Historical geographical texts of the late Ming (1368–1644) and China’s maritime history


Elke Papelitzky

PhD defended at: 

University of Salzburg


The last century of China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644) saw many troubles and challenges from abroad. Pirates raided the coast, Europeans challenged the traditional world order of the tribute system, and the everlasting threat from the northern steppe people continued to raise concerns for the state. This climate of uncertainty resulted in many Ming literati discussing foreign countries. From the beginning of the Wanli Period (1573–1620) until the end of the Ming, seven authors wrote monographs that can be considered a form of “world history,” in which the authors describe the geography, the history, and the political systems of foreign countries and regions ranging from China’s close neighbors Japan and Mongolia to more distant lands such as Mogadishu and Europe. These seven texts are: 1) Shuyu zhouzilu 殊域周咨錄 (completed 1574) by Yan Congjian 嚴從簡; 2) Siyiguan kao 四夷館考 (preface 1580) by Wang Zongzai 王宗載; 3) Xianbinlu 咸賓錄 (preface 1591) by Luo Yuejiong 羅曰褧; 4) Siyi guangji 四夷廣記 (completed between 1601 and 1603) by Shen Maoshang 慎懋賞; 5) Fangyu shenglüe 方輿勝略 (preface 1612) by Cheng Bai’er et al. 程白二等; 6) Yisheng 裔乘 (preface 1615) by Yang Yikui 楊一葵; 7) Huangming xiangxulu 皇明象胥錄 (preface 1629) by Mao Ruizheng 茅瑞徵.

In previous studies, some of these texts served as the basis for researching Sino–foreign relations, but in addition, they offer a valuable insight into the world view of Chinese literati of the late Ming dynasty. In my thesis, I study each author’s knowledge and perception of the world and focus especially on the countries connected with China at the maritime border: Siam, Malacca, and Portugal. To understand the world view of the authors, I analyze the contents of the texts, comparing them to other information of the late Ming dynasty, and discussing what the authors chose to include in their texts and what they left out. I combine a close textual analysis with a biographical study to understand why the authors wrote the texts the way they did.

The first part of the dissertation gives a general overview of the texts, discussing the extant prints and manuscripts, their paratexts, the biographies of the authors, and the basic structure of the texts. The second part of the dissertation discusses select sections of the texts – the chapters on Siam, Malacca, and Portugal – and compares the descriptions to each other as well as to other contemporary sources, focusing on the topics of tribute, trade, and war. My research shows that nearly all authors were educated in the official curriculum of the Ming dynasty, received official degrees, and worked as bureaucrats for the state. Almost all the texts followed the official Ming narrative, trying to uphold the image of a glorious Ming at the center of the tribute system, despite this not matching reality anymore. The texts hardly mention private trade or seafaring, even though such information was available in the late Ming. Nevertheless, the books reveal different attitudes by the authors, with some writing more positively about their neighbors and other more negatively, distinctions that can partly be explained by the biographies. The two authors that deviated the most from the state narrative – Shen Maoshang and Cheng Bai’er – are the only ones of the seven to have never passed any official examination, showing a tie between education and contents of the books.

My dissertation provides the first detailed introduction in a Western language for all of these texts and the first detailed introduction in any language for many of them. The dissertation also contributes to an understanding of late Ming historiography as well as the perception of foreign countries by late Ming scholars.