Struggling with Nature and the State: The Chinese People and the Yellow River
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Struggling with Nature and the State:
The Chinese People and the Yellow River
The Ecology of War in China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1938–1950 by Micah S. Muscolino. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii + 294. $88.00 cloth, $29.99 paper, $44.00 e-book.
The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China by David A. Pietz. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 367. $39.95.
The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048–1128 by Ling Zhang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xix + 318. $99.99 cloth, $80.00 e-book.

The Yellow River: the best of rivers, the worst of rivers. The source of vital irrigation waters and fertile soil for millions of peasant farmers in north China; their scourge, too, repeatedly flooding their homes and ruining their fields. A target of intervention by Chinese rulers, who regarded the control of water as essential to preserving their rule; also a military weapon that they used to make war on rivals. And last but not least, a giant natural system, connecting upland forests, loess soil, and rainfall from central Eurasia with lowland deltas and the Chinese coast, but one subject to breakdowns producing repeated ecological and human disasters. It is not called China’s Sorrow without reason. [End Page 153]

These three books, examining the Yellow River from the eleventh to the twenty-first centuries, share a common focus on the river itself, the states that attempted to control it, and the north Chinese farmers who have lived in its shadow. They encompass wartime conflict, population growth, land clearance, economic change, and catastrophic disasters. This grand river system deserves multiple treatments, so even these three major books do not exhaust the subject. But each author takes a distinctive approach toward the subject’s time frame, spatial extent, state policies, and social history.

Ling Zhang examines a short period during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the Yellow River shifted its course northward, from a channel roughly equal to the current border of Hebei and Henan, to a course crossing the north China plain. In 1048, when the river inundated the north, the Song saved its regime temporarily from Liao invasion, but after 1125, the Jurchen Jin dynasty overthrew the Liao and drove the Song out of north China. In 1128 the river shifted back to the south, where it has remained ever since. During this shift, millions of peasants suffered dislocation, drowning, and starvation, while the Song state prosecuted war against the Liao regime.

Zhang shows through careful detective work that the Song state deliberately induced the river to move north, using it as a military weapon against the Liao armies to the northeast. The ineffectiveness of this tactic led to intensive debates over water-control policy among contending elites at the Song court. Some advised returning the river to its original course, while others proposed to channel it in the putative direction established by the great sage Yu 禹 in ancient times, as represented on the famous twelfth-century “Map of the Tracks of Yu” (Yujitu 禹迹圖), which is reproduced on the cover of Zhang’s book. To enact its unprecedented plan to weaponize water, the Song state exacted a huge toll from the environment and the laboring people of Hebei. Meanwhile, the river itself, having a mind of its own, continued to meander across the flat landscape, eventually returning to its original bed. The Jin invasion and the southern shift of the river closed this chapter of wayward rivers, destitute farmers, and vacillating officials.

From this relatively brief and little-known incident, Zhang draws large implications. Employing the concepts of the cultural geographers Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja—who describe the epistemology of space in terms of interactions between lived, perceived, and conceived [End Page 154] spatiality—she develops a “trialectical” model of mutually interacting natural processes, state decisions, and ordinary life. 1 Zhang does not focus, as other scholars have done, on the internal political debates and fiscal policies that affected river management. 2 Her work takes a truly environmental perspective, masterfully linking water flows, human action...