Sunday 2nd of November 2008

“The construction of dams and canals was and continues to be decisive for the representation of political authority in China.” Discuss.

This essay looks canal and dam construction (thirteenth century until modern times), and examines how hydraulic engineering relates to political representation of Chinese authority. Arguments assessing factors such as demographic growth, land clearances, and environmental exploitation will be explored. To what extent have ‘short term’, ‘open’ and ‘closed’ hydraulic political systems affected waterworks in contrast to long term influences seen in construction. The concept of a pluralist system of hydraulic social manipulation will be looked into, in contrast to hydraulic despotism.

The theory of state hydraulic despotism was proposed by Wittfogel (1896-1988). As Rowe summarised from Wittfogel’s thesis on ‘Oriental Despotism; a comparative study of total power’, it was the practice of ‘sedentary agriculture under semi-arid conditions, which necessitated the development of irrigation works on such a scale that, only a strong state apparatus could undertake construction and maintenance. The central tension in hydraulic society was that between the state and society as a whole, since private property remained subordinate to the will of the state, conflict between economic classes was of a minor significance1’. The Yangzii is the largest Asian River, and carries an excess of 600 million tons of sediment silt down the river every year2. The Yellow River is known as ‘China’s Sorrow’, The Ungovernable’ and ‘The Scourge of the Sons of Han’ and is known to flood every three years. The despotic state sought to eradicate the flood question with extensive hydraulic engineering. The Great Canal (Zheng- Guo Canal) irrigated 40,000 qing of land north of the Wei river from 246 BCE. Consequently in the history of the Han (complied in the late 1st century C.E), 4,500 qing of land was irrigated. In 1375, a workforce of 100,000 mobilised to dredge the feeder canal. In Qing late imperial a further 1000 qing of land was irrigated. The PRC has kept up extensive hydraulic engineering. Wrapper sums up ‘Oriental Despotism’, writing that, "the peculiar forms of Oriental despotism… had their origin in societies where irrigation was a matter of life and death to the people and their crops, and control of the watercourses was in the hands of the ruler and his bureaucracy." After 1937, the whole of the Yellow River changed its course after its dikes were destroyed in order to stop the advance of the Japanese implying recent state despotism3. Therefore there is evidence of total state power over construction of canals and dams 246BCE onwards.

Rowe argued against Wiffogel’s concept of total state power over hydraulic systems. He argued that, “what we find is a remarkably pluralist system if interest group politics, almost precisely the opposite of the despotism that the Asiatic mode of production is said to have spawned4”. This is seen in the Fankou Dam controversy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the mid Yangzii Valley. Li Hanzhang a lower-status leader represented many social classes who opposed the imperial state by building this dam. The Fankou controversy suggested a longing for change within the elite aswell as rising popular impatience with Qing political authority over hydraulic matters. The dam was rebuilt illegally in the 1920’s, and three sluice gates were added in 1952, 1972 and 1980 by local leaders. Morita Akira has found evidence backing Rowe’s argument that ‘water communities’ played a wider role in the hydraulic political arena. The hydraulic bureaucracy suffered from a lack of strong executive leadership5. The argument of ‘Oriental Despotism’ which Wittfogel proposed is limited as rulers never gained total authority over construction of canals and dams.

In terms of political authority and hydraulic engineering, Ming- Qing times brought about ‘hydraulic cycles’ of decline and growth. Early on in the Ming Dynasty, there was state investment to stimulate growth. The system flourished with agricultural and demographic growth then the state retreated, this led to a dearth in state hydraulic upkeep. When the state can directly intervene in hydraulic systems then society is ‘open’, mirroring the stable political authority. Paradoxically the opposite is true - the ‘closed’ society concept is that the state cannot intervene in society in terms of hydraulics, and therefore political authority in that region is weak. As A. G. Skinner points out, the society moved from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ to ‘open’. Indeed, in Ming-Qing times in Hunan, there was maximum growth in canals and dams in the sixteenth century, due to ‘open’ state intervention, until a decline and closure in the late sixteenth with the coming about of the Wu Sangui rebellion (1682). By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Hunan was in recession. Notable flooding occurred in the Qing dynasty in 1877 and 1898, when millions of people drowned. This eradicated political authority and caused widespread social upheaval followed by years of privation from lack of infrastructure, a solid agricultural ‘base’ and lack of political authority remaining. The neglect of infrastructure necessitated the start of a new hydraulic cycle, preceded by state intervention and growth again.

The construction of canals and dams led to more agricultural production for the army; there was surplus food for times of famine and the stable maintenance of the political state. This is seen from the 13th century Yuan Dynasty until the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911). One reservoir exceeded 13,000 square miles in Hunan province, and it was this together with other waterway constructions which wrest the silt away from the river and deposited it into low plains which are then canalized6 Shanghai City originally stood on the seashore which has now grown twenty miles northwood5, the silt deposites have created rich fertile habitable land for thirty or forty centuries, on which millions of people have prospered7 These hydraulic systems therefore to a degree alleviated flood problems, creating new land on which people could prosper. During the Qing period, the canals and dams were not maintained, there were great agricultural implications due to flooding which had a direct influence on the political state.

However, maintenance of canals and dams are also due to factors such as, demographic growth and environmental elements. Demographic growth and land clearance of the mid-eighteenth century gave local communities control over their own waterways. These later conflicts over private dikes all cluster in the late Qianlong (1736-1795) and early Jiaqing reigns (1796-1820), due to the floods at Jingzhou and lawsuits over water rights. The demographic increase and land clearance also brought about dike building. Private dike were banned by the state in 1825 8. Landlord and tenants and dike builders were hostile to state intervention because of self interest. Tenants and landlords such as in Lizhou brought lawsuits against government prohibitions, and other dike builders like Shi Zongbang appealed to higher level officials to privatise their own waterways via corruption8. Government officials laid down basic infrastructure of waterways, then retreated to allow private initiative to carry on with occasional subsidies. A stage was reached in the late nineteenth century when local militias took over irrigation relief and famine relief (Kuhn 1970: 137). In the late 19th century militia bureaus established in Xianyin County were organised around polder structures and were given the names of the enclosures with which they were associated (Xiangyin 1881: Juan 1-5, 27). This Gang-warfare hydraulics is evident of the loosening political authority over hydraulics resulting in the Mianyang case and conflicts of up-down stream interest. Those who sought water resources constructed dams and canals resulting in too much or not enough water for those down stream, this resulted in local conflicts. In Xiangyin private dikes were not supervised by officials and this brought about flooding every year8. Polder communities became structures of local administration towards the end of ‘China’s long century’ of unprecedented eighteenth population growth9 . There was evidence of state and local conflict over the building of dykes, indicating resistance to official dike policies10.

In conclusion, there is extensive evidence of hydraulic construction when the political state in China is stable, and lack of hydraulic construction when the political state is weak. However I disagree that the construction of dams and canals was ever decisive for the representation of political auth8ority in China as I propose other factors led to the construction of canals and dams. The argument of ‘Oriental Despotism’ (Wittfogel) seen from 245BCE to the present day is seen as limited by Rowe et al. as the state did not have total power over construction of canals and dams. ‘Hydraulic cycles’ during the Ming and Qing period is evidence of political upheavals. Local leaders often led construction from the mid Qing Dynasty until the twentieth century (seen in Fankou Controversy), as did militias, Gang-war hydraulics and ‘polder communities’11. Moreover, other factors such as demographic increase in the nineteenth century, deforestation and land clearance led to local prosperity and the construction of local canals and dams, limiting the representational impact of the authoritarian political state in building canals and dams12.

(1,692 words including bibliography and footnotes)

1Wittfogel F.G., Oriental Despotism p. 12

2 Cressey G.B., China’s Geographic foundations, p. 284

3 Derk B. Chinese Thought Society and Science 365-367 taken from Dodgen R.A. Controlling the Dragon; Confucian Engineers and the Yellow River in Late Imperial China p. 147

4 Leonard J.K., Controlling from Afar p. 8 taken from Cressey 1934, 43-48; Needham 1971, 208-209, 221-27, 237-41, 242: fig. 69; Tregear 1971, 211-17

5 Rowe W.T., Water Control and the Qing Political Process, The Fankou Dam Controversy 1876-1883 p. 353

6 King F.H., Farmers of Forty Centuries p. 99

7 Ibid., p. 99

8 Cressey G.B., China’s Geographic foundations: A Survey of the Land and Its People, p. 159

9 Perdue P.C., Exhausting the Earth; Sate and Peasant in Hunan, 1500-1850 p. 229

10 Perdue P.C., Water Control in the Dongting Lake Region during Ming and Qing Periods p. 763

11 Perdue P.C., Exhausting the Earth; Sate and Peasant in Hunan, 1500-1850 p. 231 taken from Xiangyin Xiangtuzhi 1881.22.11a

12 Perdue P.C., Water Control in the Dongting Lake Region during Ming and Qing Periods p. 765


Cressey G.B., China’s Geographic foundations: A Survey of the Land and Its People

Dodgen R.A. Controlling the Dragon; Confucian Engineers and the Yellow River in Late Imperial China Honolulu University of Hawaii Press 2001

Dodgen R.A, Hydraulic Religion Modern Asian Studies Oct.1999/815-833

Elvin Retreat of the Elephants yale newHaven2004

King F.H., Farmers of Forty Centuries1911

Leonard J.K., Controlling from Afar ,Michigan,1996

Perdue P.C., Exhausting the Earth; Sate and Peasant in Hunan, 1500-1850 Cambridge,Harvard,1987

Perdue P.C., Water Control in the Dongting Lake Region during Ming and Qing Periods Modern China 16th January 1990:119-29

Perdue P.C Water Control in the Dongting Asian Studies Journal Aug.1982

Rowe W.T., Water Control and the Qing Political Process, The Fankou Dam Controversy Modern China (14th , October 1988):353-87

Sima Qian, “Shi Ji 29: The Treatise on the yellow River and canals,” in Records of the Grand Historian,Hong Kong, New York:Columbia,1961

Wittfogel FG., Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power New Haven:Yale,1957

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