Traveller in the Sunset Clouds
Xu Xiake 徐霞客 in Dali

Xu Xiake (1586 - 1641) was China's first travel blogger. During the third lunar month in 1639 he travelled through Dali and recorded his experiences in his diary, posthumously published as 徐霞客游记. Is it still possible to retrace Xu's steps on the Dali plain?

Born into an academic family in 1587, Xu Hongwu, better known by his nickname 霞客 ‘Traveller in the Sunset Clouds', Xu Xiake failed the imperial exams and decided to 'drop out', choosing a life as an traveller. First visiting the beauty spots in the vicinity of his hometown, he later strayed further and further away, finally leaving for Southwest China in 1636. He accompanied a Buddhist monk with destination of Chicken Foot mountain 鸡足山, then the most important Buddhist mountain in southern China with hundreds of temples and thousands of monks. His monk friend died on the way, but Xu carried his friend's ashes all the way to Jizushan (See Ward: Xu Xiake (1587-1641): The Art of Travel Writing).

After dispersing the ashes at an auspicious spot, Xu travelled on to Lijiang and then from Lijiang southwards through Eryuan towards Dali, where he spend some time at the Three Pagodas and in and around Cangshan, before travelling further westwards. 

Along his journey he recorded an astonishing amount of detail of his daily experiences, that make it possible to retrace his journey day by day, village by village, mountain by mountain. There are plenty of editions of his travelogue, including an online one and an unfortunately incomplete English version, which makes his travel notes written in contemporary Chinese accessible to foreign readers. While he is being lauded for his descriptions of nature, the same cannot really be said for his description of whatever culture he experienced on the way. While he seemed to stay frequently in temples, he was obviously no religious man.

At the end of the Ming dynasty, the trade route from Lijiang to Dali and beyond was already well established and most places can still easily identified in his records. One of the most notable part of his narration of Dali is that he was there during the time of the annual Third Month Fair, a trade fair from the middle of the Third Month, which was then, as it is now, held on the slopes of Cangshan west of Dali and south of the Three Pagodas.

Day by day, these are the steps of Xu Xiake on the Dali plain:

  • 1639, 农历三月十一:leaving southwards from Shaping 沙坪, he passes Longshou Gate 龙首关, the northernmost gate into the Dali plain. Xu mentions a trail that goes past a military sentry called Huadianshao 花甸哨 (on or up to Huadianba 花甸坝) towards Fengyu 凤羽. This path certainly exists and before roads it was the fastest way to reach Fengyu 凤羽 from Dali. Passing through the wall that protects the Dali plain to the north at Shangguan 上关, Xu passes through a place then called 榆城, entering through the north gate and, half a Chinese mile later, leaving by the south gate. From the distances travelled, I assume that was present day Zhoucheng 周城. Travelling further south, Xu then mentions a sulphur(?) spring, called 蛱蝶泉. This is not the current tourist spot of Butterfly Spring 蝴蝶泉, which lies north of Zhoucheng, but must have been a spring in one of the gullies further south. It does not seem to be a place that is known today. But he reports of the many butterflies that could be seen there, I assume that the current beauty spot Butterfly Spring is in fact a new creation after the popular Bai film 五朵金花 and the spot Xu mentions is the original Butterfly Spring. On this day, he enters the mountains to climb around, seemingly ending up northwards of where he started, staying overnight in a temple at the Three Pagodas 三塔. From his descriptions, Xu is taken by nature, not by culture. His descriptions of Cangshan are very accurate and it might even be possible to use his diary to recreate the hikes through the mountain wilderness, but there is little information on towns and villages he passes through. He seems to think of them as merely places where people live, which are to be avoided as much as possible in order to experience nature (Original text for this day).
  • 1639, 农历三月十二: a trip on the slopes on Cangshan all the way along some mountain pass to Gantong Temple quite a distance south. From his descriptions it becomes clear that at the time there were numerous frequently used paths on Cangshan, used mainly be woodcutters. South of the Three Pagodas he first passes through two villages called 大纸房 and 小纸房, judging from the name places where paper was made. The likely use of the paper was for Buddhist scriptures in case of finer paper and paper offerings in the case of courser paper. But Xu Xiake provides no description of the factories (Original text for this and the following days).
  • 1639, 农历三月十三:Xu first explores the various temples around Gantong, but seems to get bored quickly and once again climbs up Cangshan, this time towards Buluo Temple 波萝寺, above Gantong Temple, before heading back to the Three Pagodas via the road.
  • 1639, 农历三月十四:After purchasing a piece of Dali marble, which was famous even then, Xu visits all the temples of Chongsheng Temple, mentioning the huge bell and the Yuzhu Guanyin 玉珠观音, a huge bronze statue of Guanyin, of which a single photo exists, but which was melted down in the unrest at the end of the 19th century. Xu's descriptions of the temple complex suggest that it was indeed a very significant temple with at least dozens of halls and smaller temples. Even at the time, religion was a bit syncretic, as he describes a new mosque nearby and a dilapidated temple to the Yellow Emperor 玉皇 being nearby. 
  • 1639, 农历三月十五:on the full moon day of the third month, in Dali the Third Month Fair 三月街 begins. Xu does not seem to take much interest in it, preferring to explore more temples in the vicinity,  but he records that the fair starts on this day west of the city, probably just where it takes place today, and continues until the 19th day, with people from all 13 provinces taking part. 
  • 1639, 农历三月十六:on the second day of the Third Month Fair, Xu goes to the horse races, which are well attended. Xu notes, that in the market, men and women mix freely, seemingly not something that he observed elsewhere. He notes the medicine and the felts for sale, there are also books and engravings, but no old books that he was looking for. 
  • 1639, 农历三月十七:Another day at the market, noting the stones from Yongchang (Baoshan), which essentially means Burma: precious stones (jade?), amber and emerald. Xu notes that no better quality could be found elsewhere.
  • 1639, 农历三月十八:Xu is getting ready to leave Dali and makes some preparations, like mending things and buying a bamboo box. 
  • 1639, 农历三月十九:
  • 1639, 农历三月二十:Xu finally leaves Dali, heading south, with the mountains to his left, passing two bridges: the 'Five Mile Bridge' 五里桥 and the 'Seven Mile Bridge' 七里桥, places named after their distance from Dali.

What can be glanced from Xu's travel through the Dali plain?

  1. The old caravan road followed the string of villages that today is closest to Cangshan. Today, between these villages there is not a single drivable road, it is sometimes just small trails that connect these villages from north to south. The motor road, the current national road, made the caravan trail obsolete from the 1950s onwards. But given the terrain, a road closer to the foot of the mountain was certainly the easier one, as lower roads would more likely get muddy and impassable during the rainy season. 
  2. Xu does not once mention the Benzhu, local patron saint temples, but then he was not particularly interested in local culture. But there were obviously many active temples at the time with the religions somewhat mixed up.
  3. The Third Month Fair in Dali in its current form indeed goes back at least to the Ming dynasty: a multi-day trading event that attracted traders from far way to trade west of Dali. Certain items, like Dali Marble and Jade from Burma had already found a ready market.





Map: Xu Xiake in Dali 徐霞客大理的路途