The transformation of Hainan's historical geography: From 110 BCE to 1949

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John Mercer


China, Hainan, Historical geography

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Geography | History | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation investigates Hainan's historical geography from 110 BCE to 1949. Unlike previous research in which the island of Hainan is the sole focus and discussed in terms of China's sovereignty, this study expands the research scope in three aspects. Geographically, it covers not only the Island of Hainan, but also the islands in the South China Sea, namely, the Paracel Islands, the Sprady Islands, Pratas Island, and Macclesfield Bank. Analytically, Hainan's transformations are examined not only in China's socio-political-economic contexts but also within the wider, global changing political economy. Methodologically, though chiefly concerned with historical transformations, fieldwork is conducted so as to obtain a sense of place to complement the limitations associated with the study of historical literature and sources.

Drawing on the formulation of dynamic geography by a 17th-century Chinese historical geographer, Gu Zuyu, and contemporary Western process-oriented perspectives, this dissertation conceptualizes Hainan not as a physically fixed sphere, but as a place that is politically constructed, strategically maneuvered and historically contingent. To portray Hainan's developments by emphasizing the geographical vision, rather than relying on a chronological framework, I use spatial concepts in this dissertation to illustrate Hainan's transformations; that is, Hainan as "points," a "line," an "area," and a "maritime space." Furthermore, to show the dynamism of Hainan's historical geography, I investigate Hainan from five different perspectives, which are those of imperial officials, literati, Han civilians (primarily merchants, peasants, and fishermen), Li minority, and the foreign powers. The portrayal of Hainan's transformations in terms of spatial concepts and these multiple perspectives present a complex picture of why Hainan has been transformed, how, and to what extent. As suggested in this dissertation, when evaluating Hainan as a place in relation to Mainland China and from the perspective of global political economy, its transformation may be positive than negative overall, and yet, as far as the people (including the Li and the Hainanese) are concerned, the outcome is more debatable as to its benefits. This comprehensive study of Hainan's historical geography will serve as a basis for understanding not only Hainan's past but also its future.


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