The River, The Plain, and the State Review

Updated on June 11, 2018

In 1048, the Yellow River in China burst into a tremendous flood, dramatically altering its course north into Hebei and killing huge huge numbers of people. It sparked a catastrophe of famine, disease, and social disorder which continued to pile more misery upon the survivors, and weakened the entire Song Empire dramatically. In response, the state undertook an extensive program of hydraulic management in the region, but its policies were contradictory and led to the reversal of core-periphery relationships through pouring resources into the Hebei periphery, as ecology transformed human geography. It is the ramifications and processes of this that The Plain, the River, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128 by Ling Zhang wishes to understand, as it lays out in its overview of the chapters and their intent. To examine the region history of Hebei, to discover the process of transformation of state-periphery relations and its connection to the broader Song state, the relationships of the state to environmental challenges, to demonstrate an example of state failure and to show the limitations of state power in environmental transformation, and of the idea-structure of the relationship between the environment and society, in effect conducting an environmental history, in a manner which incorporates a wide variety of sources and which aims to look at such events beyond simply the view of "natural disasters" with little additional commentary needed.

A map of the region being examined: Hebei in the Song ended roughly around Tianjing, so modern Northern Hebei is not part of this study.
A map of the region being examined: Hebei in the Song ended roughly around Tianjing, so modern Northern Hebei is not part of this study.

Part I

Part 1, pre-1048, Prelude to the Environmental Drama, approaches the question of "How had the river, the plain, and the state each evolved over a long time to encounter each other? How had their interactions gradually increased over several centuries to eventually produce the environmental drama?" This commences with Chapter 1, "Before the Yellow River Hit the Hebei Plain", lays out an environmental history of how the catastrophic event of 1048 came to pass, and what had been its existence beforehand. The Yellow River is the birthplace of Chinese civilization, but also has routinely changed its banks and flooded, at least 1,590 times throughout recorded history - and in a pattern which was increasing in intensity from the 4th century to the 12th century. The reason for this was not a natural one, but rather due to the increasing devastation of land in the Loess Plateau, driven by Chinese expansion and imperial policies in the region that devastated a vast area of ecologically fragile loess deposits and produced the modern siltified Yellow River sometime in the first millenia AD. Attempts to reduce flooding centered around dikes, but the unique geographic nature of the Yellow River, which actually rises above the surrounding land due to silt deposits, meant that these were a self-defeating initiative, at least until Wang Jing devised an effective hydrology engineering in the 1st century which would last for nearly a millennia more and fixed the position of the Yellow River and kept it (relatively) calm. It too however, ultimately faced its logical conclusions and defeat, as silt build up undermined the system and lead to the collapse of 1048.

It is easy to see why it is hard to manage the river's silt problems...
It is easy to see why it is hard to manage the river's silt problems...

The second element of this story is that the river's location helped ensure Hebei's prosperous autonomy, separated from the rest of China, and defined by the Yellow river to the south and the Juma river to the north (and thus not the modern Hebei). The book endeavors to examine the geographic make up of Hebei, and to discuss how the prosperous and independent old Hebei was transformed into a poor and marginal present one starting in the 11th century. Hebei had traditionally been militarily strong, ethnically diverse, and fiercely independent, serving as a power-broker and an important buffer state (against northern barbarians) for China. It would be the intrusion of the Yellow River, previously absent, that would mark a radical transformation of its place as part of China.

Chapter 2, "The State's Hebei Project", deals with the relationship of the Song dynasty to Hebei and the Yellow River. The Song dynasty was founded in 960, was a state with deep concerns over its security, with dangerous enemies of the Khitan and Tanguts to the north. It was intensely suspicious, if reliant on, Hebei, and sought to transform it from an autonomous region to a subservient part of its empire. An elaborate project of military reinforcement, control, civil demilitarization, binding the cultural sphere to Han morality, positioning of extra-regional scholars and administrators in the Hebei government, and infrastructure construction bound it more closely to the Song state. Part of this was an intense ecological re-engineering, building large tunnels in Hebei, and more importantly above the ground aiming to turn the naturally swampy land into a defensive barrier against Khitan invasion through pond and ditch construction. The effect was to transform Hebei from a self contained geographic unit to part of a frontier defense system. Economically, the Song state was effective at economic development in a liberal economy nevertheless incorporating significant government intervention, but this further reduced Hebei independence with blocks on their military imports and the pacification brought by sedentary agricultural development.

The Song state during this period, when it was in possession of Northern China. It was engaged in a long military standoff with its northern neighbors.
The Song state during this period, when it was in possession of Northern China. It was engaged in a long military standoff with its northern neighbors. | Source

Chapter 3, "The 1040s: On the Eve of the Flood" shifts attention to the broader development of the Song state, which had by the 1040s achieved stability and significant internal prosperity, fueling economic diversification, sophistication, and interconectedness. It was much more bureaucratic, and led by a neo-Confucian elite devoted to instilling their values into society. At the same time however, it faced military and diplomatic struggles on its frontier, losing a war to the Tanguts and facing diplomatic humiliation before the Khitan. This forced a further militarization of its border regions, with the establishment of militias in Hebei to reverse its declining military strength, with over half of the landowning adult male population being inducted into the two Strong Valiants and Righteous and Brave militias. Under this burden, Hebei's economy declined, in contrast to Song core regions. The cost of this military could not be borne by Hebei, requiring vast importations and payments from other parts of the Song Empire, which it did not fully succeed at and its commercialization of through merchants drove increasing inequality and decreasing state power, while military troops lacked sufficient supplies and were vulnerable to rebellion. In effect, the margin against natural disasters or disruptions had been heavily reduced in Hebei. This danger was particularly acute in 1040s China, as waves of natural disaster hit the region, ranging from earthquakes, to droughts, to harsh winters, and floods, with earthquakes in particular being devastating and widespread. These were blamed as being the result of Heaven's displeasure with the imperial government, but what policies to adopt were unclear.

Chapter 4, "Creating a Delta Landscape" starts with the disastrous flood itself, then talks about what at the time were the hypotheses mooted for its origin. Most were based on mandate of heaven beliefs that the disaster was a retribution for human failure, but there were also scientific opinions which saw it as an inevitable product of the siltification of the Yellow River. Both suggested that human involvement was important in why the event had occurred. The book argues that this was also a result of state activities, which prioritized hydraulics work for the South (the most valuable core regions of the Song dynasty), effectively making the North and hence Hebei more vulnerable to catastrophic flooding. This was backed up and justified by readings of classical/mythological Chinese history which legitimized the river flowing north through Hebei rather than south through Hunan. Although activist policies to carry this out weren't undertaken, de-facto a policy of neglect in the north, especially in 1034 when floods shifted the river's course away from the south, achieved this anyway. This was no natural disaster, no act of god, but rather the result of a lengthy process of state modification of the environment to secure its own interests in shielding the core and shifting burdens to the periphery.

A Song era depiction of Yellow river flooding
A Song era depiction of Yellow river flooding

Part II

Part II, "Post-1048 The Unfolding of the Environmental Drama" starts again with a question to answer: "How did the river, the state, and the plain respond to the changing environmental circumstances after 1048? How were they affected by continuous changes and repeated disasters, as they vied with each other to occupy physical space and acquire resources?". Chapter 5, "Managing the Yellow River–Hebei

Environmental Complex", deals with how the state sought to deal with the dramatic environmental evolution it had engineered. Disaster piled upon disaster without a clear resolution: return the river to its original course, try to place it into several canals to manage it in Hebei, or let it run as it did? All of these proposals were pursued, but the attempts at active management never amounted to anything, as the river overpowered human efforts to control it. Emperor after emperor did his best to change the river, hoping to place themselves in the glory of the legendary Yu who had tamed the Yellow river, but each failed, and in the end the weakened and corrupt, aged and old, state collapsed to the Jurchen invaders in 1127. In a desperate attempt to halt them the southern dikes of the Yellow river were broken and the water poured south, towards Henan. Its old course had been restored, in an ironic end to centuries of attempt by the Song to manage it. It never again returned north. This had been aided by the destruction of the northern ponds constructed in Henan, by drought and then the interference of the river. The Song were intent on keeping the frontier ponds intact, perceived as vital for protection against the Khitan to the north, but it was extremely costly to both continue to build and maintain the defensive ponds and to manage the river. Ultimately when the Jurchen arrived, the ponds were quickly overrun, although why they failed so badly is not clearly known. They had deleteriously effected changes upon Hebei, impoverishing it with the reduction of arable land, endangering the remaining land through floods, and reducing public health through their mosquitoes, although also conversely providing important sites for aquaculture. Hebei local authorities and the central institutions responsible for water management both feuded intensely over the fate of this and the Yellow River, with an incapability to come up with a firm course of action. Instead of an efficient and successful hydraulic project, it was an endless pit that consumed resources from all across China, in incredible futility.

The new distribution of Chinese territory after the fall of the Northern Song to Jurchen invasion.
The new distribution of Chinese territory after the fall of the Northern Song to Jurchen invasion. | Source

Chapter 6, "Life in the Yellow River Delta" constitutes a social history of Hebei before, during and after the grand flood. This included the demographic profile, according to which Hebei had seen steady if slow growth before the flood, and then how the flood drove extensive (perhaps up to 30-40%) population decline and repeated vast migrations, breaking across the fabric of social life despite state attempts to prop it up. Furthermore the militarization of refugees who were inducted into the army drove an increasing autonomous streak in Hebei, reversing previous work to demilitarize Hebei society. The latter was not a passive object, reacting independently in response to the floods through projects such collective construction of dykes. At times, this was in opposition or contradiction to state dyke projects, such as building dikes to protect an area of reclaimed land in front of a state dyke, demonstrating their independence, if in a dangerous and potentially disastrous matter; they had however, little other choice. While they were no united and high minded mass, and often their attempts to adapt ran contrary to each other, they were not passive victims - even if they were victims nevertheless.

Millet, not rice, was the principal crop in Hebei.
Millet, not rice, was the principal crop in Hebei.

Chapter 7, "Agriculture: A Subsistence-Oriented Economy", argues that Hebei was denied the agricultural revolution which happened throughout much of the Song, instead retaining a poor subsistence agricultural economy. Constant famines afflicted it, which could not be dispelled by the occasional bumper crop, and it did not benefit from the introduction of winter wheat, the high yield crop which benefited other areas of Northern China. Instead it kept millet, which was hardier, but was incapable of the same number of yields per year (1.5 as compared to 1 for millet) due to the depressed and unstable local economy. It was incompatible for Hebei in a land rotation scheme to have both due to various reasons, so therefor there was no agricultural boom. Military colonies tried to cultivate rice, but this was far less efficient than in Southern China and never came close to fixing the food deficit problem in Hebei, and they ran into water use conflicts with the ponds. This meant that it required constant inputs of resources, weakening the state in general, which could neither abandon the strategically vital Hebei nor fix its problems.

Chapter 8, "Land and Water: A Thousand Years of Environmental Trauma", covers the direct hydraulic effects of the Yellow river's transition. One of the most damaging effects of the 1048 flood was its following effect on the riparian systems of Hebei, as it disrupted the rivers with silting and flooding, destroying communication and transport links and leading to the need to reroute certain rivers to avoid floods. Northern Hebei's poor soils were the target of the state's hope to use the river's silt to provide nutrients and fertilize them, but the lack of a capacity to control the Yellow River floods, probably drainage issues leading to salinification, and the inherently poor nature of the silt prevented this from succeeding. Hebei's soils did not improve, and indeed became much more sandy, something that would plague the land for centuries thereafter. Furthermore, intense deforestation occurred, driven by the need to build dikes to withstand the river, and vast amounts of timber were taken from across China. Ironically one source for timber were the trees planted on the old dikes to hold them together, which destroyed their structural integrity and weakened the system by this cannibalization. The same happened as forests were logged in the North-West, increasing land degradation and funneling more silt into the river, increasing floods. Whatever the Song did, the situation only became worse.

The Yellow River has taken many paths throughout its history.
The Yellow River has taken many paths throughout its history.

Part III

Chapter 9, the epilogue, is titled "1128: The Close of an Environmental Drama", deals with a political event: the breaking of the dikes in 1128 during the collapse of the North Song, which led to the Yellow River shifting south again, away from Hebei. The new Henan-Huabei region would see many of the same problems grip it. The Jin dynasty which had replaced the Song in the North would continue to attempt to manage and control it, if with a geographically reversed position, using the same materials, methods, and attaining the same results, with the same reasoning of subjecting certain reasons to environmental harm for the benefit of the state. It is a legacy which has continued with contemporary China.

An extensive bibliography and index ends the book.


In my opinion this book is an excellent and splendid example of history combining political, environmental, economic, and social history, with an incredible degree of connection and a holistic approach to all three. The book appears at first as an environmental history, which it is, but it deals with so much more than simply the environment that it is narrow to see it as simply that. It does a superlative job of displaying the physical effects of the Yellow river's change, analyzing their outcome, and linking it to other developments and changes in China. For a book about a subject from 1048, there is an impressive degree of primary sources. Insightful, brilliant, and wide-ranging, it never loses track of its subject matter while exploring a host of things related to it. Few books would be able to link the Hebei flood to the process of marginalization of Hebei in China, Song Chinese economic development, economic degradation in Northern China, political and defense issues of Song China, social life in Hebei, and the question of the hydraulic mode of production - the oft theorized and discussed relationship between the state and management of water - but The River, the Plain, and the State does so smoothly and effectively. It incorporates both Western research on China, such as the previously mentioned hydraulic mode of production, and extensive Chinese sources and above all else Chinese primary sources. The bibliography that it has is of incredible utility for anybody further interested in reading about China. Overall, it has a great selection of strengths, and which makes it a book which is far more than the relatively narrow volume presented by its title.

This is fortunate indeed, for the period in which the book studies, Song China, is one which is often a subject of examination to inquire whether it was on the verge of an industrial revolution. Without commenting explicitly on this subject or not, the book demonstrates that such a single-minded focus on the industrialization of Song China destroys our ability to see, like elsewhere, the dark side of this, and to look at the human life of the Song dynasty. This is something which is applicable to many other regions, but doing so at such a distance into the past is one which is an impressive feat. It helps to shift history from focus on the center regions, to one on the peripheries, and to look at otherwise little examined aspects of relationships between state and society in action. This can include both this periphery-core interact, but also things such as how communities and governments deal with rivers when there are no good responses and only a zero sum game, as society must take actions and decide who will pay the price for them. The primary sources here are particularly good for showing how policies which harm regions and people can be justified, such as the Song emperor appealing to the myth of the "Great Yu", the mystical emperor who had tamed the Yellow river. It seems that the more that is done historically to analyze state projects and their justifications, the more we arrive at their fundamental danger and their callous treatment of those whose lives they impacted.

In addition, the book is superb for looking at examples of state power in action and looking at how state power exerted itself in Song China. While the book may not be tasked principally with this subject, it provides plenty of detail upon how politics and priorities evolved within the Song government and how its policies were justified. Furthermore the discussion of agricultural information is of great utility for understanding Song agricultural development in general, indeed maybe even much of the agricultural history of northern China. The book consciously shies away from examining too much of the debate over the Song industrial revolution, but it can't help but be an incredibly useful source in such regards.

My main critique is that the work does not place Hebei into the context of other Yellow river floods. One of the key elements of the author's theory is that the new environment of Hebei, where the Yellow River flowed, was an intense drain on state resources. And yet the state had chosen to move the Yellow River to Hebei, in not placing attention to its defense while defending Henan much more heavily, because of the danger and the attrition of its resources in Henan. Why was it so much more expensive to deal with the floods in Hebei than in Hunan? This lack of comparative context makes it difficult to understand in full the problems of the Yellow River and the Song state. This is tentatively looked at in the final pages of the book, where the author compares the management of Hebei to the later state management of Henan-Huabei, and to current Chinese policy, but it does not look in reverse. Furthermore, more illustrations and maps would have been useful.

Overall, I would very strongly recommend this book to a wide variety of people. Anybody interested in Chinese history in general, and the Song era in particular, are obvious candidates of course. So too are those interested in environmental history, although that may be a broad category, and those in hydraulics and water management history. But as a history of state power, an example of well done regional history, Chinese agricultural history, even military planning and strategy (given the extensive focus on the military ponds and military role of Hebei), and governmental organization, development, infrastructure projects, and Chinese social history. The book is very easy to read, and beautifully written; it makes one truly feel a sense of connection to the suffering people of Hebei, while not infantilizing or excessively glorifying them. It presents them as people and a region dealing with a catastrophe, one man made in nature, and there is little else that it needs to do to illustrate this other than just to present the facts as they were. In weaving such an intricate, stirring, important, and recurrent story, it is ab ook which more than deserves earnest attention. So too, would any other books by the author, who is clearly a talented researcher and writer.

5 stars for The River, the Plain, and the State

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas


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