The Yellow River has long been viewed as a symbol of China's cultural and political development, its management traditionally held as a gauge of dynastic power. For centuries, the country's early rulers employed a defensive approach to the river by building dikes and diversion channels to protect fields and population centers from flooding. This situation changed dramatically after the Yuan (1260-1368) emperors constructed the Grand Canal, which linked the North China Plain and the capital at Beijing with the Yangtze Valley. One of the most ambitious imperial undertakings of any age, by the turn of the nineteenth century the water system had become a complex network of locks, spillways, and dikes stretching eight hundred kilometers from the mountains in western Henan to the Yellow Sea. Controlling the Dragon examines Yellow River engineering from two perspectives. The first looks at long-term efforts to manage the river starting in the early Ming dynasty, at the nature of the bureaucracy created to do the job, and finally focuses on two of the Confucian engineers who served successfully in the decade before the system was abandoned. In the second section, the author chronicles a series of dramatic floods in the 1840s and explores the way politics, environment, and technology interacted to undermine the state's commitment to the Yellow River control system.
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