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Controlling the Dragon

Controlling the Dragon: Confucian Engineers and the Yellow River in Late Imperial China

Copyright Date: 2001
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    Controlling the Dragon
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6199-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Since earliest times, the Yellow River has twisted and woven its perilous unpredictability into the fabric of China’s cultural and political development. The river’s countless floods enriched and renewed the soil of the great alluvial fan that is the North China Plain, but they also threatened political stability by causing widespread suffering and social turmoil. A government that failed to respond quickly to the people’s suffering would face mass migration, banditry, and perhaps dynastic challengers. Even a strong state could not lightly dismiss the agricultural disruption, reduced tax income, and high cost of dike repair and disaster relief that followed...

  5. 1 The Evolution of the Yellow River Control System in Late Imperial China, 1495–1835
    (pp. 11-26)

    The Yellow River is a restless, unpredictable, and dangerous stream. It has changed course many times since records were first kept, and its countless floods have wrought terrible destruction on the North China region. Yet for all its destructive power, it is not a large river. Its average discharge of 1,365 cubic meters per second (m³/s) is a mere dribble compared to that of a behemoth like the Amazon (180,000 m³/s) or even that of the Mississippi (17,545 m³/s).¹ The Yellow River’s history of destruction arises from two unfortunate characteristics: most famously, the river carries a huge quantity of silt;...

  6. 2 Rising Waters
    (pp. 27-41)

    Two ineluctable realities underlay the engineering crisis of the Yellow River control system in the early nineteenth century: the river’s rising bed and the imperial state’s fiscal difficulties. The conflict between the geologic and the fiscal was mediated, however, by administration and technology. That core conflict was therefore articulated in terms of administrative discipline, fiscal restraint, and technological competence. The oft-cited problems of corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence were less fundamental causes of the crisis than they were the coin of political discourse about how the state could safeguard and best use its resources. As the crisis deepened, those issues influenced...

  7. 3 Confucian Engineers
    (pp. 42-68)

    When the Daoguang emperor took the throne in 1821, he was determined that the incessant flooding of the Yellow River during Jianqing’s reign would not be repeated while he was on the throne. Daoguang set out to restore the system, first allowing hydraulic officials of proven ability to take charge but later raising a new generation of technical experts to top posts. For the hydraulic officials placed in charge of Yellow River control in the 1830s, Li Yumei in Henan and Linqing in Jiangsu, the dilemmas of late imperial river control represented a promising but risky career opportunity. Technical mastery...

  8. 4 The Xiangfu Flood and the Siege of Kaifeng, 1841–1842
    (pp. 69-106)

    The fall of 1841 marked a calamitous turn in Daoguang’s reign. Both the emperor and the British home government rejected the treaty agreement reached in January to end what turned out to be only the first phase of the Opium War (1839–1842). In August Sir Henry Pottinger arrived in China to prosecute the second phase of Britain’s campaign. While the British were preparing attacks on targets around the Yangzi River delta, the Henan provincial capital, Kaifeng, was subjected to a siege of a different sort. During the night of August 2, 1841, the Yellow River broke through its southern...

  9. 5 The Taoyuan Flood and the Zhongmou Debacle, 1842–1845
    (pp. 107-135)

    The Qing river officials understood that Yellow River floods often came in series.¹ In the wake of a flood, sedimentation raised the bed of the river and reduced the holding capacity of the area between the dikes. Although river officials carried out extensive dredging in the dry downstream bed, those measures were aimed at deepening the channel or cutting across meander loops to facilitate the flow. Little could be done to remove the millions of tons of silt deposited in other parts of the riverbed. When the river returned to its old course, it did so at a time when...

  10. 6 A Change of Course, 1844–1855
    (pp. 136-144)

    In spite of the costs—both fiscal and administrative—of the Zhongmou debacle, it was still seen only as a setback. Questions of delay and issues of construction and funding aside, there was no real alternative to completing the repairs. In August of 1844, preparation began again for closing the breach. A comprehensive estimate called for shifting the “golden gate” to a site east of the earlier location and building 650 meters of repair dike.¹

    The report was also blunt about the need for a secondary dike(erba)to prevent a repeat of the earlier collapse: “Last winter the project...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 145-160)

    The construction of the Grand Canal in the Yuan dynasty and the Ming decision to confine the Yellow River to its southern channel for the sake of inland grain transport together created the conditions for a complex interaction between the river, the state, and the bureaucracy—an interaction that changed all three. Two views of the relationship between the state and the river have prevailed. One treats the river as a perennial problem responsive to efficient management. From that perspective, Yellow River floods were the product of administrative laxity, corruption, and imperial inflexibility, and the river’s change of course in...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 161-222)
  13. Character Glossary
    (pp. 223-230)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-240)
  15. Index
    (pp. 241-244)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-246)