Felt, David Jonathan.
This study explores the first flourishing of geographical writing in China during the early medieval period (ca. 200–600 CE). It examines the reasons for the initial emergence of geographical writing, its development of new spatial conceptualizations, and the cultural work that it accomplished. Since this once substantial body of texts has now been lost, I rely primarily upon the sole extant comprehensive geography from the period, the Shuijing zhu (Commentary on the Classic of Waterways), as well as fragmentary remnants of other texts and retrospective accounts from the seventh century, to piece together the evidence. I also employ Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in a spatial analysis of these texts. From these sources, I trace out the developmental trajectory of this initial emergence of geographical writing as an independent literary genre during the early medieval period. I show that the literary history of geographical writing as recounted by Tang literati does not match the available evidence. Their self-affirming narrative exaggerated the Warring States and Han origins of geographical writing, prioritized texts that were state-centered and comprehensive in scope, and marginalized the contributions of texts from the chaotic, early medieval Age of Disunion.
On the contrary, I show that it was not until the third and fourth centuries that one sees a substantial number of writers self-consciously taking space as the primary structure of their narratives. Yet it was not until the late fifth and early sixth-century movement to write massive comprehensive geographies that these various related but still disparate traditions coalesced into something that writers and readers recognized in their own time as a single genre of geographical writing. Contrary to Tang accounts, geographical writing was thoroughly a product of China’s distinctive early medieval age. Drastic transformations in the human geography of the Chinese ecumene during this period challenged Han conceptualizations of a court-centered, universalist imperial geography. This geographical writing performed a cultural work specific for its historical setting. It constructed a new conceptualization of the Chinese ecumene that was more inclusive of regional diversity, independent of current political unity (or the lack thereof), and polycentric in its political, cultural, and religious landscape. As such, it was especially instrumental in reconceptualizing the Yangzi Basin from a former frontier into a secondary core region of the Chinese ecumene.
As the sole extant comprehensive geographical text from the period, I have employed the sixth-century Shuijing zhu by Li Daoyuan as the anchor of this study. From the examination of the development of geographical writing, I am able to determine what was distinctive about this individual text, and what was characteristic of the genre more generally. Its goal of comprehensiveness, its extensive use of local geographies, and its composite nature are all characteristic of other late fifth and early sixth-century comprehensive geographies. What was distinctive from these contemporary texts was Li Daoyuan’s use of natural geographies, rather than administrative units, to structure his narrative. From this environmental rather than political focus, the Shuijing zhu presents a distinctive worldview that centers the world at Kunlun and situates India as a western parallel to the eastern lands of China. While unique among its contemporary comprehensive geographies, I show how Li Daoyuan carefully constructed this world model through synthesizing traditional Chinese sources with newly-introduced Buddhist accounts of the Western Regions.