restricted access Between Life and Death: Song Travel Writings about Zhang 瘴 in Lingnan
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Between Life and Death:
Song Travel Writings about Zhang 瘴 in Lingnan

At Lingnan 嶺南 (south of the Nanling Ranges 南嶺)1 there is zhangdu 瘴毒 (miasmic toxins) everywhere, but the situation is worst in Chunzhou 春州 (Yangchun, Guangdong). Few of the northerners exiled there during the Tang (618–907) ever came back alive. The present dynasty has reorganized Chunzhou administratively so that it is now Yangchun 陽春 County, and falls under the jurisdiction of Nan’en 南恩 Prefecture (Yangjiang, Guangdong). Now that it is a county, exiled scholar-officials and criminals are no longer assigned there for penal servitude.

This account,2 written by Hong Mai 洪邁 (1123–1202), who lived in Yingzhou 英州 (Yingde, Guangdong) during the 1140s while accompanying his father in exile, described Chunzhou as so zhang-plagued that the Song (960–1279) court even ceased sending political exiles and criminals there.3 Later in the same entry, Hong added that the central government also had difficulty staffing local offices in the area. Hong’s contemporary, Jiang Shaoyu [End Page 191] 江少虞 (active 1131), corroborated Hong’s story, recording that, despite an oversupply in official candidates in the early Southern Song (1127–1279), the central government still had to lure people to serve in Guangdong and Guangxi with handsome rewards. As a result, low-ranking offices in the region were frequently filled by locals.4

Zhang is often translated as “miasma” and has been identified in Western medicine as encompassing a range of communicable, tropical and subtropical diseases, the most notorious being malaria.5 The meanings of zhang in traditional Chinese texts, however, are much broader, more complex, and therefore more difficult to elucidate. Depending on the context, zhang could refer to the region’s hot and humid climate, a miasmic condition, a number of contagious and non-contagious local diseases, or the pervasive, deadly atmosphere of the southern frontiers.6 Recent scholarship has significantly enriched our knowledge of epidemics in China,7 zhang as a disease concept,8 [End Page 192] and the variety of zhang diseases and their geographical distribution.9 Much research has also been done on the ethnic and cultural connotations of the concept of zhang,10 the relationship between the perception of zhang and Han migration to the far south and the southwest, economic and environmental changes in those regions, and Chinese colonization endeavors.11

The majority of these works tends to focus on issues in medical or environmental history and on Chinese southern expansion and empire-building efforts.12 What is missing from our understanding is a comprehensive [End Page 193] examination of how individuals reacted to zhang conditions and literary renditions of their experiences. This study highlights the centrality of zhang in literati constructions of their lives and government service in Lingnan, making use of travel literature and government documents with regard to official travel and personnel appointment in the region,. It will pay special attention to the role travel and travel writing played in shaping geographical consciousness and in forming notions of center and periphery in the Song period (960–1279).

The paper begins with a short introduction of Song writing on zhang conditions in the far south and their causes and geographical distributions, but focuses primarily on the construct of zhang atmosphere in this region as formulated by scholar-official travelers. In poems, travel diaries, and personal correspondence, these men employed a large variety of zhang-related terms to draw attention to their distinct experiences of life and travel in Lingnan. In a separate study, I have shown that the Song witnessed a growing interest in the local and the particular on the part of scholar-officials. Through personal correspondence, conversations, and direct observations, educated men gained substantial expertise on local conditions and practices. This not only allowed scholars to legitimate their hands-on experience as a path to the acquisition of knowledge, but also resulted in the articulation of regional differences and development of a regional hierarchy. Song writing about zhang fits into this larger development.13 By representing the far south as a land of zhang (zhangdi 瘴地) and zhang diseases (zhangji 瘴疾), Song men justified their reluctance to live and work in the region. This zhang characterization helped perpetuate the notion that Lingnan...