The Water Regime in China

A review of Transformation of the Water Regime: State, Society and Ecology of the Jianghan Plain in Late Imperial and Modern China, by Yan Gao.

In late imperial and modern China, hydraulic systems regularly became sites of conflict among various parties over the control of natural resources. In her dissertation, Yan Gao brings attention to how three entities—the state, local society, and the environment—all played roles in the contentious transformations of the water regime of the Jianghan Plain, a flood-prone region of marshes, lakes, and rivers along the middle reaches of the Yangzi River in Hubei province. Building upon earlier studies of water control in the Jianghan region by Peter Perdue, Pierre-Etienne Will, and others, Gao’s research examines the history of yuan 垸, riverine or lacustrine dikes which enclosed agricultural land, regulated irrigation, and withheld floodwaters. By tracing the development of yuan from the late Ming era to the mid-twentieth century, she weaves two interconnected stories. The first is a declensionist narrative of ecological exhaustion. Over the long term, population growth drove the multiplication of yuan, a process which expanded the acreage of rice at the expense of wetlands, floodplains, and waterways, and diminished the resilience of the human-manipulated environment. The second is the story of the state’s relative lack of success in controlling the development of the water regime in the Jianghan Plain. Despite the gradual incorporation of yuan as administrative units into the state’s system of governance, extraction, and planning, local communities which coalesced around yuan retained varying degrees of autonomy in managing water resources throughout the Qing and Republican eras.

Chapter 1 introduces the historical development of yuan in the Jianghan Plain. Yuan were first built during the Southern Song (1126-1279) as part of a strategy to settle military colonies in the region, but they became increasingly common only in the sixteenth century. Their growth brought more land under cultivation and created conditions for the formation of yuan communities. Borrowing a term from David Bello’s recent work (“The Cultured Nature of Imperial Foraging in Manchuria,” Late Imperial China 31.2 [Dec 2010], pp. 1-33), Gao describes yuan as structures of “cultured nature” (p. 44) because they developed through constant, long-term interaction between humans and the natural environment, and because they had overlapping environmental and social functions. While yuan were physical structures of the hydrological and agricultural landscape, they also became “socially managed relational space[s]” (p. 62) in which people developed patterns of cooperation, collective decision-making, and communal devotion to water deities in response to the ever-present threat of flooding.

Chapter 2 examines the autonomy of yuan communities in the early Qing period. During the reign of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722), the state—by which Gao means the “bureaucracy above and including the provincial level” (p. 99)—dealt with water control and yuan communities in the Jianghan Plain using a “laissez-faire approach” (p. 98). Imperial temperament and environmental obstacles were behind the state’s de facto policy of non-intervention. The Kangxi emperor embraced a “non-governing strategy” (p. 111), and the region’s frequent flooding and complex hydromorphology made anything but local hydrological planning very difficult. It was in this period of relative autonomy that yuan communities regularly developed institutionalized systems of governance, including procedures for electing leaders and resolving disputes. But efficient local governance did not last, and “local institutions gradually lost their effectiveness as the ecological system lost its sustainability” (p. 129). By the early eighteenth century, extensive yuan construction and land reclamation for commercial rice production had begun to undermine the resilience of the Jianghan environment and threaten the cohesion and stability of existing yuan communities.

For a brief period in the mid-eighteenth century, the Qing state adopted a “proto-conservationist” (p. 174) approach to ecological problems in the Jianghan Plain. The Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-95) issued orders to limit reclamation and turn some yuan land back into lakes. But the real story of this period, as Chapter 3 shows, was how the state’s retreat from conservation and its renewed support for agricultural development exemplified the growing correlation between ethnic identity and access to natural resources. Concerned with social stability and tax revenues more than with ecological stability, the Qing state promoted land reclamation by Han migrants in lowlands and floodplains even in places where Manchu and Mongol bannermen had used those lands to pasture their horses. Insofar as horses were symbols of Manchu identity and tools of their military power, the state’s policy pitted the interests of Han agriculturalists against those of the Manchu bannermen. In supporting the reclamation of horse pastureland, the state sided with Han peasants even though it meant the destruction of an important ecological basis of Manchu identity. This policy was one reason why the horse population at Hubei’s Jingzhou banner garrison had fallen by over eighty percent by the end of the nineteenth century.

The decline of Manchu military power shifted the onus for organizing defense to yuan communities. Chapter 4 examines how the Qing policy of “mass militarization” (p. 209), which propelled local initiatives to build highland forts and form community militias, altered the social and natural landscape of the Jianghan Plain. As local gentry mobilized resources and manpower to raise defenses against Taiping rebels in the mid-nineteenth century, they neglected to maintain dikes and hydraulic systems. This neglect weakened the resilience of Jianghan’s water regime and made the region more prone to flooding, drought, and famine. Although the Qing state could neither subsidize yuan maintenance nor protect Jianghan’s fragile water regime, the degree of state intervention into local society actually increased as the state began to use yuan as administrative units for the purpose of tax collection. Militarization thus led to seemingly contradictory outcomes: as physical structures of the landscape, yuan deteriorated, but as social spaces, yuan became important sites of state extraction.

State officials in the late Qing and Republican eras debated how to transform crumbling water control systems, but as Chapter 5 demonstrates, their strategies for controlling the water regime in the Jianghan Plain were often unsuccessful. As they witnessed frequent natural disasters and an upsurge in “conflicts over land and water” (p. 286), officials sought to increase the state’s oversight of hydrological planning and maintenance despite the lack of funding and the general weakness of state institutions. By the 1930s, Nationalist officials were employing the tools of modern science to develop a master plan to unify the nation’s hydrological systems and to bring administrative coherence to Jianghan’s yuan landscape. Their plans were stalled by the more immediate state concerns of dealing with water disasters and fighting against the Japanese and the communists. But even more significant for the general failure of state intervention in this period was the fact that yuan communities were able to resist or manipulate state attempts at bureaucratization. Local gentry, county officials, and peasants often successfully resorted to violence or litigation to block hydraulic mandates from above and to thwart attempts by neighboring communities to encroach upon local water resources.

The Epilogue explains how policies of the early People’s Republic of China thoroughly reorganized the water regime of the Jianghan Plain. In the 1950s, the new state used campaigns of mass mobilization to reclaim land, fight schistosomiasis, and build new dikes and dams. Strong state intervention in this period undercut the social and environmental functions of yuan and brought hydrological systems fully under the control of state planners.

Gao’s analysis of the long history of yuan in the Jianghan Plain is an insightful contribution to the field of Chinese environmental history. By showing the unsettling ecological consequences of widespread yuan construction and massive land reclamation in the mid-Qing period, her research adds evidence to the claims of Robert Marks, Lillian Li, and other historians that Chinese society was facing an ecological crisis by the nineteenth century. Her work also offers a perceptive explanation of the role of the state in managing natural resources. Far from being a myopic agent of environmental exploitation for short-term gain, the state was in fact “moderately tactical in managing resources and reasonably concerned about the non-human ecological system, but it often had to compromise” (p. 349). By contrast, it was the local stewards of water control and the agrarian settlers moving into the Jianghan Plain who were largely responsible for the uncontrolled growth of yuan and the ecological instability that resulted.

Peter Lavelle
Visiting Assistant Professor of History
Centre College

Primary Sources

Provincial, prefectural, and county gazetteers from Hubei
First Historical Archives of China
Hubei Provincial Archives
Veritable Records of the Qing Dynasty
Nineteenth-century statecraft compilations (e.g. Huangchao jingshi wenbian)

Dissertation Information

Carnegie Mellon University. 2012. 389pp. Primary Advisor: Donald Sutton


Image: confluence of the Han and the Yangzi rivers (1733) (Siku quanshu)

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