In 1988, Chinese political reformers produced a television programme titled Heshang (River Elegy), which presented the country’s future as a symbolic choice between the inward-looking Yellow River or the internationalist blue Pacific Ocean. Many choices in China’s past have come down to water. China’s huge agrarian empire could not have thrived for four millennia without the control and exploitation of huge quantities of water. The pre-war sinologist Karl Wittfogel developed the idea of a “hydraulic state” linked to the concept of “oriental despotism”; his case was that only an authoritarian government could control a society which needed so much water to survive.
Philip Ball’s lucid and impressive book doesn’t buy Wittfogel’s theory, and argues that understanding water is at the heart of comprehending China. Some of China’s earliest myths are about flood control: the emperor Yu supposedly spent 13 years taming floods while ignoring the cries of his furious abandoned wife. Ball explains that China was often a maritime power during the Tang and Ming dynasties as much as it was a land-bound one (so much for the idea of the country as an inward-looking or isolated kingdom). The history ends with Mao Zedong, who launched the Cultural Revolution with a dip in the Yangtze, but who also encouraged reckless industrial development that left China with polluted rivers. This thoughtful study ends with a warning: failure to deal with water-borne environmental disaster may yet dangerously weaken the current regime.