Xu Xiake, a noted traveler and geographer of the late Ming Dynasty

Xu Xiake (Chinese: 徐霞客; pinyin: Xú Xiákè; Wade–Giles: Hsü Hsia-k’o, January 5, 1587 – March 8, 1641), born Xu Hongzu (徐弘祖), courtesy name Zhenzhi (振之), was a Chinese travel writer and geographer of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), known best for his famous geographical treatise, and noted for his bravery and humility. He traveled throughout China for more than 30 years, documenting his travels extensively.

The records of his travels were compiled posthumously in The Travel Diaries Xu Xiake, and his work translated by Ding Wenjiang.[1] Xu’s writing falls under the old Chinese literary category of ‘travel record literature’ (‘youji wenxue’“遊記文學”), which used narrative and prose styles of writing to portray one’s travel experiences.

His Life

With ancestors from Jiangxi province, Xu Xiake was born in what is today Jiangyin (in Jiangsu province) as Xu Hongzu (宏祖), as the second son of Xu Yu’an (徐豫庵, 1545–1694) and Wang Ruren (王孺人, 1545–1625). It was often said his mother encouraged him to travel and this shaped Xu’s predilections. His sobriquet is Zhenzhi (振之).

Xiake was an alternate sobriquet (別號) given to him by his friend Chen Jiru (陳繼儒, 1558–1639) and it means “one who is in the sunset clouds”. His other friend, Huang Daozhou (黃道周, 1585–1646), also gave Xu an alternate sobriquet: Xiayi (霞逸), meaning “untrammelled in the sunset clouds.”

On his journeys throughout China he travelled with a servant called Gu Xing (顧行). He faced many hardships along the way, as he was often dependent on the patronage of local scholars who would help him after he had been robbed of all his belongings.

Local Buddhist abbots of the various places he visited often would pay him money as well, for the small service of recording the history of their local monastery.

From the snowy passes of Sichuan, to the subtropical jungles of Guangxi and Yunnan, to the mountains of Tibet, Xu Xiake wrote of all his experiences and provided enormous amounts of written detail from his observations.

Travel Records

The written work of Xu Xiake’s travel records and diaries contained some 404,000 Chinese characters, an enormous work for a single author of his time.

Xu traveled throughout the provinces of China, often on foot, to write his enormous geographical and topographical treatise, documenting various details of his travels, such as the locations of small gorges, or mineral beds such as mica schists.

Xu’s work was quite systematic, providing accurate details of measurement, and his work, later translated into modern Chinese by Ding Wenjiang, reads more like the accounts of a 20th-century field surveyor than an early 17th-century scholar.

In Guizhou, he made the discovery of the true source of the West River. He also discovered the Mekong and Salween rivers were, in fact, separate drainages with completely separate watersheds.

Xu made the important realization that the Jinsha river network – and not the Min or Yalong – formed the true headwaters of the Yangtze River, correcting a mistake in Chinese geography as old as the “Tribute of Yu” compiled by Confucius in the Classic of History

Information from chinaculture.org

A noted traveler and geographer of the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Xu Xiake, also named Hongzu (1587-1641), was born in today’s Jiangyin of East China’s Jiangsu Province. He studied the ancient classics as a small boy and learned to write the eight-part essay prescribed for the imperial civil service examination, but refused to take part in the imperial examination. Instead, he developed an interest in historical books, especially such books on different places, and devoted himself to traveling all over the country.

During his lifetime, Xu Xiake traveled around and conducted surveys in 16 provinces, leaving his footsteps in virtually every part of the country. In conducting his surveys and investigations, he would never blindly embrace the conclusions recorded in previous documents. Instead, he discovered that the documentations made by his predecessors in their geographical studies were quite unreliable in many aspects.

To ensure that his reconnaissance were real and detailed, he seldom traveled by ship or by wagon. He climbed over mountains and hills and traveled long distances almost entirely on foot.

Aiming to develop a true picture of the natural world, he made it a point of undertaking his expeditions in those mountain areas where roads were difficult to travel and in those woods that were sparsely populated. In this way he discovered many marvelous mountains and beautiful scenes. He made repeated visits to the famous mountains across the country at different times and seasons of the year to so that he could make repeated observations of their wonderful scenery that kept changing all year round.

Xu’s main contributions to geography includes:

— A detailed study and scientific study of the karst landform. Xu visited over 270 caves in the (South China) Guangxi Autonomous Region and in (Southwest) Guizhou and (Southwest) Yunnan provinces, kept records of their directions, height, and depth, and elaborated on the cause of the formation. He was a pioneer in systematic karst studies in both China and the world.

— Correcting some mistakes of the records on the source and waterways of Chinese rivers.

— Observing and recording the species of many plants, explicitly putting forward the influences that landform, temperature, and wind speed might have on the distribution and blooming of plants.

— Conducting survey on the volcano relics of Tengchong Mountain in South China’s Yunnan Province. Xu kept records of the shape and quality of the red pumice expelled from the volcano, and provided scientific explanation on the phenomenon.

— A detailed depiction of the phenomenon of terrestrial heat, the earliest of its kind in China.

Xu Xiake’ contribution to the ancient Chinese geography was unprecedented, especially his detailed narration of the karst landform. His travel journal was compiled by the later generations into a book called The Travel Diaries Xu Xiake, which is of high scientific and literary value.

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