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.