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Retrospection: key approach to study regions

By Lu Xiqi | 2014-09-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A restored picture of life in the Neolithic Era

The perception of region and its partitioning methods may originate from the functional classifications and boundary definitions of living space. For instance, in the Neolithic Era, the dwelling district in the north of Banpo (an archaeological site east of Xi’an, China) was di­vided into northern and southern parts by a ravine running east to west.


In settlements of early humans, there were clear boundaries separat­ing residential areas, burial grounds and pottery workshops. Riverside fields were for planting and gather­ing, while the hillside grasslands were for grazing and the woods on top of mountains were used for hunting. Each made up different spaces for living and production. Natural markers, such as rivulets, trees along river banks, rocks in mountain passes, mountain peaks and valleys, all could be used as borders.


These divisions and boundaries were important for early humans, who used them to define their living space and delineate areas for life and production.


Indicator of activities

Regions not only indicated the way in which people viewed the world and survived but distin­guished areas where people lived and produced. For instance, people gathered sustenance within certain areas by the riverside and would go back when they reached the bor­der. They hunted in the mountain woods and would never cross the mountain pass, even when chasing after wounded prey. It was believed that crossing the border would re­sult in severe consequences.


Thus it can be seen that the notion of region and methods of division were rooted in people’s understanding of living space and the functional classifications of liv­ing space in the practice of life and production. The concept developed into a fundamental way to under­stand and describe the world, pro­viding the basic structure for people to live and produce. In other words, people lived in a region, based on which they divided and described the world, while at the same time they themselves were limited with­in that region.


Of course, even early humans did not just live for the sake of living. Im­agine a group of people living by the river on a mountain. They would look up at the starry sky, wondering what lay at the remote ends of the earth. Like their departed relatives who were buried in the graveyard on the hillside, they would die, and they believed that their souls lin­gered in the valley. Thus, the valley where they were living, the sky and the underground constituted three different worlds, with people living in the valley, deities in the heavens and ancestors living underground.


The three worlds represented three regions used by people to un­derstand and conquer the world: a region in the sky, a region under the ground and a region on the earth. The vertical division played a signif­icant role in how they understood and approached the world.


Integration of 'us' and 'them'

People continued to migrate to other places in order to expand their living space, during which they made more contact and com­munication with other groups, further creating more regions with different population and spatial characteristics. As a result, the division of regions into "ours" and "theirs" no longer fit in with peo­ple’s needs, and more complicated methods were devised to define regions. The method used in earlier times was centered on the notion of "us". Using this approach, areas were divided into different regions from the near to far and from the center to the edge in accordance with the distance between other special units and "us". Resembling the formation of concentric circles, such a method could be found in records like the division of guo, jiao, mu and ye in ancient China. An­other method was the partition of squares. As recorded in the Book of Han: Annals of Geography, a square area with a length of ten thousand li (one li equals 500 meters) is divid­ed into many fangs. One fang equals a guo, with a length of a hundred li, and one zhou consisted of several fangs. Here, fang, guo and zhou are presumed to be square regions at different levels.


The understanding, description and dividing of known geographi­cal space brought geography into being. And region has become the most basic notion and approach in this field of science. It is widely believed among geographers that close relationships existed among the phenomena in any region so that it is necessary to observe and analyze all the phenomena within a region and compare them with the same or similar elements of other different geographical units to fully understand the features of a region. It was the discussion and revelation of regional peculiarity that gave rise to the birth and development of ge­ography and endowed it with social meaning. The goal of regional stud­ies is to explore such peculiarity.


Returning to history

The study of regional history and geography is retrospective or a backward extension of regional ge­ography aimed at exploring the his­torical process of the formation of regional characteristics, analyzing how they were formed and return­ing to history to see the formation of regional peculiarity. Regional pe­culiarity, cultural peculiarity in par­ticular, appeared in a certain time and would become meaningless if the time in which it took shape was neglected.

The time aspect of a region car­ries rich meanings. First, it means the certain historical periods and cultural context of researchers. Second,it embodies the historical process of creating and develop­ing their own culture as well as the description of such a process by people living in the study areas. Lastly, it emphasizes objectivity. Researchers are required to avoid subjective factors of both them­selves and people living in the study areas and refer to the calen­dar era as a benchmark in order to be as objective as possible.


Therefore, it is clear that the study of regional history and ge­ography takes a firm stand to look back on the historical process of the formation of such a landscape and peculiarity based on today’s regional landscape and peculiarity as well as the society and culture in researchers’ times. In light of this, the basic approach to the study of regional history and geography is retrospection.


There are three stages: first, trace back in sequence to a regional geographic landscape at different times using the researchers’ era as the starting point. Then, select different periods of time and draw a profile map reflecting regional landscape and peculiarity at dif­ferent times. Second, compare the geographic landscape and char­acteristics of different periods of time, discern the process of their evolution and map out a curved dia­gram reflecting the changing of all elements to clarify the implications and significance of changes over time. Third, expose the study areas in a wider geographic space, ana­lyze the peculiarity and commonal­ity of the study areas and determine their status and significance.


The point of departure for the study of regional history and geog­raphy is regional geography. And its aim is to know and understand the historical process of regional geographic landscape and pecu­liarity. According to this, research methods in this field, similar to those used in geography, obey the laws of science.


Generally speaking, researchers start from the natural geographic conditions and make observations on many aspects, such as natural resources, ecological environment and its changes, resource exploita­tion and economic development, and man-land relationship and its evolution. In the process, a great emphasis has been put on the ap­plication of scientific approaches, quantitative and model analysis in particular. However, there’s a disadvantage in that the focus on geographical conditions and insuf­ficient attention on regional popu­lation may result in overstating the importance of land while ignoring humanity itself.


This requires researchers to take into consideration the needs and positions of people living in a cer­tain area as well as their descrip­tion and evaluation of the environ­ment, features and peculiarity in the region rather than to only rely on the researchers’ own viewpoints. Only by doing so, can researchers remain free of subjective factors in reviewing and understanding history and culture, which have gone through tremendous changes throughout the long history, as well as the regions that have bred the his­tory and culture.


Lu Xiqi is from the Department of History at Xiamen University.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 621, July 16, 2014.       


Translated by Ren Jingyun