From dynastic geography to historical geography

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Marwyn Samuels


China, Geography, dynasties

Subject Categories

Geography | History | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine


This study is concerned with the development of the study of historical geography in China in the twentieth century. By this development, the traditional dynastic geography was gradually succeeded by a modern historical geography.

The dynastic geography, a traditional scholarship cultivated in Confucianism, had been particularly concerned with the geo-political structures of the imperial dynasties. In Confucian description, the geographical order of the imperial world was centralized, hierarchical and harmonious, and every part of the world should be civilized, united, and evenly developed. For Confucian scholars, study of dynastic geography was intended to serve two purposes: to defend the highly idealistic harmony designed by great sages in the Golden Age on the one hand, and to discuss the actual arrangements and changes of the dynastic geographies controlled by kingly power on the other. Their approach to geography was historical, and their methodology was textual examination.

Criticism of the traditional dynastic geography within the context of the discourse of social and ideological movements promoted the modern development of historical geography. Two phases could be distinguished: the early phase, which was roughly the period between the two World-Wars, and the later phase, the 1950s-1960s. In the first phase, a new dynastic geography was developed, which was based on strong criticisms of the Confucian world view and traditional historiography, and aimed at the construction of new geo-political structures of the dynasties. The second phase was characterized by successful employment of modern geographical theory and the direct influence of Western historical geography. The study of historical geography in China finally broke through the framework of dynastic history.

Historical geography as a knowledge never has a sui generis quality; rather, it is shaped and justified by the discourse of the dominant theoretical thinking. Both the ideas and the structure of the subject have developed in response to complex social, economic, ideological and intellectual stimuli. Thus this study of the development of the discipline is more than simply the chronological listing of the achievements of a few great scholars, but rather a contextual examination.


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