Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: From the sixth century B.C. on, “the governments of the various states began to devote increased attention to massive public works. Among these were large-scale dams and canals, which improved agricultural productivity, transportation for commerce, and the ability to move troops in times of war. The earliest of these projects that can be dated with certainty is the construction in stages of a massive canal, undertaken by the government of Wu, a southeastern state on the north bank of the lower Yangzi, whose population was considered non-Chinese until midway through the Spring and Autumn period.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“In the early years of the fifth century, the ruling house of Wu capped a rapid rise to power by seizing the hegemonic leadership of the patrician lords. As part of this political process, Wu began work, in 486 B.C., on a massive canal, designed to link the waters of the Yangzi with those of the Huai River, which lay north, midway between the Yangzi and the Yellow River. Four years later, this canal was extended further north to reach waterways in the smaller states of Song and Lu, at which point a navigable route existed linking the Yangzi to the Yellow River. While the motive for this canal system was chiefly military, its benefits for agriculture and commerce were far greater. The artificial waterways it created provided irrigation that improved existing fields in some places, and allowed new lands to be opened to cultivation in others. Its military success was limited – as we have seen, the state of Wu was annihilated by its neighbor to the south, Yue, in 473 B.C., less than ten years after the completion of the system. /+/

Dams and Flood Control in Ancient China

Dr. Eno wrote: “Dams had been a feature of the Chinese landscape for centuries, particularly in the flood plain of the Yellow River, where catastrophic floods periodically laid waste to vast regions of farming. From the late Spring and Autumn period on, the increases in corvée labor available for massive public works projects led states to address this sort of problem more comprehensively than in the past – not, for the most part, cooperatively, but rather as one aspect of increasing political competition. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Along the lower reaches of the Yellow River, the state of Qi, which extended east from the geographically lower southeast bank, constructed a great dike about eight miles to the east, greatly reducing flood damage. The states of Zhao and Wei, which shared the northwest bank and which had not been much troubled by floods, suddenly found themselves awash in the backwaters created by the dike in Qi, and the constructed their own dikes at a similar distance from the river channel. As a result, flood damage was constrained to a strip about fifteen miles wide. The rich silt deposited there by floods actually made this land highly fertile, and farmers exploited the land very actively, only slightly discouraged by the fact that every decade or two, catastrophic floods destroyed their crops and drowned them in great numbers.” /+/

Water Projects and Political Intrigue in Ancient China

The most famous of the ancient Chinese waterway projects is the Zhengguo Canal, Canal, named after its designer, Zheng Guo, and located in Shaanxi province, helping to irrigate the Guanzhong plain, north of Xi'an. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote that this project “provides an illustration of how these improvements were critically linked to political intrigue. The following tale from the "History of the Former Han" is an account of events in the mid-third century, when Qin’s imminent conquest of the other patrician states was becoming increasingly evident. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, adapted from Joseph Needham, “Science and Civilization in China”[Cambridge] IV.3, 285) /+/ ]

“The state of Han, learning that Qin was eager to undertake profitable enterprises, desired to exhaust Qin’s resources thereby, in order that Qin should not begin expanding towards the east. The ruler of Han therefore sent to Qin a hydraulic engineer named Zheng Guo, to persuade deceitfully the ruler of Qin to open a canal from the Jing River, flowing eastwards from Zhongshan and Hukou, and extending along the foot of the northern mountains, carrying water to fall into the River Luo in the east. The proposed canal was to be more than 300 li in length and was to be used for irrigating agricultural lands. Before the construction work was even half finished, however, the people of Qin became aware that the project was a trick, and the ruler of Qin wanted to kill Zheng Guo. Zheng Guo addressed him as follows: “It is true that initially I deceived you. Nevertheless, when completed, this canal will be of great benefit to Qin. This ruse has prolonged the state of Han by a few years, but I am accomplishing a work that will sustain the state of Qin for ten thousand generations.”

The king of Qin agreed with him and approved his words. He gave firm orders that the canal was to be completed. When it was finished, rich silt-bearing water flowed through it to irrigate more than forty thousand (about 650,000 acres) of alkaline fields. Subsequently, the harvests from these fields yielded an abundance of up to one per (about 70 bushels per acre). Thus the Lands Within the Passes became a fertile country, and famine years were unknown. Qin became rich and powerful, and in the end was able to conquer all the other feudal states. The canal was known ever after as the Zheng Guo Canal.

Importance of Canals and Water Projects in Imperial China

Yu the Great was one of the legendary rulers of ancient China. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “It is noted in the "Counsels of Yu the Great" section of the Shangshu (Book of Documents) that "the earth has been reduced to order, and the influences of heaven are producing their complete effect," suggesting that Yu's success in river regulation made it possible for all living things on earth to grow and prosper. The description had since then been taken as a reminder of emperors of succeeding dynasties to exert every effort to prevent floods, in order to establish a strong country where their people can enjoy a wealthy life. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“China has been an agriculture-based country since ancient times. The stable development of agricultural economy is the foundation of social stability and the livelihood of the masses, as well as the basis for imperial regime and its financial income. It is in this connection that the imperial governments over the ages had pooled a large number of experts and a tremendous amount of resources into the enterprises of river regulation and water conservancy, expecting to stabilize agricultural production and national economy, so as to maintain social order and stability. After occupying the central plains, the Manchus extended the economic tradition of agriculture-based economy of previous dynasties. As it continued to absorb the flood control experiences of its predecessors, the Qing government was able to develop more mature knowledge of flood control, as well as innovated and improved techniques in disaster prevention and river engineering. \=/

“River courses are the water supply networks required by agricultural irrigation. However, the periodic river surge is a menace to agriculture. Such important rivers as the Yellow River, the Huai River, the Yongding River, the Hongze Lake, and the Qiantang River, significantly affect national economy and people' livelihood, and were the foci of river engineering in the Qing dynasty. On view in this section are maps of waterways and official gazetteers on river and water conservancy of the Qing dynasty, guiding the audiences to understand the close relations between river engineering and the destiny of the regime. \=/

River Engineering and Water Projects in Imperial China

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “River engineering is a general term for government-initiated projects in regulating river courses, such as the construction of dams, the excavation of irrigation channels, the reinforcement of dikes, and river dredging. The infrastructures to be constructed would include dams, dikes, fascines, gates, culverts, slopes, and life-saving piles. As for maintenance, the infrastructures would undergo minor repair every three years, medium repair every five years, and major repair every ten years. Routine maintenance was implemented on an annual basis as well. Moreover, urgent repair would be made in case of emergency. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The National Palace Museum is home to a rich collection of Qing cartographical and archival materials generated for purposes of river engineering. Apart from such written records on the regulation of the Yellow River, the Huai River and the Canal, as well as those addressing the dredging of the Hongze Lake and the construction of the Qiantang River, the collection features many fine engineering drawings specifically made by local governors to accompany their reports to the emperors on the process of river engineering intended for the exclusive review by the emperors. \=/

The first section focuses on the locales of waterways, and on view are the maps of the courses of the Yellow River, the Huai River, and the Canal, as well as the Hongze Lake, the junction between the Yellow and the Huai Rivers where regulating measures were implemented during the Qing dynasty, and the Qiantang River in the province of Zhejiang, so as to present an overview of the landforms of famous rivers and lakes of the Qing. The second section focuses on events, and several instances of river regulation of the Qing dynasty were highlighted to illustrate the regulating strategies brought up by Qing emperors and officials when facing river floods. The third section focuses on individuals, introducing famous governors who successfully implemented river regulation measures in the Qing Dynasty, so that the visitors may recognize their contributions to river engineering and their efforts in advancing flood control techniques.” \=/

Chinese Water Regulation and Governance

foot-operated boat

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The emperors of the Qing dynasty were in the belief that finding the governors capable of controlling floods was more important than developing measures. To fulfill the objective of river regulation, they ordered river administrators and local governors to draw river maps for imperial review. They also read books on flood control, and even conducted on-site inspections to supervise river engineering. Moreover, they proposed specific river regulation measures, such as how to construct dams, how to remove silt, and where to excavate the irrigation channels. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“This section highlights the instances of several engineering sites, the Yongding River (also known as the "Small Yellow River"), the Hongze Lake at the junction of the Yellow River, the Huai River, and the Canal, as well as the Yifeng area in the mid-stream of the Yellow River in the province of Henan, and the Qiantang River, known for its ever-changing tides. It is hoped that the presentation will help the audiences better understand the specific and concrete river regulation measures brought up by Qing emperors and governors, and that they will discover the correlation between construction engineering and changes in landforms. \=/

“There were many talented river administrators who made substantial contributions in the Qing dynasty. They devoted their lives to river engineering, and accumulated abundant experiences in flood control. They never hesitated to express their personal opinions on river regulation in their written memorials to the throne, reports, and books, which also reflected the advances in river regulation techniques and flood control measures in the Qing dynasty. Among the more famous river administrators are Jin Fu, Chen Huang, and Zhang Peng-ho of the Kangxi reign, Qi Su-le and Ji Zeng-yun of the Yongzheng reign, Gao Bin, Ji Huang, and Kang Jitian of the Qianlong reign, as well as Lin Ze-xu and Lin Qing of the Jiaqing and Daoguang reigns. Aside from those of Han Chinese ethnicity, many of these governors were Manchus and Mongols, revealing that concerted and collective efforts, regardless of one’s ethnicity or place of origin, were essential when it came to stabilizing and improving people’s livelihood and national economy.” \=/

Tax Systems Used to Pay for Large-Scale Public Works in Ancient China

According to the “Treatise on Food and Money”: “There were two kinds of tax: the military levy and the production tax. The production tax concerned the one-tenth of total family grain production which was the product of its share of the public field, and also taxes on the crafted goods sold by artisans, merchant profits, and any fishing or forestry incomes of lands managed by wardens. The military levy was used to supply the armies with carts and carriages, horses, armor, and arms, as well as including quotas for infantry service. These taxes fully provided for the expenses of the state treasury and 7 arsenals, and for the gifts and grants that were bestowed by the state. The production tax was used to provide for the sacrifices to heaven and to earth, for the royal clan sacrifices, and for service to all the many spirits. It supplied the needs of the household of the Son of Heaven, for the salaries and sustenance of the state officials, and for miscellaneous state expenses. [Source: Han shu 24a.1118-23,“Treatise on Food and Money” by Ban Gu, 1st century A.D.]

Dr. Eno wrote: This “tax regulation of 594 B.C. is widely discussed in various texts as a symptom of social decline. According to the traditional view, prior to this act, production taxes for the farming population were covered by the labor contributed to the public field (the well-field system). This may have been the case, or, if the well-field system did not, in fact, exist, the record may indicate a shift from taxing a harvest output to taxing land owned. This would have been an advantage to patrimonial estate holders as their incomes would have been guaranteed (at great cost to the security of the farming population). It may also indicate a shift in the concept of land ownership, regarding the peasants like land owners, rather than as serf-like subjects settled on the lord’s land. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“This new method of taxation levied on acreage may be linked to the rise of large-scale public works, such as the building of dams, canals, and state walls (the greatest of these ultimately being linked as the Great Wall of China). During the centuries of the late Spring and Autumn and early Warring States periods, iron technology was first applied to agriculture; along with new developments in irrigation and planting techniques, this greatly increased productivity. Under these conditions, estate holders would have found that the principal traditional form of tax, labor due on patrician fields, was not so efficient as a tax on personal crop yields plus labor time, directed no longer to the lord’s crops, but instead to public works. The economic and military benefits of these works became increasingly critical during the Warring States period, when competition among states drove governments towards increased size, aggressiveness, and public control.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Beifan.com.

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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