When I first visited Guilin as a kid, I didn’t really understand what to appreciate. I thought the place was unworthy of its reputation, and the popular saying “Guilin shanshui jia tiaxia” 桂林山水甲天下 (The landscape of Guilin tops all under heaven) was certainly an overstatement.
But many years later, I realised that I wasn’t being fair. I was cheating by having grown up in Liuzhou, which is less than 200 km from Guilin. A river running through the city: checked. Mountains dotting the area all around the city: checked (although we don’t have one in the shape of an elephant in the city centre as Guilin does). Stunning solutional caves: checked. So there is little wonder that the landscape of Guilin didn’t strike me as the very best in the world.
A few nice photos of Guilin from Unsplash by Patrick Xu, Zhimai Zhang and Mikaela Wiedenhoff.
Things only got clearer after I left the region, crossing the ridges that mark the northern border of the vast Lingnan 嶺南 area. After high school, I went to university in Wuhan. One of the first things I noticed about the difference in the landscape was the absence of mountains at the end of the road. Even in the city centre of Liuzhou, one often catches sight of one or two peaks when extending one’s gaze along a street. It took me a while to get used to the streets in Wuhan with a blank end.
As I travelled more extensively, I also came to understand where I am from and how recognisable my region’s terrain is. One evening a few years ago, I watched a film called The Painted Veil for my dinnertime entertainment. I’ve now forgotten most of the story about the bacteriologist from London in the film, but I still remember how I was gradually drawn to the landscape in the background. At a certain point, I was moved to exclaim, “But this really looks like Guangxi!” And it turned out that the film had indeed been shot in Guangxi, although the story takes place near Shanghai.
That is why I’m enjoying reading the Guihai yuheng zhi 桂海虞衡志 (Records of the Officer of the Land of the Cassia Sea). Having visited different parts of China, Fan Chengda 范成大 (1126-1193) also discovered the uniqueness of the mountains in the region around Guilin. His preface to the “Zhishan” 志山 (Accounts of the Mountains) section lays out his observations nicely as translated below.
I once made a remark on the extraordinariness of the mountains of Gui[lin], considering them the very best of all under heaven. Scholar-officials are unaware [of them] more often than not, for few of them have been cast to the south. Even when [they] hear about them, [they] would not believe it.
Born in Eastern Wu, I administer You and Ji in the north, reside in Jiao and Guang in the south, and serve as an envoy under the [Mounts] Min and E in the west. Having travelled ten thousand li in all three directions, there is no [peak] that I haven’t ascended during my time in the region. Taihang, Mt. Chang, the Eminence of Heng, and the Heights of Lu are sublime and splendid. Despite the names of various “peaks”, [they] are actually an enormous range of mountains. The term “peak” is more or less forced on them.
 Fan Chengda was a native of Suzhou.  You and Ji refer to the region around modern Beijing and Tianjin.  Jiao and Guang represent the South of the Ridges, roughly modern Guangxi and Guangdong.  Mounts Min and E here represent the Sichuan area, where Fan Chengda was heading when he compiled the Guihai yuheng zhi.
The most exceptionally picturesque of them are the Jiuhua of Chi, Mt. Huang of She, Xiandu of Kuo, Yandang of Wen, and the Wu Gorge of Kui, which are for all under heaven to treasure. But all of them consist of just several peaks. Also, [they] lie at the edge of inaccessible back country that cannot be approached with a stool and a staff. Moreover, the reason why [they] can stand out from the best of their kind is that [they] always rise across the contour of an expanse of numerous ridges, with their prominence coming from somewhere.
The thousands of peaks in Gui have nothing to extend from around them. [They] all stick out sharply from plain lands like jade bamboo shoots and nephrite hairpins, lining up infinitely like a forest. Strange and numerous as such, [they] should certainly be the very best of all under heaven. Han Tuizhi’s poem reads, “Rivers entangle like azure silk ribbons; / Hills look like emerald jade hairpins.”  Liu Zihou’s “Account of Zijiazhou [Pavilion]” reads, “There are a lot of numinous mountains in Guilin that rise sharp and straight from the land, standing all above the fields.” Huang Luzhi’s poem reads, “The Cassia ridges surround the city like [Mt.] Yandang, / from plain lands emerald jade thrusting up ruggedly.” Seen from the three masters’ words, the extraordinariness of the mountains of Gui already presents itself in front of one’s eyes; there is no need for my verbosity.
 See the translation of the whole poem by Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824) in footnote 7 of my previous blog: https://www.rachelleslab.com/post/preface-to-the-guihai-yuheng-zhi-by-fan-chengda.  This refers to Liu Zongyuan’s 柳宗元 (773-819) “Guizhou Pei Zhongcheng zuo Zijiazhou ting ji” 桂州裴中丞作訾家洲亭記; see https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=73326&page=125.  This refers to Huang Tingjian’s 黃庭堅 (1045-1105) “Dao Guizhou” 到桂州 (Arriving in Guizhou):
桂嶺環城如雁蕩，The Cassia ridges surround the city like [Mt.] Yandang, 平地蒼玉忽嶒峨。From plain lands emerald jade thrusting up ruggedly. 李成不在郭熙死，Li Cheng not here, Guo Xi dead, 奈此百嶂千峰何。What can be done with this myriad of peaks?
[I] once drew out the actualities [of the landscape] and sent it to my friends in Wu, yet none were really convinced, and it’s not easy to have a dispute over this in words.
The mountains are all hollow, so under the peaks are many nice caves. There are over thirty caves with recordable names, all just seven to eight li away from the city. The closer ones are only two or three li away. [One] can visit all of them in a day. [I] hereby present the finest ones of all and give a brief account of each.
 As the measure word li 里 here is not used figuratively as in wanli 萬里 (ten thousand li) above, it’s worth noting that a li was about 300 metres in Fan Chengda’s days.
* From Fan Chengda, Guihai yuheng zhi in Quan Song biji 全宋筆記 (Zhengzhou: Daxiang chubanshe) series 5, vol. 7, 99.
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