top of page

范成大《桂海虞衡志·序》"Preface to the Guihai yuheng zhi" by Fan Chengda

Fan Chengda’s 范成大 (1126-1193) Guihai yuheng zhi 桂海虞衡志 (Records of the Officer of the Land of the Cassia Sea [1]) is one of the most important early texts dedicated to the South of the Ridges. I’ve seen excerpts from it in various discourses about local flora and fauna as well as customs of the far south, but I hadn’t really read the book from the beginning until recently.

I wish the authors who quote Fan Chengda’s records had spilt more ink on his joyful personality. I was struck by his incredibly optimistic attitudes – after all, it is not so common that the South of the Ridges is depicted in such a favourable light by a non-native literatus. As we can see in his preface translated below, his friends were worried, but he was innocent enough to believe that the great Tang poets had assured him that he would be travelling to a paradise. Fan Chengda might have readily “forgotten” on what occasions those poems had been written.[2] None of the poets he quotes in this preface were speaking of their own experience! They were writing for a friend who was or would be taking up a post in Guilin. At my most cynical, their verses about how great it could be may even be interpreted as some nice words to cheer up a friend in need of comfort.

But never mind, even that wouldn’t have defeated Fan Chengda. He wasn’t failed by the great Tang poets at all and genuinely fell in love with the region. I didn’t notice anything particularly touching when coming across the short excerpts about lychees, elephants, fragrances, etc. But when read in their entirety, the breadth and depth of his memoirs is truly incredible, and his detailed accounts of the landscape, liquor, fruits, animals, and peoples of the south are full of passion and appreciation. One can see the man of curiosity and generosity behind it, and he discovered things as they were. PS: This week’s verses are to be found in the footnotes.

[1] Guihai 桂海 (Cassia Sea) is a metaphor for the region along China’s southern border as the cassia trees grow in abundance in Nanhai (literally “southern sea”, modern Guangdong). [2] Note that Fan Chengda was well aware that, like many officials appointed to the far south, he was “driven beyond the Ridges” (zhu chuling 逐出嶺) in a poem written on his way to Guilin; see his Shihu shiji 石湖詩集:

Chen Hongshou's 陳洪綬 (1598-1625) album leaf depicting the Duxiu Peak 獨秀峰 that is still sitting on the western bank of the Li River 灕江 in Guilin. Picture credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art



At the beginning, when I was leaving the Crepe-myrtle Wall [3] to take up my position of prefect in Guangyou,[4] my relatives and old friends set up a banquet at the Song River, all worried about the heat, bleakness, and local customs [of my destination]. I delved into Tang poetry to investigate what sort of a place Guilin was. Shaoling said it was “agreeable” [5]; Letian said it was “free of miasma” [6]; Tuizhi even said [being in] the landscape to the south of Xiang[7] was better than becoming an immortal riding simurghs. So when it comes to the comfort of serving different regions, is there any place better than this? [I] eased their anxiety this way and then left.

[3] Ziwei yuan 紫薇垣 refers to the Zhongshu sheng 中書省 (Secretariat) of the central government. Fan Chengda served as a Zhongshu sheren 中書舍人 (Drafter at the Secretariat) before he moved to the south. [4] Roughly modern Guangxi. [5] This refers to the lines

五嶺皆炎熱,The Five Ridges are all fiercely hot,

宜人獨桂林。Only Guilin is agreeable.

in Du Fu’s 杜甫 “Ji Yang Wu Guizhoutan” 寄楊五桂州譚; see Ji qianjia zhu Du Gongbu shiji 集千家註杜工部詩集: [6] This refers to the lines

桂林無瘴氣,The cassia grove is free of miasma;

柏署有清風。The cypress[-shaded] office enjoys pure breezes

in Bai Juyi’s 白居易 “Song Yan Dafu fu Guizhou” 送嚴大夫赴桂州; see Baishi Changqing ji 白氏長慶集:

[7] Xiang refers to the Xiang River and its reaches (roughly modern Hunan). Han Yu’s 韓愈 “Song Guizhou Yang Dafu” 送桂州嚴大夫 reads:

蒼蒼森入桂,The luxuriant forest extends to Gui - 茲地在湘南。This place lies to the south of Xiang. 江作青羅帶,Rivers entangle like azure silk ribbons; 山如碧玉篸。Hills look like emerald jade hairpins. 戶多輸翠羽,Households mostly produce turquoise feathers; 家自種黃甘。Families grow their own yellow tangerines. 遠勝登仙去,Far superior to ascending as an immortal, 飛鸞不假驂。[One] wouldn’t need to ride any flying simurgh.

See Han Changli shiji biannian jianzhu 韓昌黎詩集編年箋注:


In the third month of the eighth year of the Qiandao era [1173], [I] arrived in the county. The clear, gentle breezes were indeed as [I] had learned. Moreover, the caves and ridges were unbelievably extraordinary, the customs displayed the honesty of the old days, and the town hall looked magnificent, all surpassing what [I] had learned.


I did not regard the people as inferiors or barbarians; they also sympathised with my inexperience and trusted my honesty. [We] cautioned each other against bullying. [We] had a succession of good years in the field; there was little paperwork in the office. After two years, I settled myself there in my heart.


[When I] received the decree that [I must] move to govern the entire Shu,[8] [I] urgently submitted a request to firmly decline. Having stayed for another month, [my] decline was not approved. [I] then bid farewell to the people of Gui, who set up a banquet to see me off on my way. After [I] left the outskirts, [I] stayed for another two days before [I] finally left.

[8] Modern Sichuan.


[I] navigated the Xiao and Xiang [Rivers], passed the Dongting [Lake], sailed up by the Yangyu [Rapids], and made for the two Chuans at the gallop, arriving in Chengdu after half a year. When [I] had a moment during my journey, [I] often cherished my memory of previous excursions and thereupon recorded in retrospect where [I] had been, together with local specialities. Everything that is not recorded in local gazetteers has been compiled into this book. As for the barbarian tribes beyond [our] patrols,[9] [I] also attach my account as long as [I] have any experience that can be recorded for reference in the gazetteer officer’s map.

[9] Note that Fan Chengda differentiates between two major types of ethnic minorities along the border. For those who lived close to Chinese prefectures and paid taxes to the Chinese government, he “did not treat them as barbarians/did not deliver orders as if they were barbarians” (bu yi man ming zhi不以蠻命之). Those “beyond the reins” (guo jimi 過羈縻) of the Chinese empire are “true barbarians” (zhen man 真蠻). See Fan Chengda, Guihai yuheng zhi, 127.


Alas! The City of Brocade[10] is known to the world as a great metropolis and a land of pleasure. I have the honour to be here, yet I’m still attached to Guilin to the point of collecting bits and pieces about it like this. This goes perhaps to prove that I did not regard its people as inferiors or barbarians and still cannot forget the place even when [I’m] far away from it, in a great metropolis, a land of pleasure.

[10] A sobriquet of Chengdu.


Written by Fan Chengda of the Wu County, courtesy name Zhineng, on the Summer Solstice of the second year of the Chunxi era [1175].

* From Fan Chengda, Guihai yuheng zhi in Quan Song biji 全宋筆記 (Zhengzhou: Daxiang chubanshe) series 5, vol. 7, 98.


Copyright Declaration*:

The texts and images used on the website of Rachelle's Lab are either from the public domain (e.g. Wikipedia), databases with open data licences (e.g. Shuhua diancang ziliao jiansuo xitong 書畫典藏資料檢索系統, National Palace Museum, Taipei), online libraries that permit reasonable use (e.g., or original work created for this website.

Although fair use of the website for private non-profit purposes is permitted, please note that the website of Rachelle's Lab and its content (including but not limited to translations, blog posts, images, videos, etc.) are protected under international copyright law. If you want to republish, distribute, or make derivative work based on the website content, please contact me, the copyright owner, to get written permission first and make sure to link to the corresponding page when you use it.



*Read more about copyright and permission here.

bottom of page