The division's collection of maps of China, Korea, and Japan is one of the most extensive outside of Asia. They are valuable not only for their geographical and historical insight but also because they provide students of cartography, culture, and art with artifacts that reflect a non-Western European geographic mode of visual expression. Early Chinese, Korean, and Japanese maps differ from the Western European tradition in terms of the use of symbols and color, media and format, and degree of pictorialization.
The largest collection of rare Chinese maps was acquired through the efforts of Arthur W. Hummel, distinguished sinologist, and the generosity of Andrew W. Mellon. Among the cartographic treasures are an annotated wood-block folded atlas of China from the Ming Dynasty entitled "Looking At Distant Places as if They Were on the Palm of Your Hand"; a seventeenth-century silk scroll depicting four important frontier regions of the Manchu dynasty in the form of landscape paintings, including one illustrating a clash between Russian and Manchurian troops on the Heilungkian or Amur River; and a rare wall map of the world by the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest, engraved on eight scrolls in Peking in 1674.
Korean cartography was directly influenced by Chinese cartographic traditions that reached the peninsula during the Koryo dynasty (918-1392). The division's Korean atlases range in date from circa 1760 to 1896 and are representative of the traditional hand atlases produced since early in the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910).The bulk of the Library's collection of rare Korean maps and atlases were acquired by two eminent educators: Langdon Warner, archaeologist and leader of the first and second China expeditions of the Fogg Museum of Harvard University, and Shannon McCune, a geographer born to American missionary parents in Korea. These collections include both manuscript copies and woodblock impressions.
Early rare manuscript and printed Japanese scroll maps, such as a 1614 map of fortifications of Osaka Castle, are available for research. A world map by the Japanese Buddhist scholar-priest Hotan provides an image of the Buddhist vision of world geography in terms of its cosmology. Entitled Nansenbushu Bankoku Shoka no Zu [Map of the Universe], it displays India, where Buddha was born, and China as the center of the world. Printed from woodcuts in 1710, this prototype map was popular in Japan until the mid-nineteenth century.
Most of the division's rare maps by Japanese mapmakers, however, date from the nineteenth century. A teaching collection of eleven maps assembled by Shannon McCune for use in a series of lectures he gave on Japanese geography include wood-block maps of the world, Japan, and administrative districts, one in the form of a scroll. A large-scale manuscript map of Japan shows coast lines, major rivers, roads, and terrain for the period 1816 to 1818. Drawn by Ino Tadataka, it consists of 214 sheets, with water color wash on rice paper.
Maps of Southeast Asia are found in the Minto Collection, including manuscript maps of Java, Malaccas, and Sumatra drawn by British Army engineers about 1811, just before the British invasion and annexation of Java. Additional maps of Southeast Asia are found in the John Barrett Collection.