A Masterpiece of Ancient Geography
Shui Jing Zhu is a geographical masterpiece written by Li Daoyuan (AD 470–527) mirroring changes in landscapes and history of the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386–534).
During the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 429–581), Empress Dowager Feng (AD 442– 490) and Emperor Xiaowen (reign: AD 471–500) of the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386– 534) introduced reform measures and sinicisation policies to make culture and education more prosperous, which gave rise to numerous classics. Shui Jing Zhu (Commentary on the Waterways Classic), written by Li Daoyuan (AD 470–527), was a masterpiece of geography. Upright and keen, Li Daoyuan devoted his life to a commentary on Shui Jing (Waterways Classic) and succeeded in finishing the 300,000-word Commentary on the Waterways Classic.
During Jiajing Reign (1522–1567) of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Huang Xingceng (1490–1540), a master of blockprinted books, reprinted the Commentary on the Waterways Classic based on the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279) version. It was the first version in the Ming Dynasty and served as a reference to later versions. With descriptions of waterways and mountains,
readers can see rapids rolling down the cliff and hear murmuring creeks.
Renowned Northern Wei Official
In the Northern Wei Dynasty, Emperor Taiwu ( Tuoba Tao, AD 424–452) toppled the Northern Yan (AD 407–436) regime established by Feng Ba (reign: AD 409– 430) and removed his family from Hebei to the capital of Pingcheng (today's Datong of Shanxi Province). A girl with the same family name also moved and became a maidservant in the palace. When Emperor Taiwu's grandson Tuoba Jun (reign: AD 452–466) ascended the throne, the 14-year-old Feng was selected for his concubine while Li was empress. But Li died when the emperor had a son, Tuoba Hong (AD 454–476), the crown prince, according to the Northern Wei tradition of forcing crown prince's mother to commit suicide for fear that she would take power. So Tuoba Jun crowned his concubine Feng as the new empress.
In AD 465, Emperor Wencheng died of illness at 26 and was succeeded by his 12-year- old son Tuoba Hong (as Emperor Xianwen, reign: AD 465–471). Five years later, Empress Dowager Feng made Emperor Xianwen pass the throne to her four-year- old son Tuoba Hong (as Emperor Xiaowen, reign: AD 471–500) while Emperor Xianwen took the title of Taishang Huang (retired emperor). Five years passed, and Emperor Xianwen died suddenly. Empress Dowager Feng assumed rule over Emperor Xiaowen for over ten years and assumed the title of Grand Empress Dowager. She introduced Land Equalisation System and Three Heads of a Neighbourhood, implemented a policy of Sinicisation and popularised Confucianism, promoting the country's development and integrating of various nationalities.
In AD 490, Grand Empress Dowager Feng died of illness. The 23-year- old Emperor Xiaowen took the throne and continued to push for reform. Brought up by Empress Dowager Feng, Emperor Xiaowen was well-versed in Confucian classics and gathered experience in handling country affairs. In AD 493, under the pretence of leading a million soldiers to crusade against Qi (AD 479– 502, a state) of the Southern Dynasty (AD 420–589), Emperor Xiaowen moved the capital to Luoyang to further his campaign of Sinicisation. Later, he compelled the Xianbei people (protoMongols) to adopt Chinese surnames, forced the population to speak Chinese and encouraged the Xianbei people to integrate with the Han. When he moved to Luoyang, a young official, Li Daoyuan, in Zhuozhou, Hebei followed him to the new capital.
Li Daoyuan was born into an official family. His father Li Fan served as Pingdong General and provincial governor in Qingzhou due to his outstanding military service. Li Daoyuan lived with his parents in Qingzhou, Shandong since childhood. Li Daoyuan read widely, mainly on geology. As he reached adulthood, he served as assistant minister in the government. After Emperor Xiaowen moved the capital to Luoyang, he followed the emperor to advance the campaign further north. Upright, he was promoted to court censor. But his tough administration offended bigwigs in the court. He was soon demoted and assigned to Jizhou ( Ji Prefecture), where his harsh law enforcement compelled awe among the public, scaring thieves in Jizhou to flee to other places. In three years, Jizhou witnessed a harmonious time. After that, he was appointed a satrap in Luyang, a remote area. But Li Daoyuan's arrival transformed the area. He built schools and educated villagers. Soon, people in Luyang leaned towards poetry and ritual music.
During the reign of Emperor Ming (AD 516– 528) of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Li held the post of Henan Yin and administered Luoyang,
the capital of Henan. He was later granted the title of Junior Censor by Emperor Ming for suppressing the rebellion led by Yangzhou governor Yuan Faseng (AD 454– 536). As junior censor, Li had more candour and fairness, which infuriated royal members. Yuan Wei, a member of the royal family, framed a case against his uncle Yuan Yuan. After learning this, Li Daoyuan sought out the truth and rehabilitated Yuan Yuan. Therefore, Yuan Wei then held a grudge against Li. At that time, Qiu Nian, a favourite of Yuan Yue ( king of Runan), was ignorant and wanton while in charge of appointing officials. Li conducted an investigation of Qiu Nian and put him in prison. Yuan Yue reported to the Empress Dowager and pleaded for his life, but it was too late. Qiu Nian had been killed before Li received the empress's order. Li even denounced Yuan Yue for his violation of the law, which infuriated Yuan.
In AD 527, the Yongzhou provincial governor Xiao Baoyin (AD 486–530) was plotting an insurgence. Yuan Wei and Yuan Yue persuaded Empress Dowager Hu to send Li to Chang'an to keep an eye on Xiao Baoyin, intending to kill Li at the hands of Xiao. Empress Dowager Hu granted the petition and appointed Li ambassador of Guanyou (west of Shaanxi) to examine Xiao Baoyin's troops in Guanzhong (the central Shaanxi plain). Learning Li's arrival in Chang'an, Xiao, fully aware of the Li's disposition, was afraid of becoming another Yuan Faseng, whose rebellion was crushed by Li Daoyuan. So, Xiao ordered the general Guo Zihui to besiege Li at Yinpan Station (today's Lintong of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province) and assassinate him as well as his two brothers and two sons. As a result, Li died at Yinpan Station. In the following year, the government recaptured Chang'an. Li was brought back to Luoyang to be buried, posthumously awarded titles of Director of the Board of Rites and Jizhou Provincial Governor. Although Li died with hatred, his geographical masterpiece Commentary on the Waterways Classic spread throughout ages.
Writing a Classic after Field Investigation
Li demonstrated an early interest in geography. He often visited mountains and waters with his father, and conducted painstaking reconnaissance on water flow each time. Li made use of his position as a business official in different places to see mountains, understanding local rivers and lakes. In his spare time, he carried out field investigations. Wherever he went, he tried to collect local books and maps and, based on these documents, examined rivers, tributaries and the geographical landscape.
He travelled over mountains and waters, visited historical sites, traced the source of rivers and collected folk songs, proverbs, dialects and legends, writing down detailed information. He got large amounts of first-hand materials. He even read and studied many ancient books on geology. He had a good grasp of books, striving to understand every point in the book. In comparing the same phenomenon documented differently in various books, he insisted on finding out reasons. In addition to Commentary on the Waterways Classic, Li claimed to be author of other books, but all were lost.
Through fieldwork and studying geographical texts, Li found older books as too sketchy. Many local works were myths and legends with fictitious regions, falling short of rigorous geographic works. Waterways Classic, credited to Sang Qin during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220–280), kept a simple record of rivers rather than geographic conditions with some omissions. Moreover, geographical conditions changed over time, such as diversion of rivers, change in geographic names, and the rise and fall of villages. Li felt it necessary to write a complete geographical book on the basis of the Waterways Classic in the form of a
commentary to show the landscape and historical change in the Northern Wei period, as ancient geographical literature could not meet the needs of people in better understanding geography.
Li cited up to 480 literary works with 109 geographical ones. Over years of work, he finally finished the geographical book Commentary on the Waterways Classic, in which he emphasised the paramount importance of field work in the preface to the book, which presented many findings. Li travelled a lot, leaving his footprints among central China and accumulating practical experience and geographical information. Waterways Classic, containing 15,000 Chinese characters, covered 137 rivers while Li's 300,000- character version mentioned 1,252 rivers. Commentary on the Waterways Classic was divided into rivers sections, each fully described with geology, landscape, soil, climate, customs and conventions, history of towns, archaeology and fairy tales besides hydrological conditions.
Such a detailed description of geographical conditions created a new form of comprehensive works on geography. The masterpiece covered a wide range of geographical area. Li, despite the confrontation between the Northern Dynasty and the Southern Dynasty, turned his eyes beyond the scope dominated by Northern Wei and detailed China's geographical conditions with rivers as the key link. The book covered some foreign rivers, which reflected Li's wide travel and broad horizon.
Throughout his life, Li Daoyuan grew concerned for the country and affirmed his loyalty to the court. After his death, his third son Li Xiaoyou inherited the title of nobility, thus circulating transcripts of Commentary on the Waterways Classic. When the Sui Dynasty (AD 581– 618) unified China, the court began to sort out a national collection of books. Commentary on the Waterways Classic found its first record in the volume of Sui Shu (“book of Sui”), reading that the book had 40 volumes. During the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960– 1127) when block printing was widely used, the book was printed twice but none still exist. During the Southern Song Dynasty ( 1127– 1279), Commentary on the Waterways Classic was reprinted, however, only less than one third of its content survived. Now the incomplete book is in the possession of National Library of China. When Yongle Dadian ( Yongle Encyclopaedia) was compiled in the Ming Dynasty, it incorporated the Commentary on the Waterways Classic. The version has been passed down, and attained the title “Yongle Encyclopaedia Version.” It was the earliest extant manuscript. Commentary on the Waterways Classic had three versions during the Ming Dynasty, the first of which was Huang Xingceng's block- printed edition in 1534.
Two Classics Integrated by Huang Xingceng
The mid- Ming era witnessed a corrupt government ruled by eunuchs. During the reign of Emperor Jiajing, the emperor was a devoted follower of Taoism, hoping to find medicines to prolong his life. Ignoring state affairs, he relied on eunuch Yan Song ( 1480– 1569) to dominate the government, which immersed the court in internal and external troubles and financial struggle. Under control of such a government, society deteriorated and the public grew furious. Heresy running counter to the doctrines of Zhu Xi ( 1130– 1200) soon emerged. Ancient literature was advocated while decadent ones were discarded. A retro style encouraged growth in copying works during the Song Dynasty, and block- printed editions of this period were called the “Jiajing Version.”
Suzhou was home to block printing ancient works. Huang Xingceng, a block- printing master born in Suzhou, was known for his intelligence and diligence since childhood. Coming from an affluent family, Huang Xingceng and his elder brother squandered money on books. He participated in the imperial examination several times but failed, thus turning his attention from officialdom to restoration of ancient literature. Based on the Song version, he block printed a few books including Chuci Zhangju (“commentary on the songs of Chu”). In the thirteenth year of the Jiajing reign, he integrated Commentary on the Waterways Classic and Shan Hai Jing ( The Classic of Mountains and Seas), for mountains and waters, he thought, were inseparable. Since then, Commentary on the Waterways Classic has enjoyed wide circulation. The Jiajing Version block- printed by Huang Xingceng became a rare edition owing to its stencil tissue paper of toughness and neater characters in the style of Ouyang Xun (AD 557– 641, a calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty).
Commentary on the Waterways Classic expanded Waterways Classic to a great extent and stood as both a geographical and literary work. Shen Deqian (1673–1769), famous poet of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), paid respect for Li Daoyuan after reading Commentary on the Waterways Classic, praising Li as one that read thousands of books and travelled thousands of miles; articles written by him were unparalleled.
Though Li was dead, Commentary on the Waterways Classic has been passed down and circulated among the public, telling stories of the 1,252 rivers more than 1,400 years ago.
A Ming Dynasty ( 1368–1644) block printed edition of the Commentaryonthewaterwaysclassic
The Ming Dynasty (1368– 1644) cut block for printing