Writing Geography in Early Medieval China


A review of Patterns of the Earth: Writing Geography in Early Medieval China, by David Jonathan Felt.

In hardly any other period was China more affected by shifts in geography than during the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern dynasties (220-589 C.E., Wei Jin Nanbeichao 魏晉南北朝). Although reunited by the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 C.E., 西晉) and hence ruled by a single court for a few decades, generally speaking the collapse of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E., ) was followed by centuries of fragmentation and regionalization. The split between south and north was not only a political divide but led also to the development of distinct southern and northern cultures. Whereas Chinese historians and literati of the successive dynasties regarded the unity of the empire as a natural state of affairs, this ideal of a Chinese state crumbled during the period of disunion. Moreover, the stronger contact with India through the influx and increasing spread of Buddhism significantly affected the Chinese self-perception of being middle-kingdoms in the center of “all-under-Heaven.”

Although growing constantly, our knowledge of early medieval Chinese history and culture, in comparison with other periods of Chinese history, is still sparse. While secular prose and religious writings of the time have caught a lot of scholarly attention, a gap remains in our understanding of Chinese geographical and spatial concepts as well as of the corresponding literature. Therefore, David Jonathan Felt’s dissertation Patterns of the Earth: Writing Geography in Early Medieval China, in which he studies the development of geographical writing and the reasons for this literature’s flourishing, is an important contribution that fills parts of this gap. Since most of the original material is lost or has survived only in fragments, the most important sources for his thesis are the Shuijing zhu 水經注, the fragments, and the retrospect accounts written since the 7th century. Therefore, to cover different aspects of geographical thought represented in various texts, the rather general outline of geographical writing which is found in the first part of the thesis (chapters 1-3), is followed in part two by a case study (chapters 4-5) on the structure and some contents of the Shuijing zhu.

In the introduction, Felt presents the central questions driving his research and moreover gives an overview of the state of the field and an outline of his dissertation. According to Felt, early medieval geography primarily was a response to three major sociopolitical and cultural developments: the fragmentation of the empire, the demographic shift southward, and exchange with India (p. 7). The new outer realities resulted in an adjustment of spatial conceptualizations which challenged the imperial ideology of unity, order, and permanence: a focus on local identity and regional culture, increased awareness of natural landscapes, and reconceptualization of the Chinese worldview (pp. 9-10).

Showing a comprehensive acquaintance with the relevant secondary scholarship, Felt moves on to discuss various contributions regarding Chinese geography and geographical thought and also discusses recent trends in the scholarship on the Shuijing zhu, the so-called Li-studies (Lixue 酈學) (pp. 21-34). In addition to providing an account of the development and characteristics of early medieval Chinese geographical writing and thought, Felt mentions three further points as his main contribution to the field. These are (1) the reading of the Shuijing zhu within the context of other geographical texts, (2) situating geographical texts within sociopolitical patterns of human geography by applying the spatial triad introduced by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space, and (3) analyzing the cultural work accomplished by the new genre of geography through focusing on conceptualizations of landscape, regionalism, and foreign lands (pp. 35-36).

The first chapter, covering about one quarter of the thesis, presents a general and detailed overview of the development of geographical writing and its emergence as an independent genre during the time of disunion. Felt here starts by defining the arguments on which the following paragraphs of this review are based. These are: (1) the development of geographical writing as constructed by Tang literati does not correspond with the available evidence, since they wrote after the reunification and ignored the era of disunion, (2) there is no single narrative in the development of geographical writing but different subgenres were later pooled together in a single genre, and (3) lived experience during the early medieval period was the driving force behind the formation of geographical writing as a genre (pp. 49-52). The in-depth study of the development of geographical writing begins in pre-dynastic times and ends in the early Tang, while placing emphasis on the early heterogeneous roots of the genre.

Quite convincingly, the author has identified six subgenres which he divided according to their spatial scale: geographies (1) of local administrative units, (2) of the world, (3) of foreign lands, (4) of natural space, (5) of travel, and (6) of capital cities (pp. 72-113). The roots and development of every subgenre are analyzed in detail while then the consolidation of the geographical genre during the Mid-Northern and Southern Dynasties is introduced, followed by a description of how Tang officials shaped our ideas about geography with their writings. As Felt concludes, it was not until the 5th-6th centuries that geography was recognized as a literary genre. The chapter is followed by an impressive collection of maps and charts supporting the arguments in the narrative. While the first argument mentioned above asserts that Tang literati opinions regarding early medieval geography do not correspond with the evidence, a text compiled by Tang officials, the Suishu (History of the Sui Dynasty), is one of the most important sources in this chapter. As the author writes: “We must work with the evidence available” (p. 57).

The second chapter then deals with the growing tension between imperial and regional geographies since the Han and focuses on how geographical ideas were employed in political rhetoric. As Felt points out, “official imperial geographies ignored the growing literature on local geographies, so as to preserve the authoritative ideal of a transcendent imperial order” (p. 146). For him, geographical representations are not merely attempts to represent space but always also include an (idealized) concept of imperial authority. In order to explore this phenomenon the author examines the geographical concept of regionalism in literature not belonging to the field of geographical writing. The imperial geography of the Han as represented in the dynastic histories is analyzed and then contrasted with the geographical concepts in the Sandu fu 三都賦 (Rhapsodies on the Three Capitals) by Zuo Si 左思 (ca. 250–ca. 305) and Chang Qu’s 常璩 (ca. 291–ca. 361) Huayang guo zhi 華陽國志 (Chronicles of Huayang). As for Han imperial geography, Felt has singled out three spatial patterns that affirmed claims to imperial authority: (1) the state transformed natural into artificial administrative space; (2) the domination of localism through tribute, taxes, etc.; and (3) centrality as an authoritative element for spatial authority (p. 158). As the content of the Sandu fu and the Huayang guo zhi shows, these patterns were challenged later by prioritizing regional authority, significance, and peculiarities. However, while Zuo Si points out the superiority of each of the three regions, Chang Qu “sought to find a legitimate and significant place for the Sichuan region within the Chinese world, but without overturning the imperial geography that structured that world” (p. 198). According to Felt, in the end the “two divergent traditions,” official imperial geography and regional geographies, are an expression of the growing disconnect between official geography and political reality, between representation and practice (pp. 203-213).

Chapter 3 then deals with regional dichotomy during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. This dichotomy Felt highlights by pointing out different regional peculiarities which can serve as markers of regional identities, e.g., local products or food. As Felt argues, the literati’s discussions about local customs, lands, and culture as found, for example, in the Luoyang qielan ji 洛陽伽藍記 (The Monasteries of Luoyang) by Yang Xuanzhi 楊衒之 (fl. 6th c.) or the Yanshi jiaxun 顏氏家訓 (Family Instructions of Master Yan) by Yan Zhitui 顏之推 (531-591) were not about cultural supremacy per se, rather “proxy battles for regional geopolitics” (p. 250). In great detail the author has collected stories in which southern literati mock northern culture or vice versa. This trend, however, changed after reunification under the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties when scholar officials revived Han classical culture while at the same time neglected the regionalism of the time of disunion. The change in political and territorial realities which also affected geographical concepts and writing is interpreted by the author as a claim to state authority. As an example for this shift in spatial concepts the development of the tujing 圖經 tradition, its relevance for state authority and its influence on geographical writing, are analyzed (pp. 269-275). Felt points out that the tujing system “transformed the field of geographical writing” in four ways. First, while during the time of disunion numerous works were written in private, the tujing system shifted geographical writing back into the hands of state officials. Second, it institutionalized the relationship between local and imperial geographies. Third, it established a standardized format for content, organization, maps etc. And fourth, it brought geographical writing into the purview of the imperial state (pp. 273-274).

The general study of the development of geographical writing in the times of disunion form the foundation of and the context for the last two chapters of Felt’s dissertation in which he studies the Shuijing zhu.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the representation of natural space in the Shuijing zhu, a work in which Li Daoyuan “sought to encompass the entire known world and to weave together the diverse variety of geographical texts that had been written over the preceding three centuries” (p. 281). With reference to a statement in the Shuijing in which the Kunlun Mountains are mentioned as being the center of the world, it is argued that this range was also central in Li Daoyuan’s spatial conception of the world. Felt has identified three discursive themes predominating the narratives in the Shuijing zhu: (1) environmental effects upon local customs, (2) mountains as non-normative spaces, and (3) rivers as harbingers of death and bringers of life (p. 282). A survey of the meaning of natural geography with a focus on the Shuijing zhu precedes a detailed discussion of the above mentioned three topics. Here the natural landscape is interpreted as something more enduring than manmade institutions (p. 298). Local customs, again, are regarded as the link between natural geography and human geography. Five new sources were incorporated by Li Daoyuan since they offer insight into certain aspects of the natural environment: (1) local writings, (2) anomaly accounts, (3) poetry, (4) oral accounts, and (5) inscriptions (pp. 297-298). As Felt put it, waterways are not only omnipresent in the Shuijing zhu since they anchor the narrative, but together with mountains they form the natural environment which for Li Daoyuan is the foundation of all knowledge (pp. 286-287). Mountains are the home of divine or semi-divine being(s) and spaces to escape from society. Rivers could bring death by floods or prosperity if properly tamed and used for irrigation. Therefore, the natural and human world are interconnected, the “relationship between the natural and human worlds transformed both realms in a dynamic and dialectic process that was vital to the flourishing of each, but above all essential to the survival of humankind. In this process it was natural geography, not human geography, that was primal, fundamental, and enduring” (p. 363).

In the last chapter, the global metageography which Li Daoyuan constructed in his commentary, and therefore the “set of spatial structures through which people order[ed] their knowledge” (p. 365), are discussed. In order to portray Li Daoyuan’s model of the earth, Felt highlights the Shuijing zhu’s descriptions of India and analyses how knowledge about the new lands was incorporated into existing spatial models, or changed them. Li Daoyuan faced two severe problems, the scarcity of sources and the incongruence of different accounts (p. 370). Again in this chapter, special emphasis is placed on the Kunlun, which is understood as a divide between a Buddhist west and a Chinese east. While imperial geographies placed India at the western edge, Buddhist geographies placed it in the center. Li Daoyuan, however, created a two-centered model of the world in which India and China were both equally dominant in their respective realms. Since Li Daoyuan’s sources regarding India in general were Buddhist scriptures, it is no surprise that those accounts are rather more religious than political. Nevertheless, as Felt argues, the Shuijing zhu presents the “first extant attempt by a non-Buddhist literati to take seriously Buddhist metageography to synthesize it with traditional Chinese metageographies (p. 435). By doing so Li Daoyuan created a new worldview which questioned “China’s centrality in the world and the court’s centrality in China” (p. 435).

The conclusion is a detailed summary of the previous chapters. Moreover, Felt again points out how crucial the early medieval period was for the emergence and development of the genre of geographical writing which would become the foundation for all later dynasties’ writings about space.

To sum up. David Felt has made an important contribution to our understanding of Chinese spatial conceptions and geographical writing. In particular, his detailed account of the development of geographical writing will be of great interest and value for scholars of early medieval China and beyond. By employing a wide variety of sources, which are interpreted under a greater theoretical umbrella, Felt creates a vivid, fresh, and thought-provoking picture of geography during the period of disunion. Turned into a monograph it could elicit interest from geographers as well as historians focusing on cultural and intellectual history.

J. H. Huesemann
Institute of East Asian Studies – Sinology
Leipzig University

Primary Sources

Huayang guo zhi華陽國志
Luoyang qielan ji 洛陽伽藍記
Sandu fu 三都賦 (Wenxuan 文選)
Shuijing zhu 水經注
Sui shu 隋書
Yanshi jiaxun顏氏家訓

Dissertation information

Stanford University, 2014. 483 pp. Primary Advisor: Mark Edward Lewis.

Image: Cliff Inscription at Lake Tai, Jiangsu, PRC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like