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Structures of the Earth

Structures of the Earth

Metageographies of Early Medieval China

D. Jonathan Felt

ISBN 9780674251168

Publication date: 01/19/2021

The traditional Chinese notion of itself as the “middle kingdom”—literally the cultural and political center of the world—remains vital to its own self-perceptions and became foundational to Western understandings of China. This worldview was primarily constructed during the earliest imperial unification of China during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE). But the fragmentation of empire and subsequent “Age of Disunion” (220–589 CE) that followed undermined imperial orthodoxies of unity, centrality, and universality. In response, geographical writing proliferated, exploring greater spatial complexities and alternative worldviews.

This book is the first study of the emergent genre of geographical writing and the metageographies that structured its spatial thought during that period. Early medieval geographies highlighted spatial units and structures that the Qin–Han empire had intentionally sought to obscure—including those of regional, natural, and foreign spaces. Instead, these postimperial metageographies reveal a polycentric China in a polycentric world. Sui–Tang (581–906 CE) officials reasserted the imperial model as spatial orthodoxy. But since that time these alternative frameworks have persisted in geographical thought, continuing to illuminate spatial complexities that have been incompatible with the imperial and nationalist ideal of a monolithic China at the center of the world.


  • This is a brilliant study of fundamental geographic ideas in China’s history. It is extensive and intensive in its research, generous in its acknowledgment of others, compelling in its arguments, and illuminating in its conceptualizations. Bibliographies in the dynastic histories indicate that this period (after Han before Tang) had seen the first blossoming of local historical writing and a surge in geographic writing, but the surviving material seemed unlikely to support significant research on the topic. Felt understood the centrality of Li Daoyuan’s massive commentary on the Classic of Rivers (Shuijing zhu), and his in-depth analysis of the text has established its importance. A mark of great work may be that it all seems obvious after one has read it, until one recalls that prior to that it was not obvious at all. This study should be the point of reference for future writing on the intellectual history of historical geography.

    —Peter Bol, Harvard University


  • D. Jonathan Felt is Assistant Professor of History at Brigham Young University.

Book Details

  • 408 pages
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Asia Center