Present-day China, a nation of 1.4 billion people, is made up of many different ethnicities, 56 of which are officially recognized groups. The Hans, Mongols, Tartars, and Xianbei, for instance, have emerged, spread, intermixed, and, at times, declined over the course of five thousand years of unbroken Chinese civilization. Migration activities were at the root of their origins. These movements, together with detailed accounts of their customs and fates, are the focus of a new publication from Phoenix Publishing and Media Group (PPMG).

The 328-page Ethnic Migration, now available in English from Royal Collins Publishing Company, is the first title in the four-volume History of China in Maps series. Written by An Jiesheng with chief editor Ge Jianxiong, both professors at Fudan University, it depicts the vast and complex history of various migrations and the blending and intertwining of these ethnicities. Beginning with the legendary migration activities in the prehistoric era, this comprehensive text also delves into the first dynasty (Xia), explains the links with barbarian tribes and Central Plain overlords, charts the major movements, and concludes with the rise and migration of the Mongols.

“No single ethnic group exists in isolation or is impermeable to the influence of others,” An says. “Throughout history, human movements underpin and form all civilizations—and China is no different. Many customs and aspects of culture are borrowed from others, leading to a constant evolution of these ethnicities and more broadly of China as a whole. Without such migration, there would be no modern Chinese nation.”

But tracking these migrations over several millennia is a daunting and laborious task. “Ancient Chinese maps offer crucial information and clues,” says editor Mark Law of Royal Collins Publishing, who worked with the translation team led by lecturer Zhou Yufen of Nanjing Normal University with Dominic Madar in the U.K. and Greg Jones in the U.S. “But changes in geographical conditions and place-names over time, for instance, complicate the study of such maps.”

Making sense of these maps, Law says, “requires a knowledge not just of ancient Chinese characters but also of ancient Chinese history and ancient Chinese geographical coordinates in order to form a complete and accurate spatial concept—and this is a major hurdle for overseas scholars. Even for the author, who is an expert in the field with numerous publications under his belt, Ethnic Migration took him decades of research involving the study of tens of millions of ancient documents and five long years to write it.”

And much of the task is about connecting the dots. “Historical facts have to be connected with specific spaces,” An says. “They have to occur either at a certain point, in a line, or on a surface of the Earth. To paraphrase the late Professor Tan Qixiang, one of the founders of the field of historical geography in modern China, history is like a play while geography serves as the stage. If you can’t find the stage, then where can you see the play? So the study of spatial factors plays a significant role in the understanding and studying of history.”

Illustrated maps, therefore, are a crucial part of Ethnic Migration. “In ancient times, although limited by cartographic technologies and gadgets, scholars already recognized the significance of maps, and when conducting historical research, they almost always had maps by their side,” says An, pointing out that the framework of the volume is knitted together with about 85 illustrations, photographs, and maps. “Some of the maps are reproductions of rare pieces from ancient records, while others are specially commissioned based on my extensive research for this book.”

For the author and editors, the inclusion of maps and illustrations in the book is also a nod to tradition. “In ancient China, there was a practice of putting text on the right-hand page with illustrations on the opposite side,” Ge says. “This practice is mostly ignored in modern publishing in which pictorial materials are relegated to an auxiliary function and regarded as mostly decorative. But recounting any historical context without providing illustrations is a great flaw in many history books. Ethnic Migration, with its many illustrations and maps, seeks to evocatively paint the historical scenes for the readers and draw them into the play that we have staged.”

The next three volumes in the History of China in Maps series—namely, Ancient Capitals and Cities, Communications and Transportation, and Territories and Administrative Divisions—will be published by PPMG in 2023.