I Trust You Will Share in My Gentle Obsession

by Roberta Wellington

All Under Heaven: The Chinese World in Maps, Pictures, and Texts from the Collection of Floyd Sully.
The deafening sound of waves rushing into The Cave of Tidal Sound at the foot of Mount Putuo Shan on the Southern Sea is said to resemble the chanting of monks. In the 10th century, multiple people reported being saved at sea near the cave by the hand of Guanyin, a popular god or goddess (depending on what century you catch him/her in) of the Buddhist pantheon. Guanyin is a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who chooses to stay on Earth despite the fact that she could be one with the universe elsewhere. She made the cave her terrestrial address after finding Putuo Shan similar to her old residence in India and decided that it would be a great place from which to help people in dire need.

The end of the 19th century saw the last gasp of the Qing Dynasty, Putuo Shan—currently a weekend destination for well-to-dos from Shanghai—was a popular holy pilgrimage site. The locals, sick of holy tourists wandering around asking for directions, sniffed an opportunity, so they rigged a wood block printing press and started selling cheap maps of all the holy sites on the island. “The Territory of Mount Putuo on the Southern Sea (Nanhai Putuoshan jing),” is one such early 20th-century star map.

Floyd Sully, the Canadian-born collector of these historic, and sometimes purely aesthetic, field guides to China writes, “I was fascinated by the advances in Chinese discovery and learning compared with my own cultural experience as a European. But the collection rapidly grew beyond my own narrow interest in technological history. I have a weakness for things of beauty.”

Most of the items featured in All Under Heaven—the proper binding of Sully’s pieces—have similarly meandering origin stories. Seen together they paint a fractal portrait of the Celestial Empire as it lumbered through the Qing Dynasty towards the modern age and Communism. The various Chinese-made maps, which are almost all Sinocentric, show Africa and Europe as tiny islands falling off the edge of the page. Attendant is an illustrated guide to shop signs made in 1931, showing visitors of Peking how to buy “toilet sets” in Chinese and English. There are nautical maps made by Europeans trying to navigate the mouth of the Tigris in their pursuit of trading chests of Opium for tea. A Japanese illuminated manuscript from the Edo period hangs about, an interpretation of a 13th-century Chinese Confucian text (Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety).

“I do not own these objects so much as I am their caretaker during one moment of their long history.” Sully writes, “They are a part of cultural heritage and should be seen and enjoyed by all. I trust you will share in my gentle obsession.”

The edition, collected and bound by University of Alberta Libraries, is a 12 x 12-inch tome that tells a less linear, and therefore truer, story than your garden-variety coffee table ornament. In it, we see a mighty culture through the domestic and foreign eyes that looked upon it, but through that we see Floyd Sully, slightly amused, puttering around among his collection.

All Images from All Under Heaven, Courtesy University of Alberta Libraries.