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The Five Starting Works

The starting point is the geographical work Lingwai Daida (Notes from the lands beyond the Passes), written by Zhou Qufei[1] (1133-1189) in 1178 during the South  Song Dynasty. It is composed by 21 chapters and 294 sections, 24 specifically focused on foreign countries, beyond the Song Empire confines. It has been chosen as the project core and starting case study since Zhou described lands and territories never cited before and quoted new toponyms, never attested before. His work represents a geographical and historical milestone, crucial to define the key points of the Chinese geographical lexicon evolution and more specifically of the Toponymy.

This work is strictly connected to Zhao Rukuo[2] (1170-1231), who, in 1225, completed his most famous opera, Zhufanzhi (Records of foreign people). It contains two long chapters: the first concerning the description of several Countries (‘Zhiguo’, 志国) and the second focused on the products (‘Zhiwu’, 志物). The first chapter introduces the various aspects of the described Countries: geography, people, their customs and their relationship with China, while in the second chapter the various articles imported into China from foreign lands are illustrated in detail. Even if he cited other people’s works—such as dynastic histories, Du Huan’s Jixingji, and Zhou Qufei’s Lingwai Daida—he was able to improve the knowledge supplying a large amount of information directly from Chinese and foreign traders. He was the first to give the names and facts about many countries from south-western Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean. Therefore, it is considered a fundamental document to understand the improvement of the knowledge about the Chinese Geography in the XIII century.

The third selected work is Daoyi Zhilve (A Brief Account of Barbarian Islands) written by Wang Dayuan[3] (1311-1350) in 1349. This is a sort of travel work: between 1330 and 1334 and again between 1337 and 1339 the author Wang Dayuan realized a series of long voyages abroad, keeping notes of what he saw. These notes constituted the basis of the descriptions made in his work. Wang Dayuan claims to have seen all the things he speaks about. (PTAK in Maritime Asia: 1995) The DYZL contains 99 country sections with descriptions of such places that the author claims to have visited himself and a final, one hundredth chapter (entitled Yiwen leiju異聞類聚), with descriptions of nine additional places which he had only read about in other works. This gives a total of 108 descriptions of equal places. The DYZL focuses on the islands in the South China Sea and provides an innovative concept of the maritime world around Yuan empire.  Besides, it deals also with others places, like Mawsil (Mosul) Mahesili麻呵斯離, Mukatein (Aden) Lijiata 哩伽塔 or Zanjibar (Zanzibar) Cengyáoluo層搖羅. (SU 2009).

The fourth work considered useful for the CTD project is Xingcha Shenglan (The Overall Survey of the Star Raft[4]), compiled by Fei Xin[5] (1385 or 1388-1436?) in 1436. Fei Xin took part at four voyages with Zheng He expeditions, during the Ming Dynasty (Yongle and Xuande period). The places he saw in first person are described in the qianji 前集section, that contains twenty-two descriptions of countries and territories: the most distant are Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, and La’sa, most likely also in the Gulf or on the Hadramaut coast. All other places are described in the houji 后集, that is mostly based on Wang Dayuan’s Daoyi Zhilve. This section also contains twenty-two descriptions, from Cambodia to Mecca.

The last work that contributes to improve the CTD project is Yingya Shenglan (The overall survey of the ocean’s shores’), compiled by the Arab Interpreter Ma Huan (1380-??)[6]  in 1451[7].  He took part at three voyages with Zheng He during Ming dynasty: in 1413-15, 1421-22 and 1431-33. He collected several information about different countries and territories in the West territories. Ma was assisted for the compilation of his work by Guo Chongli 郭崇禮. He describes twenty countries he had visited during his journeys. He depicted geography as well as matters of traffic (ports) and local customs and habits, religion and legal matters, natural products and the economic conditions.



[1] We don’t have many information about the author. What we know about his life is mainly due to some first-hand information contained in his work and in the preface. Some relevant data could be collected by his friends and colleagues works. He was born in Yongjia in Zhejiang province. In 1163 he passed the imperial exam (jinshi). Then he spent many years working in Guangxi, especially in Qinzhou and Guilin, where collected several notes regarding many aspects of local people and foreign territories. After his return in his village, he wrote Lingwai Daida. Yang Wuquan 1999 and Almonte 2018.

[2] Zhao Rukuo was a member of the Song imperial family. Like Zhou Qufei he lived between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, during the Southern Song dynasty. Working as the Superintendent of Merchant Shipping (Shibosi) in Quanzhou, the great port in Fujian, he had more opportunities than Zhou Qufei to speak with the people who engaged directly in foreign trade.

[3] Some first-hand information about Wang Dayuan’s life are contained in the three prefaces and the author’s own postscript. All the relevant data have been pieced together by Su Jiqing. According to Su, Wang spent many years in Quanzhou, then China’s leading port to the overseas world. Su Jiqing 1981.

[4] An annotated version by Feng Chengjun in the 1930s was used, based on Luo Yizhi version. Luo Yizhi collated the text in 1844 and said it was a copy of Ming copy. It has a Qianji and Houji segmentation.

[5] Very little is known of Fei Xin’s life. The few data we have, are all from the short biographies in the Kunshan and Taicang gazetteers, from Fei Xin preface and from Qianji mulu section. See PTAK 1996, p. 19.

For the biography see Dictionary of Ming Biography (DMB), Columbia university press, New York, London, 1976, II vol., pp. 440-441, (by Wang Gungwu).

[6] Very little is known also of Ma Huan’s life. He was born in 1380 in Guiji, in Zhejiang province. MILLS 1970 The few data we have, are all from preface and post face of his work. He was Muslim and in his childhood learnt Arabic.

[7] It is still not well known the time of the work conclusion. Ma Huan wrote his opera in several steps, according to the travels he realized. The 1416 Preface is related to the end of his first travel but he added other information about Aden and Djofar only after coming back from his second travel in 1422, while the Mecca’s description was included only in 1433, after the last expedition. The time of the final version and conclusion (1451) coincides with the edition and review of Ma Huan’s collegue, Guo Chongli. (Pelliot 1930 (Tongbao vol. 30): 260-264.)