Acta Geographica Sinica ›› 2017, Vol. 72 ›› Issue (7): 1316-1327.doi: 10.11821/dlxb201707015

• Orginal Article • Previous Articles    

Wu Shangshi: One of the outstanding founders of Chinese modern geography


  1. 1. State Key Laboratory of Estuarine and Coastal Research, East China Normal University, Shanghai 200062, China;
    2. Center for Coastal Ocean Science and Technology Research, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou 510275, China;
    3. School of Geography and Planning, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou 510275, China
  • Received:2017-02-11 Revised:2017-03-23 Online:2017-08-07 Published:2017-08-08


Wu Shangshi (1904-1947) is considered one of the outstanding modern geographers emerging in the early 20th century in China. It is partly a result of the introduction of modern sciences from the West. Wu graduated as a gold medalist in Sun Yat-sen University (SYU) in 1928. He was then granted scholarship to study geography in France. He studied at the University of Lyon and the University of Grenoble under the supervision of A. Allix, M. Pardé and R. Blanchard,who was one of the best known students of V. de la Blanche. In 1934, Wu finished his study in France and returned to SYU to serve as a professor of geography. He was head of the department in 1939-1945, the most difficult and perilous period during the Japanese invasion. The university moved constantly to flee the flames of war. The thousands of miles across south and south-west China became Wu's research field. To continue one's work under such circumstances required an extraordinary determination and dedication to science. Excessive hard work in tough environments ruined his health. Wu died in 1947 at the age of 43.
Among the second generation of Chinese modern geographers, Wu was a rare example of an integrated geographer. He combined comprehensive and complex geographic thought with a balanced approach between holistic perspective and detailed research. In addition, he possessed an outstanding ability to conduct field work. As such, many of his research findings have withstood the test of time and remain relevant to this day. For instance, Wu proposed "one belt and three arcs" to summarize the distribution of the mountain ranges in China. On the long debates of the stratigraphic sequence of the red bed formations "Danxia" and "Nanxiong", Wu suggested an alternative viewpoint that the two formations could be deposited at approximately the same time but in different faces and it has been confirmed by modern geologic investigation some 50 years later. Both contributions were listed on the "Great Geographical Discoveries of China in 100 Years". Wu's pioneering work covered a wide range of disciplines of geography: geomorphology, hydrography, climatology, cartography,regional geography, etc. Most of his research involved a combination of keen observation, incisive logical deduction, broad knowledge and professional instinct. The present paper summarizes Wu's major accomplishments which are scientifically significant to the establishment of modern and contemporary geography in China. It also reveals that Wu's scientific thought and practice can be traced to the French schools of geography and other Western countries.
However, his accomplishments cannot be fully appreciated without understanding of the significant role that traditional Chinese culture played in his consciousness. Wu's social connections and educational background could have easily allowed him to move within the power circles and become part of it. Yet he remained upright and forwent opportunities for fame and fortune, choosing Geography as his life's work. Wu was also a renowned educator whose list of students features names such as Luo Kaifu, Zeng Zhaoxuan, Xu Junming etc. The Geography Department in SYU has been being one of the important bases of China's modern geography science, to which Wu's crucial contributions cannot be left unrecognized.
A scientific park is under construction by the City Hall of Guangzhou at the site where Wu identified an ancient wave-cut cliff in 1937. Wu' statue placed in the park was designed by the well-known sculptors

Key words: Wu Shangshi, modern geography, Sun Yat-sen University, France, Chinese culture