Book Review: The River, the Plain, and the State

Zhang, Ling. The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) Print edition.

Chinese imperial management of water has been one of the critical keys to following the history of imperial after the Zhou Dynasty. Some of the bedrock work in US environmental history took as its starting point Karl Wittfogel’s “Hydraulic empire” thesis, looking at state control of water and society and how that relates to the development of both the US government and the American West. Because Chinese records are so copious, a lot of work can and has been done looking at how the Chinese lived with and coped with their major rivers and the hydraulic “systems” that developed over thousands of years. This book focuses on a small space in time and shows how the complicated interactions of state, environment, and society caused, then reacted to, and were shaped by, the Yellow River changing course between 1048 and 1128.

Ling Zhang’s work fills a gaping hole in the scholarship of water-history and of Song Dynasty China. In the process the author challenges a number of traditional views on “hydraulic societies” and the general scholarly view of late Northern Song Dynasty China. In so doing, the author provides an excellent foundation for further research, and may (I believe should) spark re-assessments of how we approach water-history. However, the book suffers from several weaknesses, some of which may be more editorial than authorial.

Zhang’s argument is that the Yellow River floods of 1048-1128 were the result of a series of long-term interactions between humans, their physical environment, and the growing Chinese state, in Heibei Provence and farther upstream. State choices about land use and flood control, when combined with environmental shifts and river hydrology, led to massive floods that changed the course of the Yellow River for eighty years, devastating Hebei. Hebei changed from being a peripheral borderland into the central focus of late Northern Song governmental expenditure and policy, until the state collapsed with the Jurchen invasion and the subsequent shift of the river south, into the Yellow Sea. The environmental results of that eighty-year period remain a problem for the region to this day, and caused terrible human suffering for hundreds of years after the river shifted to the south and left Hebei once more.

The book presents the complexities of water, land, society, philosophy, and economics well, drawing on Chinese primary sources from the period and after, as well as environmental studies and later observations and analyses. When the author tells the river’s story, and the people’s story, Zhang does a very good job using the available material to its limits. Zhang also avoids the easy temptation to blame the Song court for not doing more, or for doing too much. There’s no 20/20 hindsight condemnation, as some historians have been tempted to do. Eighty years of constant crisis and devastation would be impossible for a modern government to cope with, even given our technology levels. Why should the Song Chinese be blamed for trying everything they knew in order to protect at least something, and to keep from tempting the barbarians just north of the border into taking advantage of the unfolding chaos?

The book’s weaknesses are two-fold. One is the occasional awkward word usage and editorial choice that pops the reader out of the story. To refer to the bed of a river or canal as “the river’s waterbed” sounds odd at best, and unintentionally funny. Other similar usages and literalisms could have been edited out without hurting the book or masking the author’s “voice.”

The other weakness lies in abrupt interjections of theoretical material and discussions, as well as clumsy transitions between sections and chapters. Granted, this is a first book, and one by a non-native English speaker, and a little awkwardness is to be expected. Fitting theory smoothly into a historical study is challenging, and Zhang does a decent job, but things could be a little less abrupt. The discussions of the “trialectic” and using it as a shorthand for complexity feels a bit forced, although the author’s idea of a “hydraulic model of consumption” as opposed to “hydraulic empire” and other older models is well worth looking at and testing for applicability in other times and places. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers would be an excellent place to apply this idea, given the intertwined physical, legal, cultural, and governmental forces and philosophies, as would the Rhine and Nile.

More maps would be useful, although those in the book are quite good. Some topo maps would help, as would a precipitation map. I’d also like to see a few soil-profiles, to get a sense of just how much sediment was dumped, and how much soil has built up over the flood levels.

The extensive bibliography includes all the major works in the field, and it is obvious that the author is familiar with them, and has considered their arguments.

This is a valuable book for those looking at how states tried to manipulate their environments, especially in the pre-modern era. It was not only western states that inadvertently unleashed environmental problems through good intentions. This study also raises questions about how much the state was willing to sacrifice its residents for the good of the dynasty, and exposes some of the less ideal effects of neo-Confucian thought when used in government. It is technical, and a bit tedious in places, and lacks human stories that would flesh-out the tale of disaster and environmental upset. Those human-interest sources do not exist, and the author is careful to direct readers to later accounts that provide a sense of the human cost of Yellow River floods.

It is not for a reader looking for an interesting read about the flood. As a historian, I recommend it highly and look forward to the author’s future works. As a general reader, I’d suggest getting it from the library if a non-specialist is really determined to give it a try, and to skim the theoretical passages.

FTC NOTE: I purchased this book for my own personal use and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.