An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shuijingzhu 水經注

Jul 18, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Shuijing 水經 "The river classic" was an ancient Chinese geographical book describing the course of rivers. It had been transmitted as a core component together with its commentary, the Shuijingzhu 水經注 "Commentary to the river classic". The classic had been written by Sang Qin 桑欽 (dates unknown), courtesy name Junzhang 君長, during the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280), the commentary by Li Daoyuan 酈道元 (466 or 472-527), courtesy name Shanzhang 善長, during the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534). The original text contained 40 juan of which 5 were lost. In the transmitted version, contents were rearranged in order to regain the original number of 40.

Li Daoyuan hailed from Zhuoxian 涿縣 in the commandery of Fanyang 范陽 (today's Zhuozhou 涿州市, Hebei), and began his career as regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of the province of Jingzhou 荊州. He was dismissed because of an offence and was only ten years later appointed metropolitan magistrate (yin 尹) of Henan 河南 (Luoyang). Having achieved laurels in the suppression of Prince Yuan Faseng's 元法僧 (455-537) rebellion, he was made 御史中尉. In 527 he was recommended to take over the fight against Xiao Baoying 蕭寶夤 (487-530). On the way to Yongzhou 雍州 (modern Shaanxi), he was assassinated.

For his commentary, Li Daoyuan did not only have the necessary geographical experience from his profession when he was inspecting canals, dykes and rivers, but he also studied a lot of old and contemporary books on geography. The original Shuijing only dealt with 137 rivers, and Li Daoyuan added so much information about other rivers that the Shuijingzhu can not dealt with as a commentary but is in fact a book of its own. It is twenty times as large as the old Shuijing and discusses the geographical course and the cultural background of 1,252 rivers and creeks.

The importance of the Shuijingzhu lies in its character as a vast treasury for all types of information on the local economy, society, and geography, not only during the Northern Dynasties period 北朝 (386~581) but through the ages. The rivers are described from their source, with the tributaries, river forks and so on down to their estuary mouth. All this is very important information for the reconstruction of the early Chinese hydrological environment. Li Daoyuan, collecting written sources and writing from his own experience, is very cautious towards his sources. This makes his book even more valuable. One exception is that he was not able to deal with rivers of southern China with the same diligence as that of the north because China was divided at that time into the Southern and Northern dynasties.

During the ages, many errors have crept in, mainly in places where the old Shuijing was confused with Li Daoyuan's part. The Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholars Quan Zuwang 全祖望 (1705-1755), Zhao Yiqing 趙一清 (1711-1764) and Dai Zhen 戴震 (1723-1777) tried to amend those errors. In the late 19th century Yang Shoujing 楊守敬 (1839-1915) collected those commentaries in his publication called Shuijingzhu shu 水經注疏.

Quotation 1. Beginning of the Shuijingzhu 水經注
河水 The (Yellow) River
【經】崑崙墟在西北, Classic: The Kunlun Mountain Range 崑崙 is in the northeast,
【注】三成爲崑崙丘。《崑崙說》曰:「崑崙之山三級,下曰樊桐,一名板桐;二曰玄圃,一名閬風;上曰層城,一名天庭,是爲太帝之居。」 Commentary: The Kunlun Massif consists of three [geological terraces]. The Kunlunshuo 崑崙說 ("Report of the Kunlun Mountains") says, "Mount Kunlun is made of three terraces, the lower terrace is called Fantong 樊桐 or Bantong 板桐, the middle one Xuanpu 玄圃 or Langfeng 閬風, and the upper terrace, where the Highest Deity (Tai Di 太帝) lives, Cengcheng 層城 or Tianting 天庭 ("Celestial Palace")."
【經】去嵩高五萬里,地之中也。 Classic: 50,000 li away from Mount Songshan 嵩山, which is located just in the centre of the world.
【注】《禹本紀》與此同。高誘稱河出崑山,伏流地中萬三千里,禹導而通之,出積石山。按《山海經》,自崑崙至積石千七百四十里,自積石出隴西郡至洛,準《地志》可五千餘里。 Commentary: The Yu benji ("Imperial Biography of Emperor Yu", i.e. Wudi benji 五帝本紀 in the Shiji 史記) says the same. Gao You 高誘 says, the Yellow River comes from the Kun(lun) Mountain, it flows down into the middle lands, 13,000 li 里 wide. Yu the Great 大禹 gave the Yellow River its way and made it a bed, so it could leave Mt. Jishi 積石. According to the Shanhaijing ("Classic of Mountains and Seas"), the distance from Mt. Kunlun to Mt. Jishi Mountain is 1,740 li, and from the place wher the river comes from Mt. Jishi in the commandery of Longxi 隴西 down to River Luo 洛水 [in the plain land], more than 5,000 li are measured, according to the geographical books (dizhi 地志).
又按《穆天子傳》,天子自崑山入于宗周,乃里西土之數。自宗周水以西,至于河宗之邦、陽紆之山,三千有四百里,自陽紆西至河首四千里,合七千四百里。 Further, the Mu Tianzi zhuan 穆天子傳 ("Story of King Mu"), reports that the Son of Heaven (i.e. King Mu of Zhou 周穆王) came from Mt. Kunlun to the capital Zongzhou 宗周, [after he had?] taken a geographical survey of the western regions. From the waters at Zongzhou to the west, [up] to the region of Hezong 河宗 and the mountains of Yangyu 陽紆, [the distance is] 3,400 li, and from Yangyu westwards to the source ("head") of the river, there are 4,000 li, which makes a total of 7,400 li.
《外國圖》又云:從大晉國正西七萬里,得崑崙之墟,諸仙居之。數說不同。道阻且長,經記緜褫,水陸路殊,徑復不同,淺見末聞,非所詳究,不能不聊述聞見,以誌差違也。 The Waiguotu ("Maps of Foreign Countries") says further, from the country of the Great Jin Dynasty (approx. Henan) 70,000 li straight to the west, is Mount Kunlun where all immortals live. It can be seen that all these reports deviate from each other. The way to Mount Kunlun is far and difficult, the reports are confuse and unreliable; there are only few waterways and roads, and even these few are hard to find; only few persons have seen or even heard from these places, and nobody has made further investigations. We have no other choice but write down what others saw and heard and so report only mistakes and contradictions.
【經】其高萬一千里。 Classic: It has a height of 11,000 li.
【注】《山海經》稱方八百里,高萬仞。郭景純以爲自上二千五百餘里,《淮南子》稱高萬一千里百一十四步三尺六寸。 Commentary: The Shanhaijing says, it is 800-li long and 10,000 ren ("fathoms") high. Guo Jingchun 郭景純 (i.e. Guo Pu 郭璞, commentator on the Shanhaijng) holds that it is more than 2,500-li high, from the very top. The Huainanzi 淮南子 ("Master of Huainan") says, it has a height of 11,000 li 114 bu ("steps") 2 chi ("feet") and 6 cun ("inches").

An updated, but much shorter, book on rivers was written by Huang Zongxi 黄宗羲 (1610-1695), with the title Jin shuijing 今水經. Other extensions were Xu shui jing 續水經 (lost) by Lu Yin 陸禋 written during the Tang period 唐 (618-907), and a book with the same title written by Heying 和瑛 (1741-1821).

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