Landscapes of Identity: Famous Views in Linfen, Then and Now

Landscapes of Identity: Famous Views in Linfen, Then and Now

Andrea Janku
DOI: 10.4018/IJPPPHCE.2017070101
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This paper is the first part of an exploration into the history and meaning of landscapes, based on a case study of the “must-see” scenic spots or Eight Views (bajing ??) of Linfen County in the south of China's Shanxi province. County histories not only include poems and travel accounts describing these places, but often also, from the eighteenth century onwards, images representing them. They are thus well documented places, which makes it possible to trace fragments of their history and draw conclusions about the relationship between humans and their physical environment. This part of the study focuses on how the physical environment interlocked with the historical heritage of a place to form a cultural landscape that gave identity and meaning to a place and its people.
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In the fall of 1657, little more than a decade after the Qing had established themselves as the new rulers of China, Li Sewei 李色蔚, an official in-waiting from the eastern province of Zhili, was appointed magistrate of Fenxi, a small, mountainous county at the margins of the Fen River valley in southern Shanxi.1 Apparently he did not consider this to be a particularly enviable posting, but people assured him that “while Fenxi may be a small place, it has the Guye Mountains in the west and the Fen River in the east, and thus its scenery belonged to the finest in the country.” He was told that the county’s tax income was high and its land fertile, that its numerous people were wealthy and even extravagant, and that they had exquisite food to eat and magnificent houses to live in (Jiang, ed., 1674, j.8:4b). While this may or may not have been true at some point during the height of the preceding Ming dynasty, the reality Li encountered was very different. Wherever he looked he found desolation and misery, hungry people survived on grass and chaff. After severe famines in 1584, 1599-1601, 1632-1633, and 1640-1641, locust plagues and the warfare of the final years of the Ming that had lingered on until the end of the 1640s (Jiang, ed., 1674, j.7:11b-12a), the county was utterly devastated. The extant population data may serve as an indicator of the degree of devastation. Local records give the figure of 23,642 for the county’s adult male population in 1609. The figure for 1659 was 3,725 (Jiang, ed., 1674, j.3:8b), nearly 85 percent less. There may be questions about the reliability of these figures, but there is little doubt that the loss was tremendous. As in many places across the country, the mid-century disasters had left many villages deserted, the agricultural economy destroyed, and the educated elite virtually eliminated (Parker, 2008, p.1059).

Li Sewei was certainly not entirely unprepared, but still, his own account of his experiences suggests that when he arrived in Fenxi he struggled to cope with the situation. “Did these people fool me?” he asked. Through enquiries with a local scholar he learned that the favorable descriptions he had been offered originated in the previous edition of the local history, which dated back to the year 1600, nearly 60 years ago. But even these were found to “follow appearances and miss the reality” (循名失實). What Li then did was to immerse himself in this old history in an attempt to overcome his “inability to find comfort in the present by searching for the sentiment of the past” (不勝撫今,追昔之感). He used memories of past splendor to make the reality more bearable, before embarking on his own local history project as a first step to rebuild the community (Jiang, ed., 1674, j.8:4b). This new history would instill in its readers a profound sense of the pristine poverty of the people in a remote mountainous county – a far cry from the image of prosperity the late Ming history had conveyed. He spent a couple of months to search for the “remnants of the old”: the loyal and filial, the virtuous and public-minded among the few remaining people, but all he found was that “the mountains and rivers were the same, but the people had changed” (山川如故,人民已非), a phrase that captured both hope and despair. Among all the material destruction and moral decay there was only the landscape – the mountains and rivers – that could provide a sense of continuity and ground for optimism.2

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