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A Typical Case of Large-Scale Mapping of Historical Geography

Author  :  WU HAITAO     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-07-18

Villages Around: Geography of Modern Rural Society in Shanxi Area

Author: Han Maoli

Publisher: SDX Joint Publishing Company

When reading Han Maoli’s work Shili Bacun (Villages Around): Geography of Modern Rural Society in Shanxi Area, I believe anyone who has lived in rural areas will have a sense of familiarity, as if she is talking about one’s own village.

American anthropologist William Skinner applied the “Central Place Theory” to investigate and analyze the traditional county fairs in China, particularly in the area of Sichuan. However, Han holds that the “Central Place Theory” was originally proposed by German geographer Walter Christaller when analyzing societies on the southern plains of Germany in the context of the industrialization in the second half of the 19th century. It cannot really be applied to the rural societies of the modern Shanxi area where is basically a traditional self-sufficient agrarian society.

Villagers here had little interaction with cities except for the towns or counties where they live. One’s space of behavior was a series of concentric circles with one’s village at the center. The distances between one’s village and the sites for the county fairs, temple fairs and the places for offering sacrifices to ancestors or family members connected by marriage were the radii of these circles. These circles overlapped because they were all shaped by one basic factor—the average distance that a normal person would travel if one tried to take a round trip in just one day, which is about shili (about 5 kilometers) as suggested in the title of the book.

Han realized that this spontaneously formed space for rural life and interaction was well portrayed by the proverb “shili bacun,” which mean “ten li and eight villages.” However, this was just a form of geography made by villagers. An accurate account of this historical geography requires the collection of records of various village societies in various ages as well as collating and analyzing the literatures and statistics. And that was how this book came into being.

Han is a professor from the Research Institute for Historical Geography at the College of Urban and Environmental Sciences at Peking University. This work embodies a leap from sensory perception towards rational analyses of more than 100 county annals, local records and family histories, as well as large numbers of tablet inscriptions, articles on local events, chronicles of local irrigation projects, criminal files and former research projects in the Shanxi area during the late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China (1912-1949). Han adopts a microscopic method by analyzing every village, county fair, temple fair and even irrigation canals or ditches, with the use of statistical tables, maps and other data.

However, the emphases on statistics do not mean abandoning other types of historical materials. She also quoted some scenes from novels by Shanxi writers including Zhao Shuli as historical materials. Although the novels are fictitious, the local writers who know well the customs and practices sometimes can give credible details about marriage ceremonies, temple fairs, business activities and other behavioral patterns. Besides, the vivid description in those novels also made this academic work more readable and provides a leisurely and pleasant reading experience.


(Edited and translated by CHEN ALONG)

Editor: Yu Hui

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