Xu Xiake – a geographer and explorer in Ming Dynasty

xu xiake

Xu Xiake (徐霞客, 1587-1641), born in Jiangyin, Nan Zhili (present-day Jiangsu, specifically Jiangyin), was a prominent figure in the Ming Dynasty renowned for his contributions as a geographer, traveler, explorer, and literary figure. From an early age, Xu Xiake exhibited a strong passion for learning, immersing himself in the study of poetry, literature, and, most notably, geographical works. Despite facing setbacks, such as failing to pass the imperial examination at the age of fifteen, Xu Xiake persevered.

Following the death of his father, Xu Xiake took on the responsibility of tending to his family’s fields. It was not until the thirty-sixth year of the Wanli era (1608) that, at the age of twenty-two, Xu Xiake embarked on his official journey as a traveler and explorer. Throughout the majority of his life, he dedicated extensive periods to travel and exploration. His extensive journeys, however, took a toll on his health, leading to severe foot problems that eventually left him unable to walk by the time he reached Yunnan.

In Yunnan, despite his physical challenges, Xu Xiake remained focused on compiling his travelogue, resulting in the completion of a substantial work known as the “Travel Notes of Xu Xiake,” spanning over six hundred thousand characters. He also devoted time to writing the “Records of Chicken Foot Mountain” (“鸡足山志”). Subsequently, due to worsening health, officials in Lijiang arranged for an official carriage to transport him back to his hometown of Jiangyin.

Even upon returning home, Xu Xiake did not cease his work on the travelogue. In the fourteenth year of the Chongzhen era (1641), Xu Xiake passed away at the age of fifty-four. His legacy endures through the extensive geographical and geological knowledge he accumulated during his travels.

Xu Xiake’s quest for exploration took him to all corners of China, traversing a total of twenty-one modern provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions. During his later journeys in the southwestern regions, he documented his experiences in works such as “Zhejiang Travel Diary,” “Jiangyou Travel Diary,” and “Chu Travel Diary.” Posthumously, his notes and observations were compiled by others into the comprehensive work known as the “Travel Notes of Xu Xiake.”

Beyond his contributions to travel literature, Xu Xiake achieved remarkable success in the field of geology, surpassing his predecessors and pioneering scientific exploration of geological features. His dedication and groundbreaking achievements established him as a global trailblazer in the scientific investigation of geological landscapes.

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