Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Hsü Hung-tsu

HSÜ Hung-tsu 徐宏祖 (T. 振之, H. Hsia-k'o 霞客), 1586–1641, geographical explorer, was born in the village of Nan-yang-ch'i 南陽岐, Kiangyin, Kiangsu. He is better known by his hao as Hsü Hsia-k'o, owing perhaps to the fact that this name appears in the title of his famous travel diary. Born into a family of some means, he had ready access to books and studied especially those relating to geography. An official career by way of the civil service examinations had no attractions for him. He did, however, gain the esteem of some eminent friends, among whom may be mentioned Ch'ên Chi-ju and Huang Tao-chou [qq. v.]. In 1604 his father died of wounds received in an encounter with robbers, but his mother lived to a considerable age.

In order to satisfy an eager intellectual curiosity and a strong love of scenic beauty Hsü Hung-tsu set out in 1607, when he was scarcely twenty-one, on a trip to Lake T'ai [Hu] south of Soochow. Thereafter, from 1609 to 1633, he made the following journeys: to T'ai-shan 泰山 and the home of Confucius; to Chihli; to the Island of P'u-t'o 普陀 and to the T'ien-t'ai 天台 and Yen-tang 雁宕 Mountains in Chekiang (1613, again in 1632); to Nanking (1614); to the lovely ranges of Huang-shan 黃山 in Anhwei; to Wu-i 武夷 in Fukien (1616); to Lu-shan 廬山 (popularly known as Kuling) in Kiangsi (1618); to the sacred mountains, Sung-shan 嵩山 in Honan, and Hua-shan 華山 in Shensi (1623); to Fukien (1628, 1630, 1633); to Kwangtung (1628); to Peking (1629); and to Wu-t'ai and Hêng-shan in northern Shansi (1633). During most of these journeys he kept a diary, recording in a clear and distinguished literary style the routes he took, the distances between places, the beauties and the physical features of the landscape. These notes he made in the evenings, after days of arduous travel, and their particularity and accuracy are all the more remarkable on that account.

Hsü Hung-tsu's most outstanding feat was a four-year journey (1636–40) to Southwest China—made after he was fifty years of age—to explore the topography of the mountains and the sources of the rivers, in particular the Hsi-chiang, known to some as the Canton or West River. Though married, and the father of several children, these considerations did not deter him, but he refrained from making the journey until after his mother died. He left Kiangyin on October 17, 1636 with two servants and a Buddhist monk named Ching-wên 靜聞 (d. 1637) who wished to visit the temples of Chi-tsu-shan 雞足山 near Talifu, Yunnan, to deposit there a sutra copied in his own blood. Hardly had the party entered Chekiang province when one of the servants abandoned the expedition. The three then made their way southwest into Kiangsi and then by divergent routes to Hunan. Early in 1637 Hsü and his religious companion ascended Hêng-shan, thus making it possible for Hsü to say that he had seen all the sacred mountains of China. During the remainder of that year he traversed most of Kwangsi, searching out the five branches of the West River, climbing the mountains, and commenting in detail on their contours, the forest covering, and the nature of the rocks. Unhappily, in the autumn of 1637 the monk died at Nan-ning, leaving a request that his ashes be buried, with the precious sutra, at the temples of the still far-distant Chi-tsu-shan. Hsü carried out this wish, but not until he and his servant had endured 360 more days of extremely arduous travel.

Though Hsü set out with sufficient funds, he was robbed on the Hsiang 湘 River and barely saved himself from drowning. After an unsuccessful attempt to enter Yunnan from the southeast, near the Tonkin border, he made his way northward by routes until recently very little known, and entered Yunnan penniless. He had been robbed twice in Kweichow. But officials and men of letters were kind to him and repeatedly made it possible for him to continue his journey. After exploring nearly the whole of eastern Yunnan he arrived in Yunnanfu in the autumn of 1638. Early in the following year he reached Chi-tsu-shan and there buried the ashes of the monk, and the sutra, as requested. That spring he went northwest to Likiang in the hope of entering Tibet, but the local Moso chieftain dissuaded him on the ground that the roads were infested with highwaymen. He then turned southward in the hope of entering Burma. In this he failed also, but he explored the Mekong and Salween Rivers and got as far west as T'êng-yüeh 騰越. After another detour southeast to Yün-chou 雲州 he returned to Chi-tsu-shan in the autumn of 1639. In most of these journeys he went on foot and often carried his own belongings, though on occasion he had the use of a pony. In the course of a climb at Yung-ch'ang 永昌 (on his way to Têng-yüeh) he lost his purse and for a time had to stave off hunger by selling his outer garments. The high altitudes, sudden rains, and winter's cold seemed never to dampen his ardor.

At Chi-tsu-shan he had the mortification of being deserted by his only servant who took with him most of his master's belongings. Thereafter the diary ceases, or if it was continued, it is now lost. According to some of his biographers Hsü remained in Chi-tsu-shan to write a gazetteer of that mountain, and after completing four chüan was supplied with funds for the journey back home. [The gazetteer was later completed and printed in 10 chüan in 1692 under the title, Chi-tsu-shan chih (志).] For this homeward journey Hsü probably took a route through southeastern Szechwan and then eastward along the Yangtze. He suffered from skin and foot diseases and died at home, early in 1641, shortly after his return. He was buried in his native village and his tomb, with an inscription, has recently been brought to notice.

During the last journey, which occupied four years, Hsü kept his diary regularly, averaging, even during his most arduous travels, some 650 words a day for 700 days. For his earlier journeys his notes cover only some 150 days, but even so amount to about 40,000 words. Despite the handicaps under which he travelled his observations are always to the point, often very acute, and for the time in which they were written, remarkably accurate. Above all, they are composed in a beautiful prose style which makes reading them even today a pleasure. Unfortunately, during the turmoil of the Manchu invasion at Kiangyin in 1645 some of the manuscripts were lost. Of those which survived one in 12 chüan, edited by Yang Ming-shih (see under Shên T'ung), was utilized in 1773–82 for transcription in the Ssŭ-k'u ch'üan-shu (see under Chi Yün). The first printed edition, entitled Hsü Hsia-k'o yu-chi (遊記), appeared in 1776. A second edition in 12 chüan appeared in 1808 with supplementary material, including articles about him by his friends. A copy of this edition is in the Library of Congress. A far more useful edition in 20 chüan appeared in 1928 in 3 volumes,

compiled by Ting Wên-chiang 丁文江 (T. 在君, 1887–1936), a geologist of note who, in the course of his explorations, traversed many of the sites which Hsü described. This definitive edition comprises, aside from a well-punctuated text, a chronological biography of Hsü, and an atlas showing in detail the routes Hsü took. In Ting's estimation Hsü's outstanding contributions to geography were his discovery that the stream, P'an-chiang 盤江, is the main source of the West River, that the Mekong and Salween are separate rivers, and that the Gold Sand River is the true source of the Yangtze.


[Hsü Hsia-k'o yu-chi, Ting's ed.; Article on Hsü's native place in 方志月刊 Fang-chih yüeh-k'an, vol. 6, no. 10, pp. 48–51; Ting, V. K., "On Hsü Hsia-k'o, Explorer and Geographer," The New China Review, vol. 3, no. 5, pp. 225–37.]

Fang Chao-ying