Western Knowledge of Longitude and Latitude & Writing Local Gazetteers in the Qing Dynasty

The “astrological field allocation theory” (tianwen fenye 天文分野說), profoundly influential in traditional Chinese narratives of cosmology, astrology, and geography, has a history going back more than two thousand years. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Xing Ye 星野 and Xing Tu 星土 sections of local gazetteers. However, starting in the sixteenth century, the newly introduced Western knowledge of latitude and longitude gradually replaced this Chinese cosmological theory and tianwen fenye declined in popularity. Examining this process as reflected in the writing of local gazetteers demonstrates the worldview of pre-modern China in flux. My research focuses mainly on local gazetteers from the Qing dynasty. Applying digital humanities methods, I focus on shifts in the narratives and discuss the temporal evolution of these shifts as well as their spatial distribution. The aim is to gain an in-depth account through quantitative analysis and detailed textual analyses linking characters, texts, time, and intellectual contexts.

Specifically, my work is divided into three parts. The first part traces the origin and spread of knowledge on latitude and longitude, and reactions to its entry into China, using sources outside of local gazetteers, such as critiques expressed by some Qing scholars. By examining how these scholars talk about field allocation and the introduction of the knowledge of latitude and longitude, I can situate this process of change in its historical and intellectual context. The second part involves collecting statistics using digital humanities methods to visualize the temporal and spatial changes taking place in the local gazetteers. I use quantification as a means of systematic research, combining numerical data with traditional humanities findings, to explore the evolution of the fenye compilation of local gazetteers in the Qing dynasty. The third part of the project scrutinizes some important local gazetteers and their editors. I am interested in how editors dealt with different theories (both traditional and Western) and which were applied simultaneously when creating the gazetteers. This may also provide examples of interaction between local knowledge and the knowledge of the central empire.

The changes that the doctrine of tianwen fenye underwent during this period represent a microcosm of the overall changes in scholarship, thought, and knowledge during the Qing dynasty. This research project provides an opportunity to explore the relationship between mainstream scholarship and introduced Western knowledge.