The Shuijing 水經 "The river classic" was an ancient Chinese geographical book describing the course of rivers. It had been transmitted as a core component together with its commentary, the Shuijingzhu 水經注 "Commentary to the river classic". The classic had been written by Sang Qin 桑欽 during the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280), the commentary by Li Daoyuan 酈道元 during the Northern Wei period 北魏 (386-534). The original text contained 40 juan "scrolls" of which 5 were lost. Later some chapters were divided in order to regain the original number.
Li Daoyuan acted on a lot of high posts in the local administration. In 527 he was assassinated by the rebel Xiao Baoyin 蕭寶夤.
For his commentary, Li Daoyuan did not only have the necessary geographical experience from his profession when he was inspecting canals, dykes and rivers, but he also studied a lot of old and contemporary books on geography. The original Shuijing only dealt with 137 rivers, and Li Daoyuan added so much information about other rivers that the Shuijingzhu can not dealt with as a commentary but is in fact a book of its own. It is twenty times as large as the old Shuijing and discusses the geographical course and the cultural background of 1,252 rivers and creeks. The importance of the Shuijingzhu lies in its character as a vast treasury for all types of information on the local economy, society, and geography, not only during the Northern Dynasties period but through the ages. The rivers are described from their source, with the tributaries, river forks and so on down to their estuary mouth. All this is very important information for the reconstruction of the early Chinese hydrological environment. Li Daoyuan, collecting written sources and writing from his own experience, is very cautious towards his sources. This makes his book even more valuable. One exception is that he was not able to deal with rivers of southern China with the same diligence as that of the north because China was divided at that time into the Southern and Northern dynasties.
During the ages, many errors have crept in, mainly in places where the old Shuijing was confused with Li Daoyuan's part. The Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholars Quan Zuwang 全祖望, Zhao Yiqing 趙一清 and Dai Zhen 戴震 tried to amend those errors. In the late 19th century Yang Shoujing 楊守敬 collected those commentaries in his publication called Shuijingzhu shu 水經注疏.
Source: Zhou Yiliang 周一良 (1992). "Shuijingzhu 水經注", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 2, pp. 954 f. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
The following translation gives an overview of the classic (text in red) and the commentary with its many citations of secondary literature.
The (Yellow) River
Classic: The Kunlun Mountain Range is in the northeast,
Commentary: The Kunlun massif consists of three geological terraces. The Kunlunji ("Report of the Kunlun Mountains") says, "Mount Kunlun is made from three terraces, the lower terrace is called Fantong or Bantong, the middle terrace is called Xuanpu or Langfeng, the upper terrace, where the Highest Deity lives, is called Cengcheng or Tianting ("Heavenly Palace")."
Classic: 50,000 leagues from Mount Song (modern Henan). This mountain range is just the middle of the earth.
Commentary: The Yu benji ("Imperial Biography of Emperor Yu") says the same. Gao You says, the Yellow River comes from the Kun(lun) Mountain, it flows creeping into the middle lands, 13,000 leagues long. Yu the Great routed the Yellow River and made it a bed, opening at the Jishi Mountain. According to the Shanhaijing ("Classic of Mountains and Seas"), the distance from the Kunlun to the Jishi Mountain is 1,740 leagues, and from the place where the river comes from Mt. Jishi in Longxi commandery down to River Luo in the plain land, more than 5,000 leagues are measured. Further, the Mu Tianzi zhuan ("Story of King Mu"), reports that the Son of Heaven came from Mt. Kunlun to the capital Zongzhou, after he had taken a geographical survey of the western regions. From River Chan near Zongzhou to the west (that is, river up, not really west, but in northern direction along the river bend), north until the region of Hezong and Mt. Yangyu, he measured 3,400 leagues, and from Mt. Yangyu to the source of the river in the west, there are 4,000 leagues, which makes a total of 7,400 leagues. The Waiguotu ("Maps of Foreign Countries") says further, from the country of the Great Jin Dynasty 70,000 leagues straight to the west, is Mount Kunlun where all immortals live. We can see that all these reports provide different geographical figures. The way to Mount Kunlun is far and difficult, the reports are confuse and accidently; there are only few waterways and streets, and even these few run in different places; only few people have seen or even heard from these places, and nobody has made further investigations. We cannot but write down what others have seen and heard to report only mistakes and errors.
Classic: It is 11,000 leagues high.
Commentary: The Shanhaijing says, it is 800 leagues long and 10,000 fathoms high. Guo Jingchun thinks that it is more than 2,500 leagues high, from the real top. The Huainanzi says, it is 11,000 leagues 114 steps 2 feet and 6 inches high.
Classic: The (Yellow) River
Commentary: Chunqiu shuo tici ("Thematical words as explanation to the Spring and Autumn Annals") says: The (Yellow) River (He) can be called a water lily (or lotus; he); the essence of the water lily spreads all around, hiding the dark principles by attiring right measurements. The Shiming dictionary says, the River is something flowing down, because it follows the terrain to the lowest place and seeks its way through it. The Kaoyiju ("Lodge of investigating strange matters") says, the River is the universal breath of the element water, the essence of the four great streams (Yellow River 河, Yangtse 江, Huai 淮, and Ji 濟), and through this essence things are able to liquidize. The Yuanmingbao ("Buds of the primary mandate") says, the River is the beginning of the Five Elements, it is the source of the ten thousand beings, it is muscle and secretion of the primary universal breath. [...]
has its source in the northeastern foothills of the Kunlun Range.
Commentary: The Shanhaijng says, the Kunlun Range is in the northwest, and the Yellow River comes from the northeastern corner of it. The Erya dictionary says, it is a colourless river, but the 1,700 tributary rivers make its color becoming yellow. The book Wulilun ("About physical matters") says, the color of the River is yellow because the many tributary rivers make the water muddy. Every hundred leagues is a small bend, and every thousand leagues is a great bend, whichafter the river agains flows in straight direction. The Discussions of the Great Marshal Zhang Zhong of the Han Dynasty says, the water of the Yellow River is very muddy. If you separate clear and dirty parts by sedimentation, you see that one picul of water contains six pecks of mud. When the peasant people compete with each other to irrigate their fields, they dam up the water. Only in the third month, during the peach blossom and when the snow-break effects a water rush, the dams are opened, that the accumulated water does not dissipate all over. After this, is is forbidden to dam up again the Yellow River. This is why the River is also called Yellow (Muddy) River. [...]
Classic: (The Yellow River) starts from this northeastern corner and flows into the Yellow Sea (Bohai Gulf). [Commentary]
Translated by Ulrich Theobald.