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Following the Travel Sage


□ Text by Lu Anqi

Text by Lu Anqi

In previous years, May 19 was just another random spot on the calendar, but that all changed in 2011, when it was officially designated “China Tourism Day.”      

On May 19, 398 years ago, Xu Xiake (1587-1641), a renowned geographer, traveler, and travel writer of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), commenced his epic journey and exploration of China’s vast lands. His journeys spanned more than 30 years and covered 19 provinces. He started from today’s Ninghai County in coastal Zhejiang Province of southeast China. Also, on that day he began writing Travels of Xu Xiake, a 600,000-word encyclopedic work that combines scientific exploration with geography, geology, sociology, tourism science and literature.

The history of travel in China can be traced back before the Qin Dynasty was founded in 221 B. C., or even earlier. Xu Xiake is far from the earliest Chinese traveler recorded in history books. But why was the date he began trekking and writing Travels of Xu Xiake chosen for China Tourism Day?

It was not enough that his journeys spanned a longer period and covered more ground than anyone else’s. More importantly, he took notes on-the-spot, wrote about first-hand experiences, detailed everything explicitly, and thoroughly explained and illustrated his ideas in a scientific manner. En route, he also documented local customs. His scientific exploration and detailed records of it make him an important figure in China’s history of both travel and literature, so he has been revered as the nation’s “travel sage.”

Many wonder why the sage started his journey and commenced his great work in Ninghai. Experts have formulated explanations. Most argue that during Xu’s time, the topography of China was compared to three giant dragons lying horizontally: North of the Yellow River was regarded as the North Dragon, south of the Yangtze River the South Dragon, and everything in between was the Middle Dragon. The South Dragon, which originates from the Kunlun Mountains before extending eastward, passes through where Mount Tiantai and Mount Yandang meet before finally dipping into the sea. Ninghai is situated at the eastern start point of the South Dragon where the mountains meet the sea, fostering a unique geological and natural environment.

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