Book Review: The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History

Mostern, Ruth. The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Yale University Press, 2021) hard cover.

It was once called the Great River, and flowed clear. Over time, human use, climate shifts, and political responses to floods and droughts led to the river becoming the Yellow River, sometimes called China’s Sorrow. How this happened is a story as convoluted as the river’s floodplains, and a fascinating lesson in parts vs the whole, and the limits of human power. People and water, and silt and sand, worked together to destabilize the great river over the course of a thousand years.

Asian environmental history has been relatively under-studied, in part because of problems with language, in part because of the enormous spans of time involved. European environmental history is easier to divide, and the archaeological pieces are gathered into tidier “heaps” of sources, so to speak. Only within the past 20 years or so have many works about the environmental history of China been published. This book builds on several classic works of that history, and expands the time-span of the history of the Yellow River.

Mostern argues that while climate shifts and weather pattern changes played a role in the changes observed in the Yellow River watershed, human activity played a far greater role, especially after roughly the year AD 600 CE. Differences in priorities between imperial governments and local officials, plus the focus on relatively free-market development and agriculture, led to Han Chinese culture expanding into regions not suited for intensive farming. By 1855, the Yellow River had become unusuable and impossible to manage (given the finances and technologies of the time), and what had once been a fertile and prosperous region turned into a salty, gravel and sand-choked series of barrens and wetlands. The Loess Plateau in the bend of the Yellow River transformed with ever-increasing speed from grasslands and mixed forests to a rugged, eroded near-desert that sent millions of tons of sediment to cover the floodplain downstream.

Warfare caused much of the damage to the ecosystem of the upper Yellow River, but stable imperial regimes could be just as bad for the environment. The region is one of conflicts – hot and cold air masses, desert winds and tropical moisture, herders and farmers, imperial centralization and tribal societies. Competing armies stripped the land of forests and grass, and the soldier-farmers of Imperial China denuded the land to build walls and grow food for their own survival. When the nomads chased the Han back to the river and farther south, they too removed forest cover, although long stable periods did allow for regrowth of grass and trees. Sometimes. The development of iron-bladed plows and intensive farming technologies caused further, faster, erosion. Demand for fuel and building wood in peace time as well as war devoured more and more forests, causing more erosion and more flooding downstream.

Some observers saw what was happening and argued that the erosion and loss of ground cover needed to stop at the source. When the capital city remained in the upper Yellow River, the government seemed—sometimes—more interested in considering those ideas. But once the government moved downstream, the focus shifted to coping with the results of the problem, not the sources. Huge floods in 1048 and other years devoured tens of thousands of farmland, displaced millions, and drained the imperial treasury. Only the Grand Canal made it possible to feed and supply Peking/Beijing as the land around it turned sandy and salty from inundation and sediment dumping. In 1885, efforts to keep the Grand Canal open failed, and sea transport became the only to move food to the city. Southern China refused to pay for the problems of the Yellow River.

The book is very well written with excellent illustrations, tables, and a long appendix of methodologies. It helps to have a background in overall Chinese history, but that is not needed. A bit of hydrology helps even more, otherwise the learning curve might be a touch steep in the introduction and first chapter. I found the book an easy read, but one with lots and lots to ponder and mull over. The author is even handed in her approach – people can’t know what they can’t know, and the imperial hydrocrats’ priorities made sense to them. They lacked the tools and the resources to see the entire watershed as a whole. Those who did pull back to see the larger picture lacked the will to sacrifice the imperial capital to floods in order to pour resources into the upstream lands.

The author’s use of some terms struck me as odd, enough so that it pushed me out of the story a few times. I disagree with using the term “Anthropocene,” although in this case there is some logic to it, given the importance of human influences on the life of the river. Other usages were literally correct, but jarring, almost as if the author were not a native speaker. I do not know, and it does not affect the overall readability and quality of the book.

I recommend the book to historians of water, historians of China, people interested in the interactions of government and the physical environment, and conservationists. The idea that “the problems caused by central control can be fixed by central control” rings all too true in the West today. I am reminded of an interview I did with a farmer about flooding on a small river. He shrugged and said, “Rivers flood. That’s what rivers do.” People can try to work around, with, or against floods and droughts, but only by looking at the watershed as a while, rather than reach by reach. This is an excellent addition to the literature in several disciplines.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation or remuneration for this review.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History

  1. That would be an interesting read for historical purposes, if I were writing something that included that area/time period.

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