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  • The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China by Pietz, David A
  • Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley
Pietz, David A. The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 384pp. $39.95 (cloth).

David Pietz has provided the China field with a masterful longue durée examination of the Chinese state’s efforts to manage the Yellow River and maintain ecological and social stability on the densely populated North China Plain. In recent years, scholars such as Randall Dodgen, Ma Junya, Mark Elvin, Ling Zhang, and Christian Lamouroux have published important work on the imperial state’s herculean attempts to control the Yellow River; Pietz’s 2002 book1 and work by Micah Muscolino and Diana Lary have detailed the Nationalist state’s struggles with the Yellow and Huai rivers; and Judith Shapiro and Elizabeth Economy have introduced readers to water-related environmental crises precipitated by Mao-era (1949–᥶) and Reform-era (1978–) policies. In The Yellow River, Pietz cuts across these temporal divides to trace continuity and change in China’s water management from imperial times through the early twenty-first century. Both Mao-era and post-Mao waterscapes, he finds, “have been conditioned by longer-run historical realities and commitments” that will not disappear in the coming decades (3).

To organize his study, Pietz draws on the concept of a “technology complex,” a set of administrative, technological, and cultural tools “employed to achieve a particular goal” (5). After familiarizing readers with key characteristics of the Yellow River and North China Plain in chapter 1, Pietz examines water management in imperial China in chapter 2. He introduces readers to the legend of Yu the Great, which established “controlling the waters” as a key facet of good governance in China and provided historical sanction for controlling rivers via a system of dikes (29, 45). “The choice of a particular technological complex that featured state-supported construction of dikes to constrain the Yellow River to a discrete channel,” argues Pietz, eventually resulted in a “technological ‘lock-in,’” since adopting alternative approaches such as allowing the river to drain across the plain would “generate prohibitively high human and material costs” (22–23). The high silt content of the Yellow River made it difficult to maintain the integrity of the dike system, [End Page 308] however, and managing the river became even more complex after the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) completion of the Grand Canal, which crossed the Yellow River and incorporated part of it as it carried tribute grain from the Yangzi valley to the North China Plain. In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, centralized bureaucratic organizations and individual “water heroes” employed a range of strategies to maintain hydraulic stability, but the resulting large-scale engineering projects had mixed outcomes. Like Lillian M. Li, who found that “the very successes of imperial engineering of the eighteenth century” contributed to the ecological crisis of the nineteenth century by supporting a larger population than North China’s ecology could sustain,2 Pietz judges that Ming-Qing water management practices resulted in “a hydraulic system that could be maintained successfully only at the cost of an ever-greater share of the state’s fiscal and administrative resources” (64). When the beleaguered late Qing state proved unable to uphold its prior commitment to North China’s hydraulic system, the Yellow River breached its dikes in 1855, resulting in a major change of course. That course change, explains Pietz, “prompted a retreat from state management of the rivers of the North China Plain” (67).

Chapter 3, “Transforming the Land of Famine,” explores water management between the course change of 1855 and the reestablishment of strong central control after 1949. Continuities between imperial and Republican-era (1912–᥉) water management, argues Pietz, included the challenges of feeding a growing population and dealing with silt, an abiding faith in “the efficacy of administrative centralization,” and “an acute awareness of the political mandate to reorder the waters” (70, 77). On the other hand, new forces brought by Western hydraulic science and the emergence of the Yellow River as a key symbol of the Chinese nation represented “critical discontinuities...


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pp. 308-311
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