lines between points and marked the lines
with a tick for every ten li of distance. Where the road was particularly
meandering, instead of detailing its course Kim simply moved the clicks closer

depiction of mountains also deserves note. Straddling the border between Korea
and China, at 2,744 meters, Mt. Paekdu is Korea’s highest and most culturally
significant peak. Not only is it the mythical birthplace of the Korean race,
but, according to Korean traditional belief, the source of all peninsular gi
— a mysterious universal energy the Chinese term chi — that
originated at Mt. Paekdu and then traveled down the ridges of Korea’s
mountains to every corner of the country. Kim’s translation of this concept
into modern cartographic representation is clear. On his map every mountain in
Korea leads either directly or through a series of bisecting ridges to Mt.

the most remarkable — and mysterious — feature of the Taedong yojido,
however, is its accuracy. It clearly surpassed any other map of Korea of its day
and was so precise that by some accounts the Japanese used it during the
Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95. Given the almost complete lack of information
about Kim’s life in the decades before publication of the map and the dearth
of similar information on other maps of the period, how did Kim achieve such
accuracy and detail?

believe most Korean textbooks, Kim traversed the length and breadth of the
country, eschewing all personal comforts and domestic bliss in his quest for
geographical information. One oft-cited tale is that he climbed Mt. Paekdu no
fewer than seven times. However, despite these paens, we cannot know with any
certainty just how many times Kim traversed the peninsula, nor the hardships he
endured, nor how he subsisted. Perhaps he relied upon the kindness of strangers
or, as one account suggests, related colorful stories of his travels to rapt
villagers in exchange for food and lodging. Perhaps he had a wealthy sponsor or
even used his own funds, saved up from a lucrative trade or business. Such
details, however, have been lost to us.

Kim was certainly familiar with the use of latitude and longitude in map making
and navigation, notions that had long since crossed into China from Jesuit
missionaries and thence, surreptitiously, into Korea, he does not use them in
his maps, and there is no direct evidence that he used modern longitudinal data
to improve the accuracy of the eastern coastline on his map. In the end his
improvements must be put down primarily to first-hand observation and
measurements, and, despite the lack of evidence, it is quite probable that he
did indeed spend many of the years between 1834 and 1861 traveling around his
native land.

Chong-ho vanished from the historical record as mysteriously and as suddenly as
he appeared. The most prominent story of his demise — that the Taewongun,
examining the latest version of Kim’s Taedong yojido around 1866,
became incensed at the map’s inclusion of sensitive information and had him
jailed — allegedly took place at a time when Korea was facing its greatest
foreign threat since the Manchu invasions of the seventeenth century. In this
version of events, Kim was tortured and later was either killed or died in
captivity. Despite the lack of documentary evidence, the story soon took firm
root in the national imagination and continues to hold a quasi-historical place
in Korean public-school textbooks to this day.

Kim did meet such a dramatic end, however, it is odd that Yu Chae-son, in his
short biographical piece, makes no mention of it. Official Korean court
documents contain no record of such happenings. Moreover, a general reference to
the Taedong yojido can be found in official Korean court records as early
as 1866, an acknowledgement that would seem to contradict any accounts of a
humiliating end.

scholars have conjectured that Kim may have been involved in the illicit
Catholic faith, which in 1866 suffered its own harsh persecution, with an
estimated eight thousand Koreans losing their lives. Given the rather
nationalistic and conservative commentary in Kim’s map prefaces, this theory
doesn’t ring quite true. It is also worth conjecturing that he had become
involved in the native Tonghak movement, a heterodox religious movement arising
in the Korean countryside in the 1860s that was eventually suppressed with
violent force.

the fact remains that all these are but conjectures on what remains an
inscrutable life. In the end it is Kim Chong-ho’s remarkable cartographic
achievements that must stand as sole witnesses to a life dedicated to the
accurate mapping of his country.

freelance writer, lived, studied, and taught in Korea for many years. He now
follows developments in the Far East from his home in Hawaii.


The Taedong yojido featured the innovative use of “map signals” in the legend to identify such features as military garrisons, district capitals, and fire relay stations.


In this detail of Seoul and its immediate environs, Kim marked the wall surrounding the city and indicated compounds of the royal palaces by shading them in.


Mt. Paekdu, as depicted on the Taedong yojido is Korea’s highest and most culturally significant peak. Images courtesy of the Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii.


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