The term yuditu 輿地圖 "map of the empire" was apparently first used during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) to denote maps that included information about the location and area of taxable fields, the amount of tax-liable households, administrative units and courier or military routes.
A book with the title Yudizhi 輿地志 was written by Gu Yewang 顧野王 (518-581). It was originally 30-juan long, but only a few fragments of the five chapters survive in the encyclopaedias Chuxueji 初學記 and Taiping yulan 太平御覽 and the geography book Taiping huanyu ji 太平寰宇記. These are found in Wang Mo's 王謨 (c. 1731-1817) collection Han-Tang dili shuchao 漢唐地理書鈔. A commentary in the bibliographic chapter of the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書 remarks that Gu's book was based on some earlier texts, written by Lu Cheng 陸澄 (425-494) and Ren Fang 任昉 (460-508, but also used more than 200 other ancient books on geography.
One of the most famous maps of the whole empire was the Yuditu 輿地圖 of the Song empire 宋 (960-1279). A rubbing of it is now stored in the Rikkyaku Studio 栗棘庵 in Tōfuku Monastery 東福寺 in Kyōto, Japan. It consists of two large sheats with a length of 207 and a width of 196 cm (7 chi 尺). Neither the name of the drawers nor the time of its production are indicated, yet from the place names it can be estimated that it must have been produced at latest in 1265. In fact the map was drawn by or under the supervision of the geographer and Daoist master Zhu Siben 朱思本 (1273-1333), courtesy name Benchu 本初, style Zhenyi 貞一, from Linchuan 臨川 (today's Fuzhou 撫州, Jiangxi).
The original is lost, but a rubbing of it had been brought to Japan in 1279 by a Buddhist monk called Chan Master Fozhao 佛照禪師. The title of the map is written at the top, and in the upper left corner the numbers of students are indicated that had (recently?) passed the state examinations in various prefectures and circuits of Song China (Zhu lu zhou fu jie e 諸路州府解額). The map shows the Southern Song empire 南宋 (1127-1279) but stretches out to Japan in the east, the Congling Range 蔥嶺 (Pamir) in the west, and the Mongolian steppe in the north. In the south, part of India can be seen, as well as the Indonesian archipelago. The exactness of this map is unfortunately not too good. The shape of the Shandong Peninsula, for instance, is too round.
Mountain ranges are indicated by shading (yingfa 景法) and small trees, rivers by lines, and lakes by a wave pattern. Place names are written in square boxes. The names of prefectures in China proper are written in boxes (fangkuang 方框), connected by lines indicating roads, and in the southwestern region the names of indigenous tribes are indicated. In the northern and northeastern parts of the map, information on the history of these regions is provided.
As a Daoist adept, Zhu, a disciple of Zhang Renjing 張仁靖, had often climbed sacred mountains and visited venerated lakes. He systematically gathered geographical information during an sacrificial tour he was ordered to made to deliver sacrifices to mountains and rivers. The tour was actually carried out by the Daoist master Wu Quanjie 吳全節 (1269-1346), who performed the sacrifices en lieu of the Son of Heaven. Zhu compared his observations with earlier records. The map itself was drawn between 1311 and 1320. It is drawn with the help of a grid (jilihua 計里畫, said to have been invented by Pei Xiu 裴秀, 224-271) which was the result of single maps of individual regions (and did not correspond to latitudes and longitudes). It was incised on a stone slab in the Shangqing monastery 上清 of Sanhua 三華院, from which it was regularly copied until the beginning of the Ming period 明 (1368-1644).
In the shape of an atlas, the Yuditu was distributed over 24 leaves, with a descriptive text for each map. This atlas was known under the name Guangyutu 廣輿圖 or Guangyutu ji 廣輿圖紀. This book was enlarged to a size of 2 juan by Luo Hongxian 羅洪先 (1504－1564). Only this enlarged version has survived, along with the original preface written by Zhu, Yuditu zixu 輿地圖自序 (also written 輿地圖自叙). Of Zhu Siben's geographical book Jiuyu zhi 九域志, only fragments are preserved.
Luo's Guangyutu is the oldest surviving atlas of China. It begins with the two capital provinces (Nan-Zhili 南直隸, Bei-Zhili 北直隸) and then describes the 13 provinces of the Ming empire. All place names were by Luo changed to the contemporary versions, but his annotations render the ancient Song-period names. There is a general map (zongtu 總圖) and 44 detailed maps, with descriptive texts. He also added eleven maps of border regions, with five of the territories in western Shaanxi and Sichuan, three maps of the Yellow River, three of the Grand Canal, two on the sea transport routes for tribute grain, and four maps for Korea, Mongolia, Annam and the Western Territories (modern Xinjiang).
The atlas Guangyutu, finished ca. 1541, was first printed in 1555, and then again in 1578 as part of the collection Xiurang beikao 修攘通考 (the other books being Lidai yutu 歷代輿圖, Huang-Ming yutu 皇明輿圖 and Jiubian tulun 九邊圖論) of He Tang 何鏜 (1507-1585). Another print was published in 1579 by Qian Dai 錢岱 (1541-1622), and in 1799 a further one by Zhang Xuelian 章學濂.
A first collection of historical maps was made by Shen Dingzhi 沈定之 during the Ming period, and revised by Wu Guofu 吳國輔. His 3-juan long book Jingu yudi tu 今古輿地圖 includes 55 maps in total, the first part including a map of antiquity and maps of the Ming empire, the second part maps from the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) to the 10th century, and the last part Song- and Yuan-period 元 (1279-1368) maps, and specialized maps on mountains, rivers, and the correlation of the nine geographical realms with the 'regions' of the starry sky (fenye 分野).
For each dynasty a map can be found, but also on critical topics in history, like the rebellion of the seven princes during the Han period (Han Wu-Yue qiguo tu 漢吳楚七國圖), the commanderies (Donghan junguo tu 東漢郡國圖) and inspection circuits of the Later Han (Donghan shisan zhou bu cishi tu 東漢十三州部刺史圖), the routes of the investigation commissioners (Tang shiwu caifangshi tu 唐十五採訪使圖, the military commissioners (Tang shidao jiedu-jinglüe shi tu 唐十道節度經略使圖) and the defence commands (Tang fangzhen jiangjie tu 唐藩鎮疆界圖) of the Tang 唐 (618-907), or the prefectures (Song fu-jun-jian tu 宋府州軍監圖) and circuits of the Song (Songshi ershiliu lu tu 宋史二十六路圖). The atlas was first printed in 1643. A modern edition was published in 1996 in the series Siku quanshu cunmu congshu 四庫全書存目叢書.
The most complete collection of traditional maps is Yang Shoujing's 楊守敬 (1839-1915) book Lidai yudi tu 歷代輿地圖 that includes 44 sets of maps, distributed over 34 volumes. The book begins with an overview of the administrative geography of China through the ages (Lidai yudi yange xianyao tu 歷代輿地沿革險要圖), with 70 maps. This part is followed by texts on the administrative geography of all dynasties. Most of these are the chapters on geography (Dili zhi 地理志) in the official dynastic histories, to which Yang added critical remarks, particularly concerning the geography of the Southern and Northern dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) (like Liu-Song zhoujun tu 劉宋州郡圖, Beiwei dixing tu 北魏地形圖 and Xiwei jiangyu tu 西魏疆域圖).
The maps of pre-imperial China are based on place names in the books Zuozhuan 左傳 and Zhanguoce 戰國策. The appended maps include place names written in red which correspond to actual, Qing-period names 清 (1644-1911) as based on the official atlas Da-Qing yitong yutu 大清一統輿圖, while the older names are in black. This method, and in fact also the whole atlas, served as a model for Tan Qixiang's 譚其驤 (1911-1992) important collection Zhongguo lidai ditu ji 中國歷史地圖集. A first draft of Yang's book was finished in 1867, but it was several times revised and only printed in 1906 by the Guanhai Hall 觀海堂 in Yidu 宜都, Hubei.