The Hu Line: The significance of geography for historical linguistics

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I have lived a long time.  When I was in high school (1957-1961), geography was an important subject of the curriculum.  When I went to college (1961-1965), there were still departments of geography in many, if not most, self-respecting colleges and universities, but they were slowly starting to disappear.  Now, I suspect that there are very few, if any, schools, colleges, and universities that teach geography and train professors of that discipline.  Still, there are vestiges of the days in the first half of the twentieth century when geography was upheld as a princely pursuit.

At Penn, there is a building that once housed the geography department and still has markings that bear witness to its pedigree, but has now been swallowed up by the School of Engineering and Applied Science.  At Harvard, the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC) occupies what used to be the Department of Geography, in a building filled with geographical motifs that has a special history linked to the Widener family (who gave their wealth and their name to Harvard's main library in memory of Philadelphian Harry Elkins Widener (January 3, 1885-April 15, 1912) who went down with the Titanic at the age of 27.  The Widener family also gifted Harvard with the building that presently belongs to EALC, as part of an endowment meant to create a geography professorship for a member of the Widener family.  While I was teaching at Harvard, my office was in the penthouse of that building.  It was an eerie feeling to be situated all alone in that aerie above all my peers and superiors.

Despite the support of the Wideners and its illustrious past, geography did not thrive at Harvard, Penn, and elsewhere.  To me, this is cause for lament, and I have often pondered what forces have been at work that led to this unfortunate result.

My private, personal theory on the demise of geography (I'm not trying to convince anyone else that this is what really happened) is that it has essentially been displaced by sociology and anthropology.  What used to be learning about humankind and the land has now become analysis of configurations and interactions of groups in their shifting spatial arrangements, i.e., sociology, and intense investigations of individuals in their relationships to others in terms of the four fields of archeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology, though I have often heard older anthropologists complain that these traditional four fields are giving way to increasingly theoretical approaches.

Geography had its own two branches, human and physical, and one can see how these two branches could gradually be cannibalized by or morph into the four fields of anthropology.  My strong impression is that geography in its early stages was highly empirical in nature, and that emphasis on the physical, evidential facets of human existence on earth continued in three of the four fields of anthropology, i.e., all but cultural.

During my international research project on the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age inhabitants of Eastern Central Asia (ECA), I worked closely with an Italian geneticist named Paolo Francalacci.  When I visited his university, Sassari, in the early 90s and spent some time in the department of anthropology where he worked, I was amazed that there was no trace of cultural studies, only the physical sciences.  Paolo thought that was natural and normal for anthropology, and couldn't understand why I kept asking him where the cultural anthropologists were.  My recollection is that he was more intent on showing me all their great labs for research on fish and other animals, and so forth.

When I think of great geographers after the classical (Anaximander [c. 610–545 BC]), Ptolemy [c. 100-170 AD]) and medieval (Ibn Battuta (1304-1368-69), Ibn Khaldun [1332-1406]) periods, the names of the first geographers (in the modern sense) that come to mind are the following:

All of these scholars represent the best of geography as a comprehensive discipline embracing physical and social sciences.

These ponderous ruminations on the glory and fate of geography were brought about by my reading of a brilliant article by Tomas Pueyo titled "What China Wants and Why", Uncharted Territories (8/9/21).  It begins:

Why is China increasing its assertiveness towards Taiwan? Why the Belt and Road initiative? Why the oppression of Uighurs? Why the occupation of Tibet? Why the creation of islands in the South China Sea?

It all comes from the Hu Line, as it is known internationally (in China it has been renamed by the even more opaque term Heihe–Tengchong Line, after the city of Heihe in the northeast and the city of Tengchong in the south between which it stretches.

The Hu Line. Source: Tomaatje12

First let's dispose of the name of the line.  Instead of asking "What's Hu?", we need to ask "Who's Hu?"  Hu Huanyong was a Chinese population geographer who perceived the line in 1935.  The main takeaway from this "geo-demographic demarcation line" is that it divides the territory of China as follows (going by 1935 statistics):

  • West of the line (including Mongolia): 64% of the area, but only 4% of the population (1935)
  • East of the line: 36% of the area, but 96% of the population (1935)

Despite political changes (independence of Mongolia as a result of the Yalta Conference in 1945) and migratory movement toward the east and the south, the 1935 statistics remained almost the same in 2002 and 2015.  (source)

Tomas Pueyo's great contribution is to take Hu Huanyong's geo-demographic perception and apply it to an astonishing array of phenomena, thereby affording us a deep, broad lesson in geography and geology, plus history, politics, economy, demographics, ethnicity, linguistics, agriculture (arable land), and so much besides — each aspect is graphically illustrated by striking maps and charts.  One of the maps, the third, shows a 15-inch isohyet, which means it gets 15 inches of water per year.  East of that line receives more water, west of the line receives less water.  It is not surprising that the highest population densities are east of the 15-inch isohyet, which is shown in the second map (population), and that both the line of demarcation of population density and water availability are nearly identical with the Hu Line.  The explanatory power of the Hu Line is also revealed in many of the other maps in Pueyo's series.

Here's the map Pueyo provides for language:


The most noteworthy feature of this map is the brown (i.e., Han) corridor (Héxī zǒuláng 河西走廊 or Gānsù Zǒuláng 甘肅走廊) stretching from the East Asian Heartland (EAH) toward the Western Regions (Xīyù 西域).  I have often mentioned the latter as the area I call ECA, in the center of which sits the Tarim Basin, where the Europoid / Caucasoid mummies dating to the 2nd and 1st millennia BC were discovered, and which was occupied primarily by Indo-European speakers until near the end of the 1st millennium AD.  That narrow neck of Sinitic speakers was the ethnopolitical attestation of the efforts of Han dynasts (202 BC-220 AD) and their successors to expand westward.

Note particularly that the small oasis city of Dunhuang, which I have often mentioned on Language Log as the starting point of the Silk Road, is situated at the far western end of the Gansu / Hexi Corridor.  Dunhuang is where the Mogao Grottoes, full of magnificent wall-paintings and statues, as well as tens of thousands of manuscripts that include the first extensive use of Sinitic vernacular writing.

Here are Pueyo's secondary takeaways (I gave the primary one above):

  • China is the Han, which means the eastern part of the country.
  • It is so because plate tectonics made that area flat, humid, and served by huge rivers which made land fertile and trade cheap.
  • The rest of China is just buffers for them: the northern mountains, the trade and invasion corridor through Xinjiang, the Tibetan Plateau, the Vietnamese border, and the China and South China Seas.
  • The one buffer that is not secure is the sea, which is also the main way that China has been invaded over the last 200 years. So China is most concerned about its sea now.
  • To protect its seas, it wants to annex Taiwan and increase its maritime buffer, by enlarging the share of the South China Sea that it controls.
  • But that protection will never be perfect, so it hedges its risks with the Belt and Road initiative.

I honestly believe that one could build a semester course on the history of China around this set of thirty maps — at least I could easily do so.  Actually, there are both more and less than thirty maps and charts, because the ethnolinguistic map is repeated (!), while some of the maps and charts are animated to show development through time.  No matter exactly how many maps there are, they provide powerful insight into the geographic reasons why China is what it is, including why it has been fighting unsuccessful wars with Vietnam for millennia.  The author even helpfully provides comparisons with the Game of Thrones.  One could have a separate module for Sino-Vietnamese and Austroasiatic languages, and so forth and so on.

In closing, I have a single cri de cœur:  Bring back geography!

Selected readings

[Thanks to Jim Fanell]


  1. John Swindle said,

    August 17, 2021 @ 10:04 pm

    Nothing to do with the Hu Line, as far as I know, but the University of Newcastle (UK) does have a School of Geography, Politics, and Sociology. Look for books by Alastair Bonnett, professor of social geography in that school.

  2. Tom Mazanec said,

    August 17, 2021 @ 11:23 pm

    There's a pretty thriving Geography Department here at UC Santa Barbara, too: Their slogan is that they are "Leading the integration of natural, social, and information sciences to understand and solve problems of people and the environment."

  3. Elliot McIntire said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 12:24 am

    As a now retired geographer I must take issue with you. As a disciple geography is alive and well. Ir has often morphed into a department of Geography and Environmental Science, or just Environmental Science, often with a strong. computer graphics/mapping component. It is true that in the US geography did not fare well at private universities, but has thrived at public universities.
    As an aside, I was. told by cultural geographers at Chinese universities when I visited there in the late 1980s that, in 1949 university curricula adopted a soviet model, which eliminated cultural geography and focused on economics.
    As for the Hu line, geographers have always been interested in such boundaries, such as the beer/wine wine in Europe.

  4. Christoffer said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 2:51 am

    I guess then it really is the Hu Line in the sense of "northern barbarian" as well?

  5. Jacob Shell said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 3:47 am

    I'm a geography professor at Temple University (a neighbor of the author's UPenn). I largely agree with this characterization of the the discipline's institutional decline, which was kicked off by closures of several geography departments at elite US universities in the late 1940s and 1950s. Neil Smith has some interesting articles, and a book called "American Empire," about the wider societal context in which these closures took place. Simplifying somewhat: he says the geopolitical handoff from the British Empire to Pax Americana institutionally damaged the discipline of geography, which really had been set up to interact with the older model of imperial rule.

    The geographic discipline which exists today has an awkward relationship to spatial phenomena like the Hu Line. Probably many "Human Geography 101" courses, for undergraduates, mention it. But at the graduate level and post-grad level, there really is no interest in such phenomena; and in fact the reigning paradigm would tend to dismiss the author's whole discussion of it here as "environmental determinism." Similarly, for studying Chinese policy towards its west or towards Taiwan, the reigning paradigm would dismiss the author's discussion of those topics here as a revival of the "geopolitik" school of geographical thinking. The reigning paradigm would probably emphasize some accounting of how capitalist dynamics are causing the Chinese state and industrial interests to pivot to and from various kinds of nationalist or imperialist postures, oppression of minorities, etc.

    My own view is the reigning paradigm, which could loosely be characterized as "critical theory", has been in intellectual zombie mode for over a decade, has been becoming noticeably narrower and more parochial in outlook, and it's time for something completely different to come along. For this to happen, it's certainly necessary to reappreciate what the discipline was like during previous paradigms, how the discipline was in fact synthesized with other disciplines (anthro, linguistics, geology, etc), and to relocate the pieces of the original "geographic soul" which actually wound up in other departments (all of which seem to me to having analogous problems now).

    BTW, I think I'd add Sven Hedin to the list of geographers, above, whose ideas and output shoudn't be forgotten.

  6. WGJ said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 4:18 am

    I recommend the 5-part BBC documentary "How Earth Made Us" (2010). The entire series is fascinating, but two segments are particularly intriguing and have taught me things I didn't know:

    One segment of ep. 3, "Wind" (27'~33') shows the Himalaya and its climate impacts on the entire China. Another segment of ep., "Fire" (28'~36‘) talks about China's coal reserve – how it *almost* provided for an industrial revolution.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 4:57 am

    The Hu line, as a straight line, looks to be a less facts-based version of the concept of "China Proper". What's the advantage of pretending it's a straight line?

  8. James Martin said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 5:11 am

    Perhaps I'm missing the point of what you mean by "there are very few, if any, schools, colleges, and universities that teach geography and train professors of that discipline". But there really are a ton of universities that teach and research something that they describe as "geography".

    See for example ; obviously the rankings are to be taken with a bucket of salt, but the list does give a good idea of the range of universities offering the subject. It starts: Oxford, LSE, Cambridge, Berkeley, Singapore, UCLA, ANU, UBC, UCL, Toronto, Hong Kong, Durham, Tokyo, Humboldt, …

    Oxford, for example, has separate entities called "School of Geography and the Environment", "Department of Earth Sciences", and "School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography".

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 6:25 am

    Geography: Why It Matters 1st Edition (2018)

    by Alexander B. Murphy (Author)

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 6:33 am

    The Hu Line is straight because it is the averaging / smoothing out of many lines that are not straight, which you will realize if you ponder all of the maps in the article, and others that could be adduced in support of it.

    If you want to talk about a "China Proper" that begins somewhere in the east, I suppose that's all right, but where do you draw the line that separates it from "China improper"?

  11. J. said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 6:48 am

    "My private, personal theory on the demise of geography (I'm not trying to convince anyone else that this is what really happened) is that it has essentially been displaced by sociology and anthropology. What used to be learning about humankind and the land has now become analysis of configurations and interactions of groups in their shifting spatial arrangements, i.e., sociology, and intense investigations of individuals in their relationships to others in terms of the four fields of archeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology, though I have often heard older anthropologists complain that these traditional four fields are giving way to increasingly theoretical approaches."

    Interesting enough, Historian David S. Landes remarked on how in his "unenlightened", "non-multicultural" times (descriptors mine), he and his schoolmates were expected to understand maps, to be able to draw countries ' shapes and to know about foreign peoples' mores and governments. Also, at university level, he thought, the use of Geography-based explanations to confirm and explain Northen European superiority caused a loss of prestige for Geography when ideas of racial superiority became unpopular.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 6:48 am

    James Martin is right that "very few" is an overstatement. What is very striking, however, and maybe this is a U.S.-specific phenomenon, is that essentially none of the highest-prestige private research American universities (the Ivies, U. of Chicago, Duke, Stanford, etc.) currently have a Dep't of Geography, even though many/most of them did a few generations ago. Here's one academic geographer's list (as of 2013) of the 20 best places to get a Ph.D. in the discipline, and many of the schools (including the three private ones) are schools you don't typically see on similar "20-best" lists for other social sciences (or humanities) disciplines, probably in large part because a lot of schools whose graduate programs typically rank high have simply chosen for whatever reasons not to compete in this particular area. But maybe the schools (and some of the flagship public universities on the list are very well-regarded) who are still offering these Ph.D.'s know something important that the Ivies etc. have overlooked or forgotten?

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 7:07 am

    What happened to the American geography department?
    Benjamin Sacks April 8, 2015

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 7:36 am

    @J.W. Brewer

    "a lot of schools whose graduate programs typically rank high have simply chosen for whatever reasons not to compete in this particular area."

    That's the rub. What are those reasons?

    In the ivies, only Dartmouth still has a department of geography, but Dartmouth (my alma mater, I'm proud to say), is not a university, and it does not offer a PhD in geography, only an undergraduate major.

    "It is a small college, and yet there are those who love it!"

    Daniel Webster (1782-1852; Dartmouth 1801), arguing in behalf of the College in the famous Supreme Court case, "Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward", 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518 (1819)

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 7:56 am

    @VHM: It would also be interesting to know the trendline in "geography" as a distinct subject taught before college in the U.S. My mother taught courses labeled "geography," among others, in the early Sixties while working as a junior high school social studies teacher before I was born. I'm pretty sure I had "geography" as the social-studies class when I was in 7th grade in 1977-78. But no such class was in the middle school curriculum that my two older kids went through during the last decade and that (assuming the school district doesn't change things) my younger kids will go through in turn. No doubt there's random district-to-district variation in this (and/or perhaps patterned regional variation), but someone out there may have data on what percentage of this year's U.S. high school graduates have taken a labeled-as-geography course and how that compares with 20 or 40 or 60 years ago.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 8:16 am

    @Jacob Shell

    Thank you, neighbor, for your enlightening, informative remarks. They are very much appreciated.

    What department are you in at Temple?

    I completely agree with you about Sven Hedin (1865-1962). He was the consummate geographer, one of my greatest heroes in the exploration of the very region (Eastern Central Asia) where I have spent decades following in his giant footsteps. He was also a fantastically talented cartographer, whose maps of the deserts, mountains, and rivers of nearly a century ago are still precise enough to match with GPS locations. One of my favorite photographs of Hedin shows him standing in the desert outside a primitive tent, peering through a theodolite (or transit?), a cheroot in his mouth. You can see it here, also here, probably in the middle of the second row.

  17. Bathrobe said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 8:24 am

    The one buffer that is not secure is the sea, which is also the main way that China has been invaded over the last 200 years.

    So China is most concerned about its sea now.

    To protect its seas, it wants to annex Taiwan and increase its maritime buffer, by enlarging the share of the South China Sea that it controls.

    Geopolitik, maybe, but when Chinese military strategy is set in terms of breaking through the First Island Chain, which requires neutralising or taking over Taiwan, I'm not sure why there should be any doubt about it. It's not a geopolitical theory; it's a military fact.

  18. bks said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 8:43 am

    Soon to be accompanied on the academic trash heap by philosophy:

    Chomsky's greatest accomplishment may have been to rescue linguistics from the same fate.

  19. KeithB said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 9:06 am

    And if China does take Taiwan, there is not much we can do about it:

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 9:33 am

    From Peter K. Bol:

    On the sad demise of geography at Harvard see Neil Smith’s “'Academic War Over the Field of Geography': The Elimination of Geography at Harvard, 1947–1951", from 1987

    The EALC building was not the Dept of Geography, but an institute for research with aerial surveying led by Col. Rice, second husband of Mrs Widener, it was at war with the Geography Dept.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 9:35 am

    Here's the abstract of Neil Smith's article cited by Peter Bol in the preceding comment:


    After modest but optimistic expansion in the 1940s, the geography program at Harvard University was suddenly terminated in 1948, touching off a widely publicized “academic war over the field of geography.” It was a severe blow to the discipline, not only because of Harvard's position in American education but because in the course of the closure the President of Harvard University suggested that geography was not an appropriate university subject. The disciplinary history of the Harvard episode is dominated by oral accounts and discussions of personalities, but a more detached archival reconstruction of events is necessary today, if only to reclaim what actually occurred and thereby to allow us to understand it less defensively. For whatever the role of specific personalities, and Isaiah Bowman appears to have been more instrumental than is generally realized, there is a larger question concerning the vulnerability of geography, at Harvard and elsewhere. In the course of the termination and reconsideration of geography at Harvard, several key issues emerged concerning the efficacy of the discipline, and these are still relevant today. While this is mainly a historical reconstruction, therefore, it also touches on themes of contemporary relevance. For it may be that today as well as in Harvard in 1948, the discipline itself bears some responsibility for the failures that occur.

  22. NickKaldis said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 10:16 am

    At some points in the 1950s and 60s, my father met up in Greece with Prof. William Pritchett, of the Classics Dept. at Berkeley. My dad sometimes called him a "geographer", but usually a "classicist." Dad accompanied Dr. Pritchett on his topographical research at ancient sites such as the pass at Thermopylae. Pritchett's research findings went into his series of books, _Studies in Ancient Greek Topography_. Neither of them were geographers, but it seems there was significant necessary disciplinary overlap (history [my father's discipline], classics, archaeology, geography) among those studying ancient Greece.

  23. Phil H said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 11:46 am

    Not to be too techno-deterministic about it, but there does seem to be a simple explanation for the demise of geography as a subject: they finished it. Particularly with the launch of satellites in the second half of the 20th century, we can see all of the world now. There aren't any more questions to be asked about where things are.
    Of course, there are still questions to be asked about what processes are going on, and how people live, but those questions fit equally well, perhaps better, into environmental science and anthropology. It's kinda OK if geography passes away.

  24. Jacob Shell said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 1:30 pm

    @Victor Mair

    I'm in the department of Geography and Urban Studies.

    I'd like to re-suggest Neil Smith's "American Empire" which focuses on the figure of Bowman. It's rather long but worth a look.

    Really it seems to me that a number of disciplines — geography, linguistics, anthropology — have lost touch with something essential which they used to share in common and which would help us better navigate the current century. These three disciplines have gone so far down their respective paths that I'm not sure what's needed is an attempt make one or several of them loop back to what they once had been; rather, perhaps an entirely new discipline, with entirely new institutional commitments and support networks (perhaps not even housed in the conventional academy), is needed.

  25. Jacob Shell said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 1:48 pm

    @Phil H

    There's lots of things you can't see from satellite, such as what's under a forest canopy. Now, I don't think modern academic geographers have committed themselves to looking at those things to the degree they might have, but it seems to me that a healthy academic institution would have *some* discipline looking at those geographies which are still hidden from new geospatial technology.

    I tend to agree that there's a good deal in that arena which could be done through "anthropology" in the literal meaning of the term — but not, I think, through the actually-existing anthropology departments in the year 2021 with their actual institutional and theoretical commitments. Nor through the actually-existing geography departments for that matter.

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 2:30 pm

    @Phil H.: But all those satellites plus computing capacity to crunch the data they yield means that you can now acquire new-fangled academic credentials like a "Certificate in Advanced Studies in Geographic Information Systems and Spatial Analysis." There is a burgeoning industry in making pretty-maps-for-the-internet showing geographical variation in voting patterns, health outcomes, favorite pizza toppings, and pretty much anything else where you can get a dataset coded for location. But I assume there are ongoing academic turf wars regarding which departments get control over: (a) who teaches people how to make those pretty maps; and (b) who theorizes and pontificates about how to determine which such maps are useful/enlightening versus distracting/sinister/hegemonic.

    Then of course there's the controversial classic "Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The Case of Ejectives." (Author affiliated with an anthropology department with a secondary appointment in psychology, but could be somewhere else at a university with a different classificatory schema, especially since his doctorate is in linguistics.)

  27. Stentor Danielson said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 2:56 pm

    Speaking as a geography professor here: A big part of geography's demise in the most prestigious US institutions (Dartmouth is the only Ivy that still has a department) was due to the field's investment in a (often highly racialized) form of environmental determinism. When that perspective was (rightfully) debunked, the field retreated into atheoretical studies of localized landscapes. None of that was terribly attractive at prestigious schools, but the discipline hung on at public schools where it was needed for training k-12 teachers.

    In the 70s, lots of schools without a geography program created environmental studies departments that overlapped quite a bit with geography's traditional territory. And these days GIS is everywhere, even at institutions that don't have a geography department as its home.

  28. AntC said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 5:13 pm

    Why the oppression of Uighurs? Why the occupation of Tibet?

    Indeed: there's no reason to count Xinjiang or Tibet as part of China. And every reason to send back to China the Han who have been relocated into those Countries. (Also I think good reason to unite Mongolia.)

    Then how would those maps and percentages look? Perhaps use the Hu line to demarcate China itself.

  29. Misha Schutt said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 6:28 pm

    As a freshman at Middlebury Dollege (fall 1968), I took an excellent geography course, from an influential Marxist professor with a Swedish name I can’t quite remember now. The class was very much about geographical factors in human affairs, and I even remember the first assignment, involving an outline of West Germany disguised by rotating it 90 degrees.
    It appears that the department is still going, despite the fact that the old WWII building in which it was housed was set afire by a mentally ill student the day after the Kent State shooting in 1971.

  30. John Swindle said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 7:04 pm

    Could it have been the late Professor Vincent H. Malmstrom? I don't know whether he was a Marxist, but the Weird Wild Web says he taught geography at Middlebury then.

  31. Jerry Packard said,

    August 18, 2021 @ 8:01 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    Great article on ejectives. Thanks for posting it.

  32. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 19, 2021 @ 6:07 am

    @Mischa Schutt:

    I was once subjected to an "experiment" where we were shown a map of Europe rotated 180° so that south was to the top. About half of those present recognized it more-or-less immediately, some of the rest had difficulty seeing it even after being told what they were looking at.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2021 @ 6:16 am

    The name Vincent H. Malmström rang a bell with me as being connected with Dartmouth. Sure enough, he is listed here as being "Emeritus Professor of Geography Dartmouth College 2014":

    There are other places on the WWW that relate him to Dartmouth. I have a vague recollection that he taught at Middlebury before coming to Dartmouth.

    He was born on March 6, 1926 and passed away at age 94 on Thursday, June 18, 2020 in Hanover, New Hampshire.

    Malmström sounds like a very interesting man who did seminal research that led to the development of GIS and made fundamental discoveries on the Maya calendar, including that "the ancient Izapa Mexico Temple Center, the birthplace of the Maya Calendar, is at 14.8 degrees north Latitude where the zenith sun passages on August 13 and April 30 measure the sacred Maya 260-day Calendar. Dr. Michael Coe said Dr. Malmstrom's discovery of this calendar's birthplace at Izapa is the most important discovery of Mesoamerican antiquities research." By Garth Norman, with slight modifications, from the above linked obituary.

    I would love to do more investigation on this great geographer, a fellow Swede of Sven Hedin mentioned above, but I have an extremely busy, eventful day ahead of me, so am pressed for time.

  34. Bathrobe said,

    August 19, 2021 @ 8:19 am

    Indeed: there's no reason to count Xinjiang or Tibet as part of China. And every reason to send back to China the Han who have been relocated into those Countries.

    That's refreshing. And ethnic cleansing is a great idea.

    Perhaps the same should be done to European settlers in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, among others. White people flourishing in other peoples' petri-dishes.

  35. Terry K. said,

    August 19, 2021 @ 9:16 am

    Why the oppression of Uighurs? Why the occupation of Tibet?

    Indeed: there's no reason to count Xinjiang or Tibet as part of China. And every reason to send back to China the Han who have been relocated into those Countries. (Also I think good reason to unite Mongolia.)

    Then how would those maps and percentages look? Perhaps use the Hu line to demarcate China itself.

    No reason from whose perspective? The linked article (that the questions come from) does a good job of explaining, from the Chinese perspective, why it makes sense for those areas to be part of China. It gives an answer to those questions. Not, though, reasons any caring person could use to justify oppression of the people there.

  36. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2021 @ 1:32 pm

    From Heidi Mair:

    Fascinating – indeed, Franz Boas, the "father of American Anthropology" was educated in geography.

  37. wanda said,

    August 19, 2021 @ 2:03 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: In K-8, I never took a geography class. Instead it was "social studies," which was mostly history but also some of what you are saying belongs to geography.
    @Bathrobe: I have read people who do advocate "decolonization," although I think they are mostly advocating for returning sovereignty to indigenous people, not actually ejecting colonists.

  38. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 19, 2021 @ 6:53 pm

    One of the books I am currently reading is “Mapping England” by the architect Simon Foxell (Black Dog Publishing, London, UK), 2008.

    In the beginning of the introduction, Foxell writes about how the decision to feature a map of England and Ireland on the Great Seal for the government headed by Oliver Cromwell marked an intellectual shift. “The modern idea of a nation as a bordered territory was superseding the idea of the state as personified bt a dynastic ruler empowered by divine right. The map, a relatively new arrival as a popular and widely-understood concept, came into its own as the natural expression of that idea.”

    Foxell goes on to discuss why the book centers on England and not Great Britain as a whole. “If maps and mapping were only about geography, then it [including all of Britain] would have been the only possible approach, but—although notionally about geography—cartography embraces many other disciplines and offers far greater potential for both creativity and mischief. Maps (and especially those of contested territories, even ones of so comparatively stable a territory as that of Britain) are battlefields of ideas and ideologies; the locus of political, social and cultural skulduggery; the mise-en-scene of propaganda, illusion and sleight of hand and, above all, the playground for notions of national identity and definitions of, otherwise imagined, communities.”

    It seems to me that geography benefits from a wide scope of influence on other fields, but has also been fragmented, various parts having been absorbed into history, geology, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and other fields mentioned above. When I was in elementary school in the 1950s in the U.S., geography was part of “social studies” and history was separate. My social studies textbooks introduced the United States and countries around the world, discussed climate and physical geography, listed important cities, notable places, imports and exports, languages, and brief vignettes and photos intended to give us an overview of a nation or region. Both social studies and history functioned as adjuncts to reading instruction, including a lot of vocabulary work, and, of course, practice in reading comprehension and essay writing in addition to work with maps. The increasing emphasis on testing and reading as a stand-alone topic pretty much wiped out social studies in elementary schools in the U.S. as far as I know.

  39. Thomas Mair said,

    August 20, 2021 @ 9:01 am

    Brilliant post bordering if not achieving the posture of a publishable academic paper. I am so happy to read it especially since I have personal experiences of so many topics touched upon here. I was a young lad 6 years old or so when VHM had that office at Harvard which is forever imprinted in my mind along with many other "geographic" memories of Cambridge. I certainly did not know the historic origins of that building until just now… I believe I may be mixing up the building with the Yenching library there, which had medium sized double flanking statues of lions (very impressive to a young boy!). But maybe I am not… as my memory of going to the office was to enter the doors behind the lions and walk up a beautiful set of stairs (also double set in nature) then up another seemingly more secret set of stairs.

    This post is replete with other personal "Easter eggs" (to borrow a 21st century neologism of video game and cinema culture). I will certainly be re-reading it and on my second read I will be excited to see what people will be saying in the comments.

    In omnia paratus et omnia fidelis!

  40. KevinM said,

    August 20, 2021 @ 11:59 am

    I guess that would place Philadelphia neighbors Profs. Mair and Shell on either side of the Schu line.

  41. Andrew Usher said,

    August 20, 2021 @ 8:41 pm

    As I think has been made clear, traditional 'geography' (a term inherited from Ancient Greece, where it was not really a science) was rather heterogeneous and perhaps became redundant when other fields took over the traditional parts of 'geography'.

    The lay meaning of the word refers to physical geography exclusively, and the only course I ever took with the word 'geography' in its name also did.

    So there's no more reason to regret the demise (if it is so) of the broad field 'geography' than the traditional meaning of 'philosophy' that incorporated natural science among other things.

    k_over_hbarc at

  42. Thomas Mair said,

    August 21, 2021 @ 10:57 am

    @Tom Mazanec – Thanks so much for mentioning and posting a link to the Geography department at UCSB. I have spent my professional life as a cog in the wheel of the Telecommunications industry, and my personal life as something of a wandering Bohemian thinker… It's my greatest interest (along with my greatest hope) that some institutional force may bring about a sea change in Human-kind's relationship with the ecosystems of our home and only planet Earth. Whether it is a government decision to abandon (or lessen) the wasteful emphasis on construction of war machines in favor of developing an Ecological Corps, or whether it is from Corporations making more long term decisions of global environmental health OR if it is a synergy of all this … but I am without doubt that research, philosophy, and higher education will be a driving force towards a better future. Thanks again, I am so happy to read about the department there. This type of emphasis seems 100% appropriate for a new direction for the study of Geography.

  43. Thomas Mair said,

    August 21, 2021 @ 10:59 am

    Can't resist one more comment!

    "Don't confuse the map with the territory."

    I just love that statement. It has some many ramifications.

  44. Potomacker said,

    August 22, 2021 @ 1:50 am

    The geography department lost its departmental status while I was an undergrad at the UofM, Ann Arbor. The president then, an engineer by training, immediately joked that the classics department was next. I saw these efforts and trend as simply another in the process to operate universities as businesses.

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    August 22, 2021 @ 7:25 am

    Speaking as one who loathed and detested both geography and history when at school, scoring 17% and 18% in the last examinations in those subjects that he ever took (but who has since seen the error of his ways !), what we were taught at school (British grammar school) was physical geography, with no mention of the politics (etc) that had led to the formation / determination of boundaries / etc. of the countries that we studied. A typical class question would be "What is the capital of Venezuela ? Answer !", and one was expected to call out the name (Maracaibo, at least at that time) and jab one's finger at the appropriate point on a map. How Venezuela came into being, who lived there, what their customs were, what language(s) they spoke, etc., never seemed to be mentioned. I imagine that things have changed since then …

  46. Jacob Shell said,

    August 23, 2021 @ 9:32 am

    @Stentor Danielson — The idea that environmental determinism caused the institutional decline of Geography is widespread, but I've always found it very unpersuasive. Many disciplines which did a better job navigating the post-WWII reconstruction and expansion of the universities also had some racially fraught baggage from the late 19th or early 20th centuries versions of themselves. That's certainly the case with linguistics and anthropology, no? And yet both disciplines experienced golden ages in the mid-20th century, while Geography was in free-fall. So, something was peculiar with the position of Geography. I do think Neil Smith's analysis, emphasizing the shift in elite worldview as hegemony passed from the British Empire to Pax Americana is more persuasive. The British would have their middle class learning how every ethnic group in Afghanistan is settled into every mountain range and valley — the U.S. approach by contrast has been for the US middle class to learn none of that knowledge, but instead to learn various abstract principles (economic, political, cultural) by which populations "in general" ought to live. Not making a value judgment here, clearly both paradigms have failed.

    On Geography, when you read the actual supposed "environmental determinists" like Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington and Sven Hedin, what's very striking is that they never fit the "hot weather makes people lazy" cartoon image of their paradigm which the current paradigm (GIS plus critical theory) projects onto them. And then, of course, we need to reckon with the fact that the most successful geography book of the whole post-WWII period has been Jared Diamond's "Guns Germs and Steel" — which he composed, I think, for a counterfactual geographic audience where the discipline was still thinking in terms of how the configuration of continents, oceans, mountain ranges and river valleys influences human affairs.

    On GIS — why should this be in Geography departments and not Computer Science departments? A GISer who doesn't know how to dive into the software to reprogram it has very limited earning power.

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