Geographical Fragments from Early Medieval China: Local Gazetteers before Local Gazetteers

Geographical Fragments from Early Medieval China: Local Gazetteers before Local Gazetteers

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Sui shu 隋書 (Book of Sui)

Sui shu 隋書 (Book of Sui), Wei Zheng 魏徵 (580-643), Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, (1973) 1987, j. 33, p. 983.

My project is an epistemology of geographical knowledge in Classical China. It will focus on the emergence of locality writing in Early Medieval times. Although most early local or regional gazetteers have been lost, empire-wide geographies and encyclopediae contain a wealth of geographical fragments that were mostly written between the Han and Tang dynasties. 

Early geographical fragments were first gathered by the eighteenth-century scholar Wang Mo王謨 (Han-Tang dili shuchao 漢唐地理書鈔, Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1961). However, more needs to be done, especially in the cross-referencing of sources and versions. By extracting those fragments and classifying them thematically and geographically, the project aims at deepening our understanding of their mode and origin of production and the patterns that appear beyond their structure through the geohistorical information they provide.

My recent research has shown that the numerous sources of otherwise lost books recorded in the sixth-century Shuijing zhu 水經注 are useful to reassess the origins and development of geography and local writing before the Song dynasty. Such texts prove that Chinese space should not be analysed as a monolithic entity. In order to properly assess the importance of everyday life, borders, ethical and ethnic relationships, and the way the imperial will is applied locally, one must turn to regional geography and local history. Furthermore, reconstructing this genre can also unveil issues pertaining to the spatial distribution of local customs and cults, temples and tombs, stelae and epitaphs, the evolution of place names and the type of cited works in ancient texts. By mapping how Chinese literati represented space, one can understand the coherence (or the absence of it) in their geographical discourse, and witness the formative stages of Geography, a knowledge that will become a science in Late Imperial China.