An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Yugong 禹貢

Mar 22, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Yugong 禹貢 "The Tribute of Yu" is a chapter of the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書. It is often seen as the oldest geography of China, yet it does not belong to the oldest texts in the corpus of the Shangshu but was probably compiled during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145/135-86 BCE), author of the history Shiji 史記, was of the opinion that the text had originated in the time of the Xia dynasty 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE), whose first ruler Yu the Great 大禹 was said to have tamed the floods and travelled through the empire. It was even suggested that the Yugong had been written by Yu the Great himself and later revised by Confucius.

Late Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholars like Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877-1927) and even the modern scholar Xin Shuzhi 辛樹幟 (1894-1977) still believed the Yugong to be a product of the early Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), written by the royal grand historian (taishi 太史). Kang Youwei 康有爲 (1858-1927) thought it to be a writing of Confucius and explained that the text reflected the economical and geographical situation of the late Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE). Gu Jiegang 顧頡剛 (1893-1980) and Hou Renzhi 侯仁之 (1911-2013) were of the opinion that the author of the text hailed from the state of Qin 秦 and the text had been compiled about sixty years before the unification of the empire in 221 BCE. Shi Nianhai 史念海 (1912-2001) maintains that the text was not written before 480 BCE.

The Yugong describes how Yu the Great travelled through the "nine provinces" of China (jiuzhou 九州: Jizhou 冀州, Yanzhou 兗州, Qingzhou 青州, Xuzhou 徐州, Yangzhou 揚州, Jingzhou 荊州, Yuzhou 豫州, Liangzhou 梁州 and Yongzhou 雍州). The text can be divided into three parts: part one describes the rivers and mountains in these provinces, part two (called Daoshan 導山 "surveying the mountains") narrates how Yu the Great travelled along the most important mountain ranges, while part three Daoshui 導水 "tracing the rivers" explains how he followed the course of nine rivers—each representing one province—and so explored the geography of China. This part also reports what local products he found that could be presented to Emperor Shun 舜 as tribute (gong 貢), of what quality the soil and the possible revenue was (in nine categories from 1A to 3C), and what swamps were to be found. Of all geographical descriptions, that of the Yellow River is quite detailed, while the regions of the Yangtze and Huai Rivers are only described very crudely.

Quotation 1. The deeds of Yu the Great
九州刊旅,九川滌源,九澤既陂。四海會同。六府孔修。庶土交正,厎慎財賦,咸則三壤成賦。中邦錫土姓:「祗台德先,不距朕行。」 Throughout the nine provinces a similar order was effected: The grounds along the waters were everywhere made habitable; the hills were cleared of their superfluous wood and sacrificed to; the sources of the rivers were cleared; the marshes were well banked; and access to the capital was secured for all within the four seas. The six magazines were fully attended to; the different parts of the country were subjected to an exact comparison, so that contribution of revenue could be carefully adjusted according to their resources. [The fields] were all classified with reference to the three characters of the soil; and the revenues for the Middle Region were established. [Yu] conferred lands and surnames, [saying:] "Let me set the example of a reverent attention to my virtue, and none will act contrary to my conduct."

The part Wufu 五服, "The five domains", makes the provinces and their territories appear as belonging to one coherent empire, which is very interesting because the book was written at a time when China was divided into several regional states. The concept on the Five Domains is somewhat similar to that found in the Classic Zhouli 周禮 "Rites of the Zhou".

Table 1. The Five Domains
甸服 mianfu Royal domain tributes: grain and labour services
侯服 houfu Domain of the nobles [idem]
綏服 suifu Peace-securing domain cultivating the lessons of learning and moral duties; displaying the energies of war and defence
要服 yaofu Domain of restraint occupied by tribes of the Yi 夷 and by criminals undergoing the lesser banishment (cai 蔡)
荒服 huangfu Barren domain occupied by tribes of the Man 蠻 and by criminals undergoing the greater banishment (liu 流)

The text of the Yugong is written in clear words that in a repetitive way relate facts about the regions of China. As a geographic treatise it is written very clearly and logically. The concept of the nine provinces reflects numerological thinking, similar to the four topological components mountains, rivers and swamps which were to be found in each of the nine provinces. Many traditional scholars tried to identify places mentioned in the Yugong with contemporary places. Today the Yugong is hailed as the earliest "scientific" treatise of China, yet on the background of numerology it must be seen that the selection of places was made to meet the rules of philosophy, and not according to geographic reality. Modern scholars also praise the Yugong as a forerunner of economic geography and a treatise on waterways in early China, with the Yellow River in its centre.

Table 2. The Provinces of China and Their Tributes
waters regulated soil (tu 土) fields (tian 田) revenue (fu 賦) tribute (gong 貢)
Jizhou 冀州
Boundaries: (not indicated)
Heng 恆
Wei 衛
whitish and mellow 1A- 2B dresses of skins
Yanzhou 兗州
Boundaries: Ji 濟 and Yellow River 河
Jiuhe 九河
Leixia 雷夏
Yong 灉
Ju 沮
blackish and rich 2C -- varnish, silk, ornamental fabrics
Qingzhou 青州
Boundaries: the Sea 海 and Mt. Dai 岱
Wei 濰
Zi 淄
whitish and rich 1C 2A salt, fine cloth of dolichos fibre, productions of the sea of various kinds; silk, hemp, lead, pine trees, strange stones
Xuzhou 徐州
Boundaries: the Sea 海, Mt. Dai 岱, and River Huai 淮
Huai 淮
Yi 沂
red, clayey, and rich 1B 2B earth of five different colours, pheasants, the solitary dryandra, sounding-stones; oyster-pearls, fish, deep azure silken fabrics, chequered and pure white
Yangzhou 揚州
Boundaries: River Huai 淮 and the Sea 海
Lake Pengli 彭蠡
Sanjiang 三江
Marsh of Zhenze 震澤
miry 3C 3A+ gold, silver, copper; yao 瑤 and kun 琨 stones; bamboos, small and large; ivory, hides, feathers, hair, timber; garments of grass, silks woven in shell-patterns; oranges and pummeloes
Jingzhou 荊州
Boundaries: Mt. Jing 荊 and Mt. Hengyang 衡陽
Yangtze 江
Han 漢
Jiujiang 九江
Tuo 沱
Qian 潛
Marshes of Yun 雲 and Meng 夢
miry 3B 1C feathers, hair, ivory, hides; gold, silver, copper; chun 杶 trees, wood for bows, cedars, cypresses; grindstones, whetstones, flint stones, cinnabar; jun 菌 and lu 簵 bamboos, hu 楛 tree; three-ribbed-rush; silken fabrics, azure and deep purple, strings of pearls; great tortoise
Yuzhou 豫州
Boundaries: Mt. Jing 荊 and Yellow River 河
Yi 伊
Luo 洛
Chan 瀍
Jian 澗
Marsh of Yingbo 滎波
He 菏
mellow; rich; dark and thin 2A 1B+ varnish, hemp, fine cloth of dolichos fibre, boehmerea; chequered silks, fine floss silk; stones for polishing
Liangzhou 梁州
Boundaries: south of Mt. Hua 華陽, Blackwater 黑水
Tuo 沱
Qian 潛
greenish and light 3A 3B~ gold, iron, silver, steel, flint stones, sounding-stones; skins of bears, foxes, jackals, nets woven of their hair
Yongzhou 雍州
Boundaries: Blackwater 黑水, western part of the Yellow River 西河
Weak-water 弱水
Jing 涇
Wei 渭
Qi 漆
Ju 沮
yellow and mellow 1A 2C qiu 球 jade, lin 琳 and langgan 琅玕 stones; hair-cloth and skins

There is a vast amount of commentaries on the Yugong chapter, the most important of which are Mao Huang's 毛晃 (jinshi degree 1151) Yugong zhinan 禹貢指南, Cheng Dachang's 程大昌 (1123-1195) Yugong lun 禹貢論, Yugong shanchuan dili tu 禹貢山川地理圖 (from the Song period), Yugong zhuizhi 禹貢錐指 by Hu Wei 胡渭 (1633-1714), Yugong shuo 禹貢說 by Wei Yun 魏源 (1794-1857) and Yugong huijian 禹貢會箋 by Xu Wenjing 徐文靖 (b. 1667). The Republican scholar Gu Jiegang 顧頡剛 (1892-1980), who is known as a critic of ancient mythology, compiled the commentary Yugong zhushi 禹貢注釋. In 2006 the Xi'an Ditu Press 西安地圖出版社 published a series including all important commentaries. It is called Lidai yugong wenxian jicheng 歷代禹貢文獻集成 and comprises 60 texts with a total length of 195 juan.

During the Republican period (1911-1945), several historians and geographers founded the Yu Gong Society (Yugong xuehui 禹貢學會). It was inaugurated in February 1934 in Beiping 北平 (modern Beijing), by Gu Jiegang and Tan Qixiang 譚其驤 (1911-1992), but its real foundation took place in May 1936, with Gu as director. Most members were professors and teachers at Beijing University 北京大學, Yanjing University 燕京大學 or Furen University 輔仁大學. The society's aim was to compile and publish scholarly writings on geography in historical perspective, maps on history, dictionaries on historical place names and various peoples in China through history, furthermore the investigations of historical borders and river conservation through the ages, the critical revision of the treatises on geography (dilizhi 地理志) in the official dynastic histories, the compilation of historiographical sourcebooks on geography, and cooperation with experts of other disciplines.

The most important of their publications was the semimonthly Yugong 禹貢 (Yu Kung), whose first number appeared in March 1934. Until July 1937, 82 numbers appeared that were later published in 7 hardcover volumes. It includes articles on historical geography and the history of border peoples. Many issues focussed on one special theme. It was the most important publishing organ for the discipline of historical geography in the 1930s. The English translation was therefore also called "The Evolution of Chinese Geography", and from issue No. 24 on "Chinese Historical Geography". Apart from this magazine, the society published a considerable number of maps on ancient China, its borderlands and on travels in ancient times. The most famous one is probably Tan Qixiang's eight-volume atlas Zhongguo lishi ditu ji 中國歷史地圖集, published between 1982 and 1988. The magazine Yugong was reprinted in 1972 by the Datong Press 大通書局 in Taibei and in 1994 by the Huashan Wenyi Press 花山文藝出版社 in Shijiazhuang 石家莊, Hebei.

Li Yaming 李亞明 (1996). "Yugong 禹貢", in Fu Qingsheng 傅慶升, Feng Kezheng 馮克正, ed. Zhuzi baijia da cidian 諸子百家大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 457.
Xu Zhaokui 徐兆奎 (1992). "Yugong shehui 禹貢學會", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Dilixue 地理學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 469.
Zhongguo da baike cidian bianweihui 《中國百科大辭典》編委會, ed. (1990). Zhongguo da baike cidian 中國百科大辭典 (Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe), 825.
Zhou Yao 周躍 (1993). "Yugong 禹貢", in Shi Quanchang 石泉長, ed. Zhonghua baike yaolan 中華百科要覽 (Liaoyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 965.
Zhu Shunlong 朱順龍 (1992). "Yugong 禹貢", in Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Lishi 歷史卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 635.

Translations according to James Legge (1865). The Chinese Classics, vol. 3, The Shoo King, or the Book of Historical Documents (London: Frowde).