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  • “The Revolt of the Commons”Resilience and Conflicts in the Water Management of the Jianghan Plain in Late Imperial China
  • Yan Gao (bio)


Water control in Chinese history is a long-studied topic, and scholars have applied various theories to understand the relationship between water and society in China.1 One cannot start without mentioning Karl Wittfogel’s theoretical model in Oriental Despotism, according to which one or a few powerful persons at the top of the society were in complete control of hydraulic constructions at the local level.2 He argued that states that were built on the basis of large waterworks, such as China and India, developed permanent despotic systems.3 Scholars have widely criticized the logic and ideological inclination of Wittfogel’s model of “hydraulic states.”4 Anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Stephen Lansing proposed contrasting models of local self-governance in water management. Geertz analyzed two models of water management: the field cultivation of wet rice paddies in Bali, where the irrigation system was largely managed by farmer’s associations called “subaks,” and the dry-weather water management in Morocco, where the emphasis was on private ownership.5 Lansing’s study also asserted the self-governing water management of Balinese local society. He showed that water management, especially the irrigation system in Bali, was organized by “networks of ‘water temples’ that constituted an institutional system separate from the state.”6

In the China studies field, while Wittfogel’s despotic interpretation [End Page 34] has been discredited, much work takes a state-centered approach to analyze water control. Most scholars have focused on the Yellow River, Huai River, Hai River, and the Grand Canal, all of which flow through the longtime political center of China proper, the North China Plain, where drought and flood could affect the ruling legitimacy of imperial dynasties.7 But other scholars have studied locally managed hydraulic systems with vastly different topographical features and climate patterns, such as the water distribution practice among local villages in an arid environment of the Shan-Shaan region in historical and contemporary periods, the overlapping hydraulic drainage systems and ritual alliances in the Putian plain of Fujian Province in late imperial and modern times, and the land reclamation and water control in Hunan inpre-nineteenth-centuryChina.8 While these scholars’ works provide insight into regional hydraulic management, the case of the Jianghan Plain, the alluvial plain at the confluence of the Yangzi and the Han Rivers, is perhaps unique in three aspects: its hydraulic infrastructure and social mechanism from below in dealing with excessive water, the overwhelming reliance on maintenance schemes from below, and the dialectics between state authority and actions from below. Most previous scholarship on the Jianghan Plain focuses on the official main dikes, such as the Wancheng dike (a major section on the Yangzi River), and the Han River long dikes, where the state intervened constantly in dike inspection, dike repairs, and dike funds.9 Analysis of the locally managed hydraulic infrastructure—the yuan, “the self-contained geographical units of the enclosures”—is still lacking. However, it is acknowledged that these “must have had a strong shaping effect on the social communities they contained,” though very little information could be found about the social structure inside each.10 Given the scattered and often-inconsistent information on yuan in the sources, this paper is an attempt to reconstruct and make sense of the narratives on the yuan and local society from a variety of sources and to provide a glimpse of environmental history from below, in the case of the late imperial Jianghan Plain.

This article analyzes water management in the Jianghan Plain, particularly the management of the yuan (the main unit for dike work) and its social and cultural implications in late imperial China. The phrase “the revolt of the commons,” which will provide the framework for this article’s analysis, has three meanings. First, it assumes the discussion [End Page 35] of common-pool resources management and collective actions taking place at the local level.11 The Jianghan Plain is a case in which the local communities established effective institutions to manage water systems and water and land resources and to foster collaborations...


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pp. 34-70
Launched on MUSE
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