“Ten-Thousand-Mile Map of Maritime Defenses,” drawn during the Qing Dynasty, circa 1705. This map, which is one of eleven maps mounted in an accordion-folded album fifty-one feet in length, shows military defenses along the Chinese coast from Hainan Island to the Shandong Peninsula. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Historical geography is the study of how cultural features of various societies emerged and evolved; it necessarily involves the analysis and compilation of historical treatises that documented the evolution of a society—its administration, infrastructure, and the events that shaped its history. Until the twentieth century Chinese historical geography was slow to develop as a formal field, but it has roots in a discipline well explored in Chinese scholarship: the “geography of administrative change,” or “dynastic geography.”

The two Chinese characters that translate the English word geography (di and li) literally mean “land” and “inherent order.” The word “dili” appeared in Chinese literature no later than the fifth century BCE.Lishi dili” in the Chinese language describes historical geography. In traditional China, history was an essential branch of official scholarship and historical geography was considered the essential basis for all social knowledge. In fact, China’s first modern historical geographers were students of history, not of geography. As they tried to develop the field of historical geography into an independent, professional, and rigorous discipline, history students began to recognize its profoundly geographical nature. As a result, they began to develop a “geographical mind” to improve the caliber of their research. Historical geography has come to play an important role in the study of the long history of China. Chinese historical geography has two important influences—the critical inheritance of traditional scholarship and the influence of Western ideas.

Yange Dili

Confucian scholars invented the concept of chronological geography, which reached it zenith during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Chronological geography was the reconstruction of historical treatises compiled by past dynasties; the development of such a systematically arranged geographical order over the years bolstered the imperial ideology. Special attention was paid to chronological descriptions of changing administrative systems, road networks, and water systems, and to the verification of the locations of key historical events and settlements. Because chronological geography (or yange dili, the “geography of administrative change”), is based on the history of each Chinese dynasty, some scholars refer to as the “dynastic geography” stage of Chinese historical geography.

The ideas of Confucian geography were derived from two major historical literatures: the intentional geographical writings and the unintentional geographical writings. The former contains dozens of official dili zhi, treatises on geography, in the standard dynastic histories. The latter includes the interpretation of ideas of geography from philosophical or religious writings. Of three main philosophical schools in Chinese history (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism), Confucianism is the most devoted to geographical concepts, but geographical ideas also appear throughout the philosophical and religious writings of Buddhism and Daoism. For example, the idea of geography in feng shui, a theory of auspicious or harmonious spatial relationships, has been used to analyze topographical features and configurations in the placement and arrangement of houses or tombs. Despite its references to history, ethics, and other forms of social inquiry, Confucian geography could not avoid becoming a branch of “official learning” that rationalized and supported a highly stratified society.

The size of the area actually governed by the central government of China has changed many times throughout China’s history. As early as the fifth century BCE, the Chinese began to administer their territories by using geographical concepts. Yugong (The Tribute of Yu), a chapter of the sanctioned Confucian text Shangshu (The Book of Documents), is considered the oldest scientific treatise on geography in China. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) another influential geographical work, Hanshu Dili Zhi (The Treatise of Geographical Studies in Hanshu), a chapter of Hanshu (The History of the Earlier Han Dynasty) by Ban Gu (32–92 CE), appeared. This treatise represents the first officially sponsored monograph on geography and provides the first Chinese usage of the term “geography” (dili). Hanshu Dili Zhi illustrates the fundamental approach to Chinese geographical research for more than a thousand years. The Chinese often referred to this approach as the yange dili model—the word yange meaning “evolution” or “change”—its major focus embracing the ever-changing size of the national territory and the regional administrative divisions in China. Even though the Chinese yange dili is a specialized science, it has never been treated as a single field of study. Until 1900 there were only a few scholars who specialized in yange dili; the majority of Chinese scholars came from other fields, such as history, economics, and literature. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) the study of geography itself was in its heyday, and yange dili, traditional “dynastic geography,” was in its last stage.

Chinese scholars considered the formal discipline of geography to be one of the fundamental branches of knowledge. Dynastic geography was recognized as one of the xianxue, or prevailing studies. A number of scholars, including Gu Yanwu (1613–1682), Gu Zuyu (1631–1692), Yan Ruoju (1636–1704), Liu Xianting (1648–1695), Quan Zuwang (1705–1784), Zhao Yiqing (1710–1764), Dai Zhen (1724–1777), Li Zhaoluo (1769–1841), and Yang Shoujing (1839–1915), expressed a keen interest in geography. Their intellectual pursuits popularized the study of geography and fostered a new spirit in scholars participating in geographical research. The ultimate aim of geographical research was to ascertain the true history of geographical practices in past dynasties in order to provide a frame of reference for the contemporary management of geographical issues. But the Qing scholars assumed that the true history of geographical practices was to be found only in original documents, in faithful copies of the original dynastic records. In other words, “truth” for Qing scholars was definitely a textual truth. In their search for textual truth, they collated and checked texts, correcting any mistakes in the geographical records while adding to the basic texts more information collected from other sources.

Geography in China has commonly been considered an applied science developed to solve objective problems. Geographers have typically devoted themselves to explorations of objective geographical issues, paying relatively little attention to either self-examination or self-criticism. A fresh intellectual spirit transformed Confucian inquiry from a search for moral perfection to a more systematic search for empirical knowledge. A common field of inquiry and a shared discourse emerged among later Ming and early Qing scholars who insisted on the centrality of xiaoxue (minor learning) that is philology (in this context, textual criticism). Such philological concerns provided the necessary precondition d
uring the Qing period for the formation of a new school.

Gu Yanwu and Dai Zhen led the new school of Kaoju, evidential research, (also called Han learning), and the major focus of their works was to establish authentic editions of important ancient books. Scholars in the new school undertook the arduous task of collating the various geographical works and maps that had been handed down through the ages, with a view to correcting the accumulated errors on the basis of original official documents. Their works focused mainly on five areas: annotation, confirmation, collation, correction, and verification. The Qing scholars did not systematically summarize their rules for textual criticism, as their techniques were transmitted from generation to generation through exemplary works. Sanguo Zhizhu (An Annotated History of the Three Kingdoms) by Pei Songzhi (372–451) and Zizhitong Jianzhu (An Annotated Comprehensive Mirror of Aid for Government) by Hu Sanxing (1230–1302) were regarded as models for textual criticism. Both Pei and Hu made a careful exegesis of the historical terms given in the original texts, supplementing this in their annotation with philological, historical, and geographical information. These academic works had a huge impact during the Kaoju movement for the Qing scholars who began to correct mistakes in their primary sources by comparing them with contemporary works. The Qing scholars tried (1) to find missing, misspelled, misused, and misplaced characters in the text; (2) to correct the historical facts given in the text, especially when the text contained anachronistic mistakes in the recording of official titles, the names of institutions, or the names of places; (3) to correct individual sentences in their primary sources, using the ancient rules of grammar and rhetoric; (4) to supplement their original texts by additional related sources so as to give a fuller, more accurate account. These scholars never doubted the value of the original texts; what concerned them was how to enhance the value so as to preserve the texts for future generations.

Consequently, the study of historical geography became an integral part of Kaoju, with geographical records and descriptions occupying a considerable proportion of the pages in the dynastic histories and Confucian Classics. As the Qing scholars reasoned, only a solid understanding of the geographical facts could provide a firm foundation for understanding historical events. The study of geography shaped within the Kaoju movement culminated in the golden era of yange dili in China. The term yange can be found in many titles of Qing geographical works such as Lidai Dili Yange Biao (Evolutionary Tables of the Geography of the Successive Dynasties) by Cheng Fangji and Lidai Dili Yange Tu (Evolutionary Maps of the Geography of the Successive Dynasties) by Yang Shoujing.

Western Influence

Despite the effort of most Qing scholars using the Kaoju geographical method to examine the base of Chinese history, the understanding by the Chinese scholars was still based upon the Confucian world, which had been created by the sages in antiquity and maintained by imperial authority. There was no alternative analytical framework with which to think about world order or world structure. Before 1840, Chinese knowledge about the existence and distribution of countries and people outside China was sufficient to allow Confucian scholars to realize that China did not physically occupy the center of the world. The foreign invaders who both contributed to and followed the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912 brought a new wave of knowledge from outside and the traditional imperial ideology, including yange dili, came under attack. The dynastic geography was no longer considered a meaningful format to provide a compelling portrait of China and its land. The Chinese scholars finally realized that the Middle Kingdom was a poor and weak country, not the powerful, central “Heavenly Kingdom they had considered it in the past.

In the 1920s and 1930s the historian Gu Jiegang (1893–1980) took a “revolutionary” approach to Chinese historical geography. Gu’s historiography tended to undermine traditional concepts and values in Chinese history. He considered the geographical integration of the whole of Chinese civilization. Creating the term gudibian, critique of ancient geography, Gu Jiegang’s skeptical approach considered the creation of the Confucian geographical texts in their social contexts. To Gu, mistakes in the texts were not simply wrong characters, wrong names, or wrong years; they were the inevitable results of the very manner in which the texts had been composed and of the sociopolitical implications of the texts. His book, Gushibian (Critiques of Antiquity) rejects and reinterprets most of the traditional conceptions associated with Chinese classical history, casting doubt on the historicity of the sage-king Yu. Yu was described in Confucian texts as a great flood-queller, a selfless king who established the first dynasty of China, the Xia dynasty, and the creator of the geopolitical structure that dominated the Confucian geographical mind for thousands of years. Because the sage-king Yu was such an important figure in the Confucian construction of the Golden Age, it was unheard of for Chinese scholars to criticize him. According to the criticism of Yugong by Gu Jiegang, China as a political unit did not really exist before unification under the Qin and Han dynasties in the later third century BCE. Had there been a Xia dynasty established by sage-king Yu, as described in Confucian texts, its domain could not have constituted a tiny area nestled in the bend of the Huang (Yellow) River. Gu pointed out that if the size of “China” had been small and subject to variation in high antiquity, the world outlook of its people would have been correspondingly diminished and subject to change.

Another contribution by Gu Jiegang was the organization of the Yugong Society and the creation of Yugong Banyuekan (Journal of Yu Gong) in 1934, bringing historical geography to the particular attention of China’s best scholars. Even though Gu had never traveled outside of China, nor had he made contact as a young man with Western teachers, he was heavily influenced by people who studied overseas. For instance, Gu was influenced by Hu Shi (1891–1962), who was educated at Columbia University with John Dewey. Hu advocated Dewey’s pragmatism, the essence of the scientific method. Gu’s ideological sources came from the lens of Hu Shi’s work. Three of his students, Tan Qixiang (1911–1992), Hou Renzhi (b. 1911), and Shi Nianhai (1912–2001), who later contributed a great deal to historical geography in China, were brought into his academic circle when Gu Jiegang established Yugong Society. The members of the Yugong Society were mostly teachers, editors, researchers, and students from Yanjing, Peking, and Furen Universities. Unquestionably, the most important contribution of the society was the publication of the semi-monthly magazine Yugong Banyuekan (Journal of Yu Gong), the first journal of historical geography in China. Until 1937, when the fate of Yugong Banyuekan was sealed by the Japanese invasion, the journal published a total of eighty-two issues containing a total of 710 articles. The subject of historical geography included topics such as dynastic geography, regional studies, and foreign relations with China. The Yugong Society intended to promote the following research projects involving historical geography in Yugong Banyuekan: (1) to rewrite a series of books on the evolution of Chinese geopolitics, (2) to make accurate and useful historical maps, (3) to correct all the documents and dynastic geographies, (4) to compile an accurate and inclusive dictionary of historical place names, (5) to collect materials on human geography, (6)
to invite scientist to answer questions on the role of physical geography in history.

In the 1930s through the 1960s, China underwent a series of great social and intellectual transformations giving rise to most of China’s modern social sciences. Among Gu Jiegang’s three students, Tan Qixiang, Hou Renzhi, and Shi Nianhai, Tan and Hou contributed and promoted historical geography in China. Tan Qixiang published a number of historical geography books including his well-known eight-volume Zhongguo Lishi Ditu Ji (Historical Atlas of China).

In 1946, Hou Renzhi went to England and enrolled in the graduate program at the Department of Geography, Liverpool University; there he studied with H. C. Darby, a well-known historical geographer in the West. Hou is the only Chinese scholar who went to the West and received a foreign doctoral degree in historical geography during the Republican period (1912–1949). Hou was most intrigued by Darby’s ideas about the distinction between history and geography and about the proper use of the cross-sections method to approach questions of “geographical evolution.” During his graduate study, Hou Renzhi was also strongly influenced by the famous American historical geographers Andrew H. Clark and R. H. Brown.

Hou Renzhi contributed to the development of historical geography in China in the following ways: First, he broke though the framework of the traditional dynastic geography to apply modern geographical theory and terms to the study of past geography. Hou completed the transition from dynastic geography to historical geography. Second, Hou brought the landscape into the study of historical geography. Third, Hou encouraged research on changes in the physical environment, arguing that such research is vital if geographers are to develop a plausible theory about the dynamic role of man in the changing ecology of the earth.

In 1949, with his doctoral degree from England, Hou returned to China where he wrote a number of books including Zhongguo Gudai Dilixue Jianshi (A Brief History of Geography in Ancient China) and educated many students, including his successor at Beijing University, Tang Xiaofeng (a PhD with a specialty Syracuse University), the current director of the school’s Center for Historical Geography. Influenced by the well-known American historical geographer D. W. Meinig’s writings and teachings at Syracuse, Tang published his major book From Dynastic Geography to Historical Geography in China, where still only a few historical geographers could write and publish in the English language.

During Hou’s tenure at Beijing University, he recommended that the Chinese government change higher education policy. In the 1950s a number of universities began to list courses on lishi dili (historical geography) to relace the old courses on traditional yange dili (dynastic geography). Hou’s studies questioned the utility of all human constructs when considering Chinese ancient geographical structure. He necessarily promoted the devaluation of the Confucian classics and dynastic histories, arguing that insofar as the Confucian documents were preoccupied with given political questions, they could not help to answer the kinds of questions posed by modern geographers.

Historical geography in China has been a major field in China’s thousand-year history. After 1840, Western influence began to modify the development of historical geography. Today, historical geography has become one of the major studies in China’s higher education system. Currently, Tang Xiaofeng is one of the main figures who is a successor from Hou Renzhi in China.

Further Reading

Gu Jiegang. (1931). The Autobiography of a Chinese Historian (A. W. Hummel, Trans.). Leyden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Gu Jiegang. (1947). Dangdai Zhongguo Shixue [Contemporary Chinese Historiography]. Nanjing, China: Nanjing Chubanshe.

Hou Renzhi. (1962). Zhongguo Gudai Dilixue Jianshi [A Brief History of Geography in Ancient China]. Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe.

Hou Renzhi. (1985). Beijing Lishi Ditu Ji [The Historical Atlas of Beijing]. Beijing: Beijing Chubanshe.

Tan Qenzhi. (Ed.) (1991–1992). Zhongguo Lishi Ditu Ji [Historical Atlas of China]. (8 vols.). Hong Kong: Joint.

Tang Xiaofeng. (2000). From Dynastic Geography to Historical Geography. Beijing: Commercial Press International.

The trees want to remain quiet, but the wind will not stop.


Shù yù jìng’ér fēng bù zhǐ

Source: Suganuma, Unryu. (2009). Historical Geography. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1030–1035. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A rubbing taken from a 4,000-year-old stone tablet in Xi’an, the ancient capital of China, represents one of the oldest extant maps. The map shows remarkable accuracy at placing coastlines and rivers, compared to its European counterparts, and was apparently prepared as a teaching tool. It delineates the provinces of China which paid tribute to Emperor Yu in 2205 BCE during China’s first legendary dynasty. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Historical Geography (Lìshǐ-dìlǐ 历史地理)|Lìshǐ-dìlǐ 历史地理 (Historical Geography)

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