5/16/11 - "china's sorrow" and the grand canal

In today's excerpt - for more than a thousand years, China has generally been the largest kingdom or country in the world—both in the size of its population and its geography. This can be attributed to its large, continuous landmass—as evidenced by the very high ratio of land to coastline (the very opposite of Europe), but also by its unparalleled achievement in building the Grand Canal. The total length of the Grand Canal is 1,776 kilometers, and it connects China's two great rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze, as it travels from Beijing to the city of Hangzhou near the port city of Shanghai. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century BC, although the various sections were finally combined during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE). The Canal was one of the achievements that led China to being perceived as "the most precocious preindustrial civilization in world history":

"The outstanding, transformational event that catapulted Chinese civilization above all its contemporaries, and marked one of water history's turning points, was the completion in the early seventh century AD of the Grand Canal—still mankind's longest artificial waterway, extending over a distance equal to that between New York and Florida. The south-north-running canal linked China's two disparate, giant river systems and habitats to create the world's largest inland waterway transportation network. Just as the Nile had unified Upper and Lower Egypt, China became integrated into a militarily defensible nation-state with a strong, centralized government that commanded an expansive diversity of highly productive economic resources. The Grand Canal played a catalytic role not only in China's becoming the world's most precocious civilization during the Middle Ages but also in the country's fateful fifteenth-century decision to turn its back on the rest of the world that ultimately led to its prolonged, slow decline.

"The Grand Canal was so successful because it bridged China's underlying hydrological fault line: north China's chronic insufficiency of accessible freshwater resources to fully irrigate its superabundance of rich soil to achieve its maximum food-growing potential, and south China's opposite profile of having more water than could be productively employed on its less fertile soils. Managing this north-south water and land resource mismatch has been a recurring, central technical and political challenge of Chinese governance in every era since imperial times.

"Both the 3,400-mile-long Yellow and the 3,915-mile-long Yangtze originated in the Tibetan plateau in the Himalayas. Beyond that their signature flows and environmental characteristics diverged sharply. The Yellow was shallow and by far the world's siltiest river—30 times siltier than the Nile and nearly three times more than the famously muddy Colorado River. A dipperful of its water was commonly said to contain 70 percent mud. It was the rapid buildup of eroded silt from the loess plateaus that caused the Yellow to frequently overflow its banks in unpredictable, devastating floods across its lower plains. So many millions perished and lost their livelihoods in these fearsome floods over the centuries that the river became known as 'China's Sorrow.' Its greatest floods—some carving new paths as far as 500 miles away to the Yellow Sea—repeatedly fomented political and economic upheavals throughout Chinese history. Building tens of thousands of miles of levees to try to contain the Yellow within its banks, and rebuilding them after the inevitable failures, was thus always a top political priority of every Chinese dynasty.

"The huge Yangtze, by contrast, carried some 15 times more water than the Yellow, with deep navigable channels and many large tributaries that made it an ideal transport highway for large vessels once its waters had descended the mountains and wound its way through its deep canyons and gorges to enter its enormous lower basin and swampy delta. The Yangtze's seasonal monsoon floods regularly inundated the region; every half century or so, however, the combined rush of descending water and the engorged flow from its tributaries created giant waves that overwhelmed all man-made flood control infrastructure and resulted in devastating floods. When China's climate was moister in ancient times, the central section of the Yangtze had been a gigantic swamp, far too wet to sustain large-scale civilized human settlement.

"Gradual desiccation, and Chinese advances in water redirection, terracing, drainage, and other wet rice irrigation techniques gradually transformed the region into prosperous farmland. By medieval times it was producing the greater part of China's food, with rice surpluses distributed along its extensive tributary network and to the Yellow River region in the north via the Grand Canal and coastal sea routes. Political control of the 'golden waterway' of the Yangtze thus joined flood control as a vital linchpin of Chinese power. So closely correlated was river management and governing power that the very Chinese character for 'politics' is derived from root words meaning flood control."


Steven Solomon


Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2010 by Steven Solomon


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