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Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan

A Biography of the Famous Chinese-American Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan

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Updated March 13, 2009
Yi-Fu Tuan is a Chinese-American geographer famous for pioneering the field of human geography and merging it with philosophy, art, psychology, and religion. This amalgamation has formed what is known as humanist geography.

Humanist geography as it is sometimes called is a branch of geography that studies how humans interact with space and their physical and social environments. It also looks at the spatial and temporal distribution of population as well as the organization of the world’s societies. Most importantly though, humanistic geography stresses people’s perceptions, creativity, personal beliefs, and experiences in developing attitudes on their environments.

In addition to his work in human geography, Yi-Fu Tuan is famous for his definitions of space and place. Today, place is defined as a particular part of space that can be occupied, unoccupied, real, or perceived (as is the case with mental maps). Space is defined as that which is occupied by an object's volume.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of place in determining people's behavior was at the forefront of human geography and replaced any attention previously given to space. In his 1977 article, "Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience," Tuan argued that to define space, one must be able to move from one place to another, but in order for a place to exist, it needs a space. Thus, Tuan concluded that these two ideas are dependent upon one another and began to cement his own place in the history of geography.

Yi-Fu Tuan's Early Life

Tuan was born on December 5, 1930 in Tientsin, China. Because his father was a middle class diplomat, Tuan was able to become a member of the educated class, but he also spent many of his younger years moving from place to place within and outside of China's borders.

Tuan first entered college at the University College in London but he later went to the University of Oxford where he received his bachelor's degree in 1951. He then continued his education there and earned his master's degree in 1955. From there, Tuan moved to California and finished his education at the University of California, Berkeley.

During his time at Berkeley, Tuan became fascinated with the desert and the American Southwest -- so much so that he often camped in his car in the rural, open areas. It was here that he began to develop his ideas of the importance of place and bring philosophy and psychology into his thoughts on geography. In 1957, Tuan completed his PhD with his dissertation entitled, "The Origin of Pediments in Southeastern Arizona."

Yi-Fu Tuan's Career

After completing his PhD at Berkeley, Tuan accepted a position teaching geography at Indiana University. He then moved on to the University of New Mexico, where he frequently spent time conducting research in the desert and further developed his ideas on place. In 1964, Landscape magazine published his first major article called, "Mountains, Ruins, and the Sentiment of Melancholy," in which he examined how people view physical landscape features in culture.

In 1966, Tuan left the University of New Mexico to begin teaching at the University of Toronto where he remained until 1968. In that same year, he published another article; “The Hydrologic Cycle and the Wisdom of God,” that looked at religion and used the hydrologic cycle as evidence for religious ideas.

After two years at the University of Toronto, Tuan then moved to the University of Minnesota where he produced his most influential works on organized human geography. There, he wondered about the positive and negative aspects of human existence and why and how they existed around him. In 1974, Tuan produced his most influential work called Topophilia which looked at the love of place and people’s perceptions, attitudes, and values surrounding their environments. In 1977, he further solidified his definitions of place and space with his article, “Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience.”

That piece, combined with Topophilia then had a significant impact on Tuan’s writing. While writing Topophilia, he learned the people perceive place not only because of the physical environment but also because of fear. In 1979, this became the idea of his book, Landscapes of Fear.

Following four more years teaching at the University of Minnesota, Tuan cited a mid-life crisis and moved to the University of Wisconsin. While there, he produced several more works, among them, Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets, in 1984 that looked at man's impacts on the natural environment by focusing on how humans are able to change it by adopting pets.

In 1987, Tuan's work was formally celebrated when he was awarded the Cullum Medal by the American Geographical Society.

Retirement and Legacy

During the late 1980s and 1990s, Tuan continued lecturing at the University of Wisconsin and wrote several more articles, further expanding his ideas in human geography. On December 12, 1997, he gave his last lecture at the university and officially retired in 1998.

Even in retirement, Tuan has remained a prominent figure in geography by pioneering human geography, a step that gave the field a more interdisciplinary feel as it is no longer simply concerned with physical geography and/or spatial science. In 1999, Tuan wrote his autobiography and more recently in 2008, he published a book called, Human Goodness. Today, Tuan continues give lectures and writes what he calls “Dear Colleague Letters.”

To view these letters and learn more about Yi-Fu Tuan's career visit his website.

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