The fangzhi 方誌, dizhi 地誌 or difangzhi 地方誌 (地方志), so-called local gazetteers, are local chronicles arranged in a peculiar style with encyclopaedic or theme-related chapters. The geographical extant can range from the whole empire down to provinces (sheng zhi 省志) or regions, prefectures (fu zhi 府志, zhou zhi 州志) and districts (xian zhi 縣志) and even temples or other single institutions, villages or spots. Other local gazetteers concentrate of rivers or lakes or transport canals. Some local gazetteers have a more private nature and describe the history of academies, give reports of travels and present an overview of the customs and habits in certain regions.
The numbers of traditional difangzhi chronicles are virtually countless, some are included in the large series but many local gazetters are only perserved in local archives, private libraries or even abroad.
Common features of all local gazetteers are that they are restricted to one specific area (except the imperial geographies), continuity (regular revision to record the specifics of the contemporary circumstances), comprehensiveness (describing geography, history, administration, military, households, tax system, local products, customs and habits, religion, supernatural events, eminent persons and their writings, touristic spots, and so on), and reliability (the vast treasure of primary sources are local archives, family registers, biographies, inscriptions, literary writings, letters, etc.).
The precursors of local gazetteers are descriptions of certain regions of the empire as found in the Shanhaijing 山海經 or the chapter Yugong 禹貢 in the Shangshu 尚書. But these writings do not present a historiographical content and can thus rather be categorized as geographical works, while the histories of certain states of the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), as the Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals", concentrates on historical events.
Only from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 (300~600) on authors start describing the geography, the inhabitants and their customs, local products, and the history of the region. Examples of this type of book are Ji Han's 嵇含 Nanfang caomu zhuang 南方草木狀, Zong Lin's 宗懍 Jing-Chu suishi ji 荊楚歲時記, both descriptions of southern regions, Yang Qianzhi's 楊炫之 Luoyang qielan ji 洛陽伽藍記, a report of the monasteries of the city of Luoyang, and Li Daoyuan's 酈道元 Shuijingzhu 水經注, a geography of northern China's rivers containing much information on local history.
From the Tang period 唐 (618-907) on the purely historical background was replaced by a more geographically directed style. Many local chronicles started with a map showing mountains, rivers and cities. A desription of the map (tujing 圖經) often followed. Later on the map was only seen as an appendix, for which reason most ancient maps are lost. The Tang dynasty was the first who had compiled an imperial geography and had regularly compiled local geographies of all prefectures. The oldest extant imperial geography is the Yuanhe junxian tuzhi 元和郡縣圖志 which renders information on geography, history, tax quota, and so on, of all prefectures and districts of the empire. The maps are lost, but preserved local gazetteers from Shazhou 沙州 and Xizhou 西州, both in modern Gansu province, give an example of how such books looked like in original shape.
The Song period 宋 (960-1279) was the first apogee of local gazetteers. The imperial geography Taiping huanyu ji 太平環宇記 describes not only the geographical and administrative features of each region but also renders the biographies of eminent persons of the particular districts. The local gazeteers therefore became categorized as histories, not as geographies. With the growing importance of persons the local gazetteers also included a literary part, namely literary works of the described persons, like poems or similar writings.
Of the more than 600 local gazetteers from the Song period, not many are preserved, but among the surviving books there are some excellent examples of the genre, like Zhou Yinghe's 周應合 (Jingding) Jiankang zhi 景定建康志 or Fan Chengda's 范成大 Wu jun zhi 吳郡志. The imperial geography of the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368), the Da-Yuan da yitong zhi 大元大一統志 is based on this foundation laid by Song period scholars, as well as that of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644), the Da-Ming yitong zhi 大明一統志.
The Ming period produced a lot of local gazetteers which were regularly revised for each region. It is therefore necessary that the reign-period is indicated during which the book was written. New categories coming up during that time are gazetteers of smaller units than districts, like zhen 鎮 ("garrisons") and cun 村 ("settlements"), as well as local gazetteers of border defence units, as seen in the Yansui zhen zhi 延綏鎮志 and the Shanhaiguan zhi 山海關志. The arrangement of the chapters in the local gazetters was standardized and oriented towards the encyclopaedic treatises in the official dynastic histories (zhengshi 正史).
The gazetteers became longer and longer, with examples like Cheng Wen's 程文 (Hongzhi) Gourong xian zhi (弘治)句容縣志 (124 chapters) or Li Xicheng's 李希程 (Jiajing) Lanyang xian zhi (嘉靖)蘭陽縣志 (112 chapters). But this tendency was also countered by other scholars who stressed that short style is better than length, as found, for instance, in Kang Hai's 康海 (Hongzhi) Wugong xian zhi (弘治)武功縣志 (7 chapters) or Han Bangqing's 韓邦清 (Zhengde) Chaoyi xian zhi (正德)朝邑縣志 (7 chapters).
During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) the genre of difangzhi reached its full blossom. Experts on local gazetteers established theoretical guidelines for the gazetteers and collected each information available from ancient local reports. The Qing emperors had regularly revised the provincial gazetteers, and during the Yongzheng reign-period (1723-1735) it was ordered to revise all gazetteers on prefectural and district levels each 60 years. Gazetteers of temples and monasteries, gardens and imperial mausolea, passes and fords, salt wells and each type of local village and spots were likewise regularly revised. At the end of the Qing period the xiangtu zhi 鄉土志, the village gazeteer became a common institution.
The regions of southern China are better documented than those of the north. The scholar Zhang Xuecheng 章學誠 invented a new structure for the local gazetteer. He divided his Hubei tongzhi 湖北通志, the provincial gazetteer of Hubei, into the parts tongzhi 通志 (comprehensive treatises), zhanggu 掌故 (institutions), wenzheng 文證 (literature) and congtan 叢談 (anecdotes). Xie Qikun 謝啓昆 established new rules of quality for the content of his Guangxi tongzhi 廣西通志, dividing his book into the five parts dian 典 (statutes), biao 表 (tables), lüe 略 (treatises), lu 錄 (records) and zhuan 傳 (biographies). This pattern was perpetuated by Miao Quansun's 繆荃孫 Shuntian fu zhi 順天府志, the gazetter of the Capital prefecture of Shuntian, Ruan Yuan's 阮元 Zhejiang tongzhi 浙江通志 and Guangdong tongzhi 廣東通志, Li Hongzhang's 李鴻章 Jifu tongzhi 畿輔通志, the gazetteer of the Capital, Zeng Guoquan's 曾國荃 Shanxi tongzhi 山西通志 and Yuan Dahua's 袁大化 Xinjiang dazhi 新疆大志.
The qualitatively most important prefectural and district gazetteers are Lu Longqi's 陸隴其 Lingshou xian zhi 靈壽縣志, Qian Daxin's 錢大昕 Jinxian zhi 鄞縣志, Yu Wenyi's 余文儀 Taiwan fu zhi 臺灣府志, Dai Dongyuan's 戴東原 Fenzhou fu zhi 汾州府志, Zhang Xuecheng's Yongqing xian zhi 永清縣志, Hong Liangji's 洪亮吉 Chunhua xian zhi 淳化縣志 and Jingxian zhi 涇縣志, Li Zhaoluo's 李兆洛 Fengtai xian zhi 鳳臺縣志, Mo Youzhi's 莫友芝 Zunyi fu zhi 遵義府志 and Li Ciming's 李慈銘 Shaoxing fu zhi 紹興府志. Among the best small-scale gazetteers are Gantang xiaozhi 甘棠小志 (garrison Shaobo 邵伯鎮 in Ganquan 甘泉縣, Jiangsu), Shuanglin zhen zhi 雙林鎮志 (in Wuxing 吳興縣, Zhejiang), Zhangqiu zhen zhi 張秋鎮志 (in Yanggu 陽谷縣, Shandong), and Foshan Zhongyi xiang zhi 佛山中義鄉志 (in Nanhai 南海縣, Guangdong).
There are also many unofficial, privately written local gazetteers, like Shi Fan's 師范 Dianxi 滇系, Liu Duanlin's 劉端臨 Yangzhou tujing 揚州圖經, Liu Chuzhen's 劉楚禎 Baoying tujing 寳應圖經, Xu Shihua's 許實華 Haizhou wenxian lu 海州文獻錄, or Wu Rulun's 吳汝綸 Shenzhou fengtu ji 深州風土記. A lot of them bares a more traditional title than the official gazetteers.
The gazetteers of the Republican period (1911-1949) largely follow this styles but include also new material, like statements about crafts and industry, or statistical data. A very fine gazetteer from that period is the Jinxian tongzhi 鄞縣通志 written by Chen Xunzheng 陳訓正 and Ma Ying 馬瀛.
Of the Song and Yuan period local gazetteers unfortunately a vast number is not transmitted. Of the 8,500 existing local gazetteers more than two thirds stem from the Qing period (more than 6,000), and about 1,000 from the Ming period. Most of them are descriptions of local areas in the provinces of Sichuan, Zhejiang, Hebei, Jiangsu, Shangdong and Henan. For the remote territories of the west gazetteers were only compiled form a very late point of time on. About 6,600 deal with areas on prefectural and district level, about 500 on village level, about 300 with smaller entities, and about 100 with provinces.