Alexander Wylie's exploration of China and contributions to Western knowledge of China's literature and the Shu Roads


Han River Hazards from Piassetsky (1874)


Hazards and Rapids on the Upper Han River




Alexander Wylie (1815-1887; Chinese name: Weilie Yali 伟烈 亚力) was a British Protestant Missionary who spent many years in China and was well-known for his Chinese language skill and scholarship. In addition to missionary texts, he wrote articles in Chinese containing “Useful Knowledge” such as mathematics, astronomy and engineering. He is also well-known for his collected biographies of Missionaries to China and (well before Joseph Needham) bringing to the attention of the west the advanced state of Chinese science and mathematics in the past. Wylie also edited a number of publications, translated ancient Chinese texts and contributed to modern Chinese studies with his articles in Chinese about many subjects. He followed in the earlier tradition of Charles Gutzlaff and Walter Henry Medhurst in his breadth of activity and contribution.


After China had been opened by the Opium Wars, Wylie was active in finding out as much as possible about the interior of China. After 1860, the Taiping rebellion had been extinguished and the most unequal of the “Unequal Treaties”, the “Treaty of Tien-tsin”, (Tienjin, 天津条约) had been signed in 1858 and was gradually coming into force. The Yangtze River was then open to traders, gunboats and missionaries. Hankou (汉口) in Hubei, where the Han River joined the Yangtze, became a centre of British interest. From there, shallow draft steamboats were eventually to move through the Yangtze gorges into Sichuan following the path of early explorations of Thomas Blakiston and others from Hankou to the meeting of the Yangtze with the Min River. Anticipating a commercial boom as China was opened, merchants were keen to know as much as possible about China’s interior and its access routes via whatever roads and rivers could be used to transport people and goods. It was in this environment that in 1868, Alexander Wylie and Griffith John made their adventurous journey beyond the current reach of steamboats on the Yangtze and on to Chengdu (成都) along the Min River. They then went by road north to Hanzhong (汉中) and back to the Yangtze at the Hankou settlement via the Han River (汉水) Valley. The way back to Hankou from Hanzhong was achieved mostly by boat on navigable sections of the Han River.


Wylie recorded the northern return journey from Chengdu to Hankou via Hanzhong in a learned paper presented to the Royal Geographical Society of London. The paper was well written, full of useful information for the time – and is still of use today. Of particular importance to the study of Shu Roads (蜀道), he travelled the Jinniu (Golden Ox, 金牛道) Road and a small part of the Northern Plank (北栈) road to reach Hanzhong from Chengdu. After that, he took some alternative linking paths overland and made use of navigable sections of the Han River to go past present day Ankang Xian (安康县 then (also) called Xing’an Fu, 興安府) and back to the British concession at Hankou. It is clear from reading his paper that an objective was to obtain revised and new information updating current maps and particularly about the river systems and that he had a keen interest in the river trade and traffic he came across. The earlier part of the visit, from Hankou to Chengdu was a massive document and included a complete itinerary with place and river names as Chinese characters. It was printed in a local English magazine published in Shanghai in 1868. Together, these papers represented a significant contribution to geographic knowledge of the western interior of China.


There are a number of documents at this web site describing the journey that Alexander Wylie took along the Shu Roads to Hanzhong as well as other materials relating to his wider travels and literary publications in the mid-1800’s. Links to the material as well as a brief description of their contents is provided in the Table below:


Shu Road Website material relevant to Alexander Wylie


Primary Document Name & Link

Notes and Information

File Size

Alexander Wylie's Travels 1868

A description of the journey made by Alexander Wylie in 1868 along the Jinniu Road from Chengdu to Hanzhong, then by road across to Shiquan and finally by boat on the Han River to Hankou. Document also describes what was found during a re-visit of the section from Chengdu to Hanzhong by David Jupp and staff from Hanzhong Museum in 2012.

 533 kb

Xixiang road to Shiquan

Alexander Wylie traveled between Hanzhong and Shiquan via Xixiang in 1868. Sir Eric Teichman traveled the other direction in 1917. These reports and some other interesting aspects of the area – such as the previous settlement at Guluba, led to a visit to the route in 2012. This document outlines the history of the road, previous travelers and the field work of 2012.

 2.3 MB

Alexander Wylie's Shu Road Itinerary

A Tabular interpretation of Alexander Wylie’s travel route with conversion of his transliterations to Chinese and identifications of places he visited with modern places. Includes the whole journey as reported in his 1870 paper. It has also now incorporated information and been cross matched with Wylie's complete itinerary that was published in Shanghai in 1868.

 184 kb

transliteration table

A Table of transliterations to Pinyin for Alexander Wylie’s transliterations of Chinese names into Latin alphabet. Wylie used a system of his own but based on an emerging consensus among Missionaries. The variations used in 1870 were soon to be replaced with the more consistent Wade-Giles transliteration. The Table was constructed by collecting examples when developing the Table of Places visited by Wylie. The Table can be also be found with other documents discussing this issue HERE.

 124 kb

Wylie's 1870 Royal Society of London Paper

PDF of the original paper by Alexander Wylie describing his journey on the Jinniu Road to Hanzhong, linking travel in the Hanzhong Basin to Shiquan and travel down the Han River to Hankou. published by the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1870 as:
Wylie, Alexander (1869). Notes of a Journey from Ching-Too to Hankow. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 168-185.

 936 kb

Wylie's Record of complete 1868 Itinerary

PDF of the original complete itinerary including places and rivers passed or crossed on the round journey from Hankou along the Yangtze to Sichuan and Chengdu then north via Hanzhong back down the Han River to Hankou. The full reference to this itinerary is:
Wylie, Alexander (1868). Itinerary of a journey through the provinces of Hoo-Pĭh, Sze-Chuen and Shen-Se. Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series, Vol. 5, pp. 153-182.

 951 kb

Wylie's Record of 1868 journey from Hankou to Chengdu via Yangze

PDF of the original description of the first part of Wylie's 1868 journey. This part is from Hankou to Chengdu via the Yangtze River. It is a conplete and interesting record but very detailed and long with many Chinese names. Because of this it was published in China where there were a number of moveable type Chinese printeries. The full reference to this description is: Wylie, Alexander (1868). Itinerary of a journey through the provinces of Hoo-Pĭh, Sze-Chuen and Shen-Se. Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series, Vol. 5, pp. 183-258.

 4.1 MB

Background Material Name & Link

Notes and Information

File Size

Mapping the Qinling Shu Roads - materials & Methods

An extensive set of mapping material has been collated and used to develop a Google Earth presentation of the Shu Roads and its associated data base. The material includes travel notes by western explorers, Russian Topographic maps, Google Earth, Qing period maps and GPS tracks and waypoints collected during visits. This document describes the extent set of information and its use. The wider context of this information and The ongoing use of this material can be seen at the web page listing outcomes of the 2012 Fieldwork HERE.

 875 kb

Catholic_Missionaries and Shu Roads

For 400 years, Catholic Missionaries have been visiting the west of China and recording their travels and experiences. This document describes some of the reports they have left and their experiences, and especially those relevant to the Hanzhong region. The Catholic settlement at Guluba, which was visited by Sir Eric Teichman in 1917, is described and its history related.

 1.1 MB


The name for Australia in Chinese was provided by a scholar missionary in 1835 and accepted by Chinese as the name for Australia by Chinese in the mid-1840s. This document summarises the early period of increasing presence of protestant missionaries of the "first generation". Alexander Wylie was "second generation" and this provides a background to his work and influences. The document is summarised and presented on its own web page HERE. This document will only have substantial changes if it moves to being a more official and serious publication.

 3.1 MB

Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to China

Alexander Wylie is well known for his collation of memorials and lists of publications for early protestant missionaries to China starting with Joshua Marshman who was important in the early missions and Robert Morrison who was the first missionay in China up to a Rev. James Bates who arrived in China in 1867. Alexander Wylie was a second generation missionary following the early missionaries such as Robert and John Morrison, Charles Gutzlaff, Elijah Bridgman and David Abeel and others who figure prominantly in the "Chinese name for Australia" and who had all passed on by the end of the Opium Wars. Other Missionaries such James Legge and WAP Martin together with Alexander Wylie represented a generation whose proficiency in Chinese language and literature was of very high standard.

 18.6 MB


NOTE: If you wish to download one of the larger documents above, it is often better to right click on the link and use the “Save Target As…” option rather than opening it in a browser.



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