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Controlling the Dragon

Randall A. Dodgen

Publication Year: 2001

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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix

This work has benefited from the suggestions and insights of many people, none of whom bears any responsibility for its shortcomings. Jonathan Spence, Conrad Totman, and Beatrice Bartlett all devoted a great deal of time and energy to directing the research and writing of the early versions of this work. ...

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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 ...

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1. The Evolution of the Yellow River Control System in Late Imperial China, 1495–1835

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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 ...

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2. Rising Waters

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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. ...

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3. Confucian Engineers

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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 ...

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4. The Xiangfu Flood and the Siege of Kaifeng, 1841–1842

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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 ...

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5. The Taoyuan Flood and the Zhongmou Debacle, 1842–1845

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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, ...

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6. A Change of Course, 1844–1855

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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. ...

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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. ...


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pp. 161-222

Character Glossary

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pp. 223-230


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pp. 231-240


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pp. 241-243

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About the Author

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Randall A. Dodgen holds a doctorate in Chinese history from Yale University. He has published on various aspects of the history of the Yellow River, ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780824861995
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824821913

Publication Year: 2001