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  • Mountain Rivers, Mountain Roads: Transport in Southwest China, 1700–1850 by Nanny Kim
  • C. Patterson Giersch (bio)
Mountain Rivers, Mountain Roads: Transport in Southwest China, 1700–1850 By Nanny Kim. Leiden: Brill, 2020. Pp. Xxvi + 622.

With swift rivers and rugged mountains, the Southwest borderlands were considered by Chinese to be a remote, alien, and perhaps inaccessible region. Before 1700, there was little trade with the region. The eighteenth century saw a remarkable transformation. Millions of settlers arrived from eastern China—often violently displacing indigenous communities. By the 1750s, annual exports from the Southwest borderlands to eastern China were almost 200,000 tons of Sichuan rice, 6,000 tons of Yunnan copper and Guizhou zinc, and vast quantities of medicines. Imports included large volumes of cotton and salt. Given the cost of overcoming difficult terrain, how did such robust long-distance trade emerge? In this learned opus, Nanny Kim explains the evolution of the transport industry. The result is a sometimes-stunning peek into the technological, organizational, and social innovations that enabled the Southwest border-land's integration into eastern China's wider trade networks.

The book's first part looks at shipping in the Sichuan Basin, defined as the rivers that flow into the Upper Yangzi. The book then examines overland transportation from Yunnan and Guizhou to the Sichuan Basin in its second part. In both cases, Kim finds "a qualitative transformation in the transport systems," and her carefully-conceived chapters trace those transformations from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth century (p. 484). First, she sets the scene with the in-migration of settlers, first to Sichuan and then to Yunnan after the imperial government slaughtered indigenous communities (ch. 1). The migrants became the producers, consumers, and labor who made commerce possible.

Eighteenth-century migrants encountered the Yangzi's famous Three Gorges stretch, shaped by torrential monsoons that sent landslides tumbling down mountainsides. Deposited into rivers, the debris produced deep holes, swirling currents, and shoals (ch. 2). As settlers opened new lands, they increased the flow of silt into the rivers, an impact intensified by the era's changing climate (ch. 6). To adapt, Sichuan boats were made sturdier for dangerous downriver trips, yet light for the intense upriver hauling. Employing wide-ranging sources, Kim reveals how dynamic technological innovations, from rigging and steering to capacity, produced the trusty mayangzi, a swift-water freighter with watertight holds for valuable cargo (ch. 3). In addition, Kim charts how private or local state interests pursued river engineering and new institutions to improve navigation infrastructure (ch. 6).

Commanding, piloting, or sometimes simply dragging the boats were [End Page 284] diverse professionals, and the book provides an extraordinary glimpse of river society (chs. 4, 5). Skippers owned their boats and earned community respect. Pilots were skilled mariners, specializing in handling tricky rapids. Permanent crewmen were masters of steering and tracking. By stitching together data on riverine livelihoods, Kim argues that—contrary to stereo-type—no jobs were unskilled. Though deeply stratified, river society was not a world of "uncouth male drifters" but "a society of resourceful and well-organized men and women" (p. 229). Organizations included skippers' and trackers' guilds as well as families using multiple strategies to forge a living from the waterways.

Kim then shifts to overland transport, often by mule train, from Yunnan and Guizhou to the Sichuan Basin (ch. 7). She has uncovered the important routes while projecting, in a well-reasoned argument, that eighteenth-century trade volumes were shockingly high—perhaps 20,000 tons annually on the busiest route. Intricate documents on the mint metal transport system reveal that state demand for copper and zinc sparked transformative growth. Responsible for transporting metals within budget, officials invested modestly in roads, bridges, and river engineering (ch. 8). The story is also one of private interests, as the merchants who invested in infrastructure had a greater long-term impact than the government (ch. 9). The evolution of the Southwest borderland's high-volume transport was sparked by the state, as James Lee argues in Zhongguo xinan bianjiang de shehui jingji, 1250–1850 (Renmin, 2012). Yet at the same time, private merchants, animal breeders, and muleteers developed the professional...


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