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

Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom

Below follows an excerpt from Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China,
first posted at Lapham’s Quarterly.


One seems to have little choice but to retain the outmoded name for the Yangtze when discussing it in English; the modern Pinyin transliteration Yangzi feels somehow pedantically perverse. The name is in any event only a local one, derived from the ancient and now mostly forgotten fiefdom of Yang and strictly applying only to the last 300 kilometers. This was the entire “Yangtze” to the first Western travelers, since they rarely got much further upriver.

The Chinese people do not use those names. There are local names for each stretch of the river, but the full channel, cutting the country in half geographically, climatically and culturally, is simply the Chang Jiang, the Long River. It is the longest in all of China, 6,380 kilometers from the source in a glacier lake to the great delta on the coast beyond Shanghai, where the alluvium pushes out into the sea and adds steadily to China’s vast surface area. “A China without such an immense torrent at its heart is almost impossible to contemplate,” says the writer Simon Winchester. Even this understates the matter. Without the Yangtze, China would not be the nation it is today. Time and again, the river has determined the nation’s fate, whether that is by presenting a barrier to barbarian conquest, or a transport network, or a conduit for foreign invasion, or a source of fertility, flood, and revolutionary fervor. Many pivotal battles in Chinese history took place on the middle reaches. The Yangtze cliffs provide the backdrop to the classic Sanguo yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) from the early Ming period, one of Mao Zedong’s favorite books, in which the river hosts allegedly the biggest naval battle in history. The Yangtze was the artery of conquest and dominance when the British gunships humiliated the Qing emperor in the mid-nineteenth century, and again when the Japanese invaded in the 1930s: steadily pushing upriver from Shanghai to Nanjing and then Wuhan, they forced Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists to relocate the government right back beyond the Three Gorges in Chongqing.

China is cloven in two by the Long River, and the two halves could seem like separate nations: the north cold and dry, the south hot and wet. In the north you eat wheat noodles; in the south, rice. Northerners, it is said, are tall and haughty, whether eastern Manchurian stock or Islamic Uyghurs to the west. The southerners, in contrast, are earthy, pragmatic, always on the make, a patchwork of minority races and mutually incomprehensible dialects. That division—decreed by nature, patrolled by the Yangtze—establishes the defining tension within the nation, in which the question is how unity can persist in the face of such a disparity of the most fundamental resource, water. Such stereotypical polarities do scant justice to the bewildering variety of China, of course, but they serve as crude shorthand for the contrasts that you find once you cross the Yangtze.


To read more about The Water Kingdom, click here.