Jade Mountains and Cinnabar Pools: The History of Travel Literature in Imperial China

Hang Lin

To most readers of Chinese literature, ‘travel accounts’ (youji) stand as a particular group of texts. While written records of travel have been abundant throughout the world, James M. Hargett’s recent book, Jade Mountains and Cinnabar Pools: The History of Travel Literature in Imperial China, provides a refreshing analysis of the fledgling field of studies in Chinese travel literature.

It is the first monograph-length study on the topic in English, lucidly pointing out the distinct characteristics that distinguish this genre in China from its counterpart in the Western literary tradition. To depict these characteristics, Hargett builds his narrative upon earlier Chinese-language studies of travel literature – especially the History of Travel-Account Literature in China (中国邮寄文学史) by Mei Xinlin and Yu Zhanghua – to trace the evolution of youji literature in imperial China from its origin in the Six Dynasties (220–589), its articulation in the Tang (618–907), its maturity in the Song (960–1276), and its florescence in the second half of the Ming (1368–1644).

Although its title sounds poetic, the volume is not about Daoist-related descriptions of Chinese landscape, nor does it include travel poetry or accounts of ‘imaginary “roaming”’. Instead, Hargett focuses primarily on prose literature of “actual, physical travels” (p.5) to examine the development of youji “by means of a dynamic or open-ended conception of genre” (p.13). To achieve his aim, Hargett divides his narrative into five core chapters organized in roughly chronological order. Each discusses a selection of youji from a specific period or dynasty. Hargett opens his examination by tracing the emergence of youji literature in the centuries after the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 AD, including a number of types of writing ranging from the ‘rhapsody’ (赋) (e.g. by Sima Xiangru, Liu Xin, Pan Yue, Liu Ji, Wang Can, etc.), the ‘letter’ (书) (e.g. by Ban Zhao, Wu Jun, etc.), the ‘preface’ (序) (e.g. by Shi Chong, Tao Yuanming, Hua Yan, etc.), to the ‘account’ (记) (e.g. by Ma Dibo, Wang Xizhi, Xie Lingyun, etc.). Taking the Buddhist monk Huiyuan’s ‘preface’ to his poems on a journey to the Stone Gate (石門) as the “only ‘prototype’ of the genre,” Hargett argues that works of this period collectively served as ‘proto-youji’ for subsequent authors to “selectively adopt various features and styles” or to invent new devices to “suit their own personal tastes and expressive needs” (p.56–7).

During the following Tang period, several important developments in travel literature took place. Based on the ‘proto-youji’ of the Six Dynasties, the ‘account’ form evolved into an independent genre of prose writing and was then further transformed into a new style of descriptive prose. Among the Tang authors who have made contributions to such developments, the most significant ones are Yuan Jie and Liu Zongyuan, two accomplished authors who adapted the ‘accoun’ form by introducing a sightseeing component and authorial commentary to the prose. Combining landscape description and lyrical expression, as represented in Liu’s Eight Accounts of Excursions in Yongzhou (永州八记), an “essential prototype of Chinese travel literature” was created, in which the idea of “‘movement through space’ is the central, defining motif” (p.89). Certainly, Hargett is fully aware that youji as a genre was limited to a small selection of works during this time, as he reminds that no later Tang authors followed this precise literary style.

Due to the spread of education and printing in the Song, a much larger body of youji literature emerged and are still extant. In contrast to their Tang predecessors, the Song youji, as examined in Chapter Three, mostly recorded trips as a form of leisure activity undertaken in the company of friends and/or family members. Challenging the arguments of some modern scholars who consider travel in the Song as a tourism industry, Hargett insightfully notes that “almost all travel during the Song was initiated by the state”, because the infrastructure of travel was “designed and operated almost exclusively for traveling government officials and their families and servants” (p.121). This point provides crucial historical context for appreciating not only the embassy accounts but also sightseeing accounts and even diaries, the three most broad categories that constitute the corpus of Song youji. For Hargett, the latter two categories are of special importance, since they became the model formats for most later youji authors.

Moving to the transitive and chaotic period from the Jin to the early Ming, Hargett cogently notices that, despite the Mongol rulers suspending civil service examinations, posing thus serious challenges to Chinese scholar-officials, travel literature continued to be produced. Notably, for the first time in history, authors who were ethnically non-Chinese also wrote travel literature in Chinese, including the renowned Yuan Haowen and Yelü Chucai. Through an examination of selected youji of the period, Hargett notices that they were generally longer and more detailed in comparison to their predecessors. Especially, they often contain extended discussions not related to travel or sightseeing experience, such as religious-based polemic material or personal digressions and reactions. Moreover, whereas some early Ming writers included paintings to illustrate details of their sightseeing destinations, Hargett forcefully argues that such pictorial representations had no significant impact on the development of youji: “all Chinese youji authors in the Ming and the remainder of the traditional period followed the generic radiation established by their predecessors” of relying on verbal skills to describe their travel experiences (p.140).

Hargett’s examination ends with an analysis of the youji literature of the last decades of the Ming, which has been popularly hailed as “the golden age” of travel literature in imperial China. With remarkable socio-economic and intellectual advancements, a rapidly growing number of youji were produced by an enlarged group of authors, including scholars with or without official titles, migrant workers, religious pilgrims, and common travelers. Focusing on two prominent youji authors of the late Ming (Yuan Hongdao and Xu Xiake), Hargett incisively points out that although they created two major forms of travel writing (vignette and scientific-investigative), considering the great diversity in both style and content, it is inappropriate to submit all late-Ming youji into these two categories. Instead, he proposes to view Ming travel literature in three perspectives: recreational-sightseeing, scholarly-commentarial, and geographical-investigative. In concluding the chapter, Hargett briefly mentions that Qing youji further developed in terms of subject matter and context, marked in particular by contemplations on politics caused by experiences of foreign lands beyond China.

Unlike many earlier literary historians who either focus on individual youji works or use general or abstract language to assess artistry, Hargett innovatively adopts a dynamic or open-ended conception of genre to identify exemplar texts, present them in English translation, and then “explicate those texts in such a way as to highlight their contributions toward the development of Chinese travel literature” (p.13). In doing so, Hargett succeeds in fleshing out intertextual connections and affinities to depict how later works of the genre relate to earlier ones. From its emergence to its florescence, youji in imperial China evolved from a simple to a highly malleable form of writing. While some basic requirements of the genre existed, authors of youji usually possessed considerable flexibility in language, literary style, and contents. For Hargett, the key single factor that connects individual youji works to travelers over time is “place and the historical-literary heritage associated with that specific location”, which gradually accumulated through the periods and “link[ed] many works in the genre to others” (p.15). Precisely because the purpose of these trips was usually aesthetic and social, the youji exemplars discussed throughout the volume reveal that Chinese travel literature represents “an overwhelming concern with experience, specifically, human interaction with the things and events (wu)” so that “[d]irect, real-life experience is the basic stuff of all Chinese travel literature” (p.177). Such freedom not only provided authors with a high degree of independence to accomplish personal and literary needs, but also functioned as a medium for the acquisition and dissemination of firsthand, reliable information about specific places. In this way, Chinese travel literature was endowed with its dynamic quality.

Comprehensive in coverage and meticulously researched, Jade Mountains and Cinnabar Pools is a long-awaited addition to the study of the history of travel literature in imperial China, in the lineage of Richard E. Strassberg’s pioneering anthology published in 1994.[1] After providing readers with a series of studies and translations of several accomplished youji from imperial China, with this volume, representing the long-time accumulation of his devotion to and love of Chinese travel literature, Hargett reaches “the capstone of [his] career as a Sinologist” (p.x).[2] Students and scholars of Chinese literary history will certainly enjoy reading this book, as we do with all of Hargett’s books, and his conscientious translation and fluent writing will definitely attract general readers and specialists working in Western travel literature.



[1] Richard Strassberg, Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

[2] See, among others, James M. Hargett, On Road in Twelfth Century China: The Travel Diaries of Fan Chengda (1126–1193), Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1989; Riding the River Home: A Complete and Annotated Translation of Fan Chengda’s (1126–1193) Travel Diary Record of a Boat Trip to Wu (Wuchuan lu), Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2008; and Treatises of the Supervisor and Guardian of the Cinnamon Sea: The Natural World and Material Culture of Twelfth-Century China, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.