Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, History

Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China (Forthcoming 2017)

Photo by: Felix Wong.

Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China won’t publish in North America until March of 2017, but the book is already making waves (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) in the UK, where it was recently profiled by the Economist:

THE Chinese mental compass is oriented not north-south as with the rest of the world, but west-east—a consequence of tectonic forces that threw up mountains in inner Asia from which rivers seek a course down through China to the sea. “Twisting around ten thousand times but always going eastward,” said Confucius: it seemed a law of nature. Philip Ball argues in his new book, “The Water Kingdom”, that the two greatest waterways, the Yellow river that flows across the north China plain and the Yangzi that charges through the heart of the country, are both “symbols of the nation” and, for millennia, have been the “keys to its fate.” . . .

Nearly all cultures have flood myths and legends. China’s are unusual in that at the heart of them are the engineering challenges of flood control. The first attempts to tame the Yellow river are ancient; the huge Three Gorges dam, which a decade ago turned a fast-flowing stretch into a reservoir the size of Lake Superior, is just the latest scheme.

Mr Ball argues that “whatever one might think of China’s mega-engineering schemes, doing nothing is not an alternative.” Indeed, his book, a rewarding read, is at its most fascinating when describing how in China the laws of nature seem to have embedded in them a moral precept. Success or failure in flood control and irrigation can furnish or remove the Mandate of Heaven. The Yellow river catastrophe of 1887 was seen as evidence that the Qing, the last dynasty, was losing its mandate. When Chiang Kai-shek caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Chinese by ordering a breach of the same river’s dykes in an effort to avoid defeat by the Japanese in 1938, it was grist to the Chinese Communists’ claims that the Nationalists were unfit to rule.

If heaven’s mandate comes from controlling the waters, might the demands of hydrology, including the need for considerable resources and legions of workers for flood control and irrigation, have created the highly centralised, authoritarian states of Chinese dynastic rule, the Communists’ one included?

To read more about The Water Kingdom, click here.