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  • An Intermittent Order Contrived on SandManaging Water Siltage, Locusts, and Cultivators on the Lower Yangzi in the Early 1800s
  • David A. Bello (bio)

Introduction: The Natural Limits on Water Control

Beneath the surface of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1912), lies a riverbed. The Yangzi River, often referred to in Chinese somewhat archetypally as “the great river” (da jiang 大江), formed a major agricultural and commercial artery of imperial China by the sixth century. By the Qing period Asia’s longest river had become the agrocommercial pulse of the empire. As might be expected of a river whose delta region (Jiangnan 江南) was the wealthiest and most densely populated area of Qing China’s roughly 400 million people, the Yangzi has been subject to vast international scholarly attention from numerous disciplinary perspectives.1

This paper will focus narrowly on a single case study from a very small and sandy portion of the river’s lower reaches, which comprise “only” about 900 of its 6,300 kilometers and center administratively on its core region of Jiangsu Province. During the 1820s and 1830s, senior provincial administrators were vexed with the human problems that arose from the unstable ecological dynamics of sand-flat (shatian 沙 田) siltage along this stretch of the great river. Cultural interdependency with ecological systems produced environmental relationships that were not entirely under state water control (shuili 水利), the key strategy [End Page 14] to shift water to nurture agriculture throughout China’s imperial period. Yangzi flows assembled and disassembled variably arable sand flats over which common Qing subjects fought and schemed to attach themselves under the noses of local officials who had limited authority over the combined force of people and water. Sand flats constituted the ground of this environmental resistance to state water control.

The standard English translation of the term shuili as “water control” can create a false impression that imperial China was effectively master of its domain’s complex hydrological cycle. Full control over the circulation of water between earth and sky would, however, require the Qing to supervise the East Asian Monsoon, the Chinese cycle’s main manifestation, as well as keep tabs on the Pacific Ocean, which has a major influence on regional climate, especially along the coasts. The flat, water-logged lower Yangzi delta’s elevation, 75 percent of which is only two to seven meters above sea level, unavoidably exposes it to extreme Pacific El Niño flooding and drought. The region is also a confluence for subtropical and temperate air masses that tend to unload 40 percent of the region’s mean annual precipitation of 1,235 mm in the summer monsoon season. During the so-called Little Ice Age (1500–1850) that spanned most of the Qing period, such extreme weather fluctuations between flood and drought may even have been exacerbated.2

So human control of water was, and still is, quite provisional. It would, consequently, be more accurate to translate shuili as “water modification,” or more literally as “water exploitation.” Such terms, however, still imply that humans were in charge to an unrealistic degree, especially given the fact that their object of control or modification or exploitation was, and remains, a complex, nonequilibrium system. Under such conditions there is “no [entirely] straightforward relationship between people and environment in the processes of environmental change. Environments are dynamically and recursively created in a nonlinear, nondeterministic and contingent fashion.”3 This does not mean that there is no pattern amenable to human influence but that such influence cannot be sustained indefinitely and predictably to arrest systemic change.

Shuili as “water control,” however, has been conventionally assumed by historians and administrators to be a method of approaching just such a suspension of environmental change in order to maintain an agricultural equilibrium or steady state.4 Although often rhetorically [End Page 15] acknowledging the importance of ecological factors in commonsense terms, many analyses tend to assume that human agency can assert control over water, social circumstances alone permitting. One important and representative study of the Yellow River, for example, explicitly rejects the significance of ecological factors to conclude that human administrative, technical, and economic limitations caused the loss of control over the river, culminating in...


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pp. 14-33
Launched on MUSE
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