Han on Zhang, 'The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048–1128'

Ling Zhang
Zhaoqing Han

Ling Zhang. The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048–1128. Studies in Environment and History Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 328 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-15598-5.

Reviewed by Zhaoqing Han (Fudan University) Published on H-Water (April, 2017) Commissioned by Yan Gao

A Dynastic Tragedy Caused by the Yellow River

The lower reaches of the Yellow River, the second largest river in China, are characterized by its easy siltation, overflow, and course shifts since the river’s first written record in 602 BCE until 1949 CE. Its courses swept over an area of 250,000 square kilometers from the east of the Taihang Mountain in the north, entering the Bohai Sea with the Hai River, to the east of the Yinghe River in the south, merging with the Huai River before emptying into the Yellow Sea. The local communities of these densely populated areas experienced enormous suffering whenever breaches, overflows, and course shifts occurred.

Ling Zhang’s book, The River, the Plain and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128, tells a complicated story of the Yellow River, the Hebei Plain, and the Northern Song state, when the lower reaches of the Yellow River shifted to the Hebei Plain, a region administered under the name of “Hebei lu” during the Northern Song dynasty and roughly the southern half of the modern Hebei Province. Through its exploration of the complex relationships within state and the state’s strategy to tame the Yellow River, the river’s unpredictable reactions to and impacts on the local society and environment, and the negotiations between regional societies and different political factions in managing the river, this book provides a panoramic study on the environmental, political, economic, and social history of a chaotic period mainly triggered by a course change of the Yellow River. This is another well-researched regional environmental history of China in recent years. The River, the Plain and the State was recently awarded the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best environmental history book of 2017 by the American Society for Environmental History.

In addition to the prologue and epilogue, the book consists of two parts. The first part is composed of four chapters, analyzing the characteristics and history of the Yellow River and the Hebei Plain, the Song state’s project to transform Hebei from a semi-autonomous plain into a dependent periphery, a variety of crises the Song state was faced with on the eve of the 1048 flood, and the reasons why the Yellow River shifted toward the Hebei region. The second part also has four chapters, dealing with the management of the courses of the Yellow River on the Hebei Plain, the disastrous impacts of the Yellow River on the life of local individuals and the entire society, agriculture cultivation, the river system, the soil and forests in the area, and people’s adaptation to the disastrous situation.

Through its meticulous analysis, this beautifully written book leads to many insights. First, it broadens the scope of the study of the history of the Yellow River. In fact, the historical literature on the Yellow River is voluminous and Chinese historical geographers have thoroughly studied the changes of the Yellow River. However, most previous studies focus on the changes to the river itself and the management of this unruly river.[1] Each breach, overflow, or course shift caused huge suffering to the areas the river passed through, but studies on the impacts of the Yellow River on both the natural environment and society have lagged behind. Although a few recent studies have explored this perspective,[2] more work needs to be done to contextualize a Yellow River catastrophe within the complexity of human-environment interactions. Thus, it sets an example for further studies on the history of the Yellow River and other rivers in China.

Second, the book brings up many new ideas based on the author’s extensive reading and careful evaluation of original Chinese historical sources, modern scientific reports, and secondary scholarly works. One of the predominant contributions of this book is its new theoretical formula of “hydraulic mode of consumption,” which “postulates that while the state, the society, and the environment intertwined to produce an eighty-year environmental drama, they were simultaneously burdened, consumed, and even exhausted by their activities and interactions” (p. 181). It poses a challenge to Karl Wittfogel’s theory of “hydraulic mode of production,” in which the state takes on an ideal hydraulic leadership, diligently managing waters, thus providing welfare to its people and building its despotic power through the process. It also criticizes the theorization of two other notions—“hydraulic community” and “hydraulic cycle”—which are derived from the empirical critique of Wittfogel’s idea of hydraulic societies, but have inherited Wittfogel’s logic of reasoning and do not deny the mutual constitution of power and hydraulics (p. 179). According to Zhang, the “hydraulic mode of production” did not function well in the Yellow River-Hebei environmental complex and the Song state’s diligent commitments in hydraulics only deteriorated the environment and the society. As she puts forth assertively, “The state’s desire and efforts to tame the river and to create a benign environment for both the state and the majority of the society led to unexpected consequences, including the continuous degradation of environmental systems, catastrophic experiences to the human society, and even the dissolution and depletion of state power” (p. 182).

Another finding also supports her proposed “hydraulic mode of consumption.” Zhang argues that the shift of the river toward the Hebei Plain was not a random and natural event; instead, “it was the state orchestrated ‘slow violence’ through a series of rationalization, policy-making, hydraulic practices and appropriation of Hebei that caused harm to Hebei” (p. 134). Ironically, while the Song state painstakingly undertook a multidimensional project to downplay Hebei into a periphery area to serve the needs of the state, the intrusion of the Yellow River in 1048 turned this region into a land of massive social destruction, heavy military burdens, and significant environmental turbulence. To sustain the region’s existence, the empire had no choice but to funnel tremendous wealth and material resources from other areas into Hebei, and Hebei thus became a consumption center and a core area in a most unexpected way.

Third, this book provides revisions to some previous scholarship through synthetic analysis as well as case studies. For example, through an analysis of the butterfly effect of the Yellow River’s shifting courses and frequent floods, Zhang questions the orderly structure of an autonomous region/macroregion that G. William Skinner conceptualized for Chinese society.[3] Based on her careful research of a massive number of historical sources, she also challenges Cheng Mingsheng’s view of Hebei as one of the richest regions in the Song Empire, which was based on his research of tax quotas set up by the central government shortly before 1080.[4] Zhang argues that such a view ignores the prevailing environmental challenges and socioeconomic problems that prevented Hebei and its people from conducting normal agricultural activities as well as the fact that those figures were only quotas not actual tax payments.

In summary, with deep sympathies toward the Hebei people in the Song dynasty, Zhang tries to travel through space and time to disclose a tragedy that occurred to the Yellow River-Hebei Plain environmental complex and the Song. The way she reconsiders the relationship between the human and the Yellow River is thought provoking. Beginning with a long-term retrospect of the Yellow River history, everything in this book is interrelated and some of the effects still linger today.

The last point I stress here is that Zhang’s work bridges the gap between Chinese and Western scholarship. Unlike many previous English-language works on China, which tend to neglect studies by Chinese scholars, Zhang’s book not only refers to a wide range of first-hand sources written in Chinese but also consults as many as possible published works by Chinese scholars.

However, as Zhang reiterates in the book, her analysis is restrained, to some extent, due to the scarcity and fragmentation of sources. The other shortcoming is that the book’s illustrations fail to match its beautifully written sentences. But these flaws do not prevent this book from telling a fascinating story. As the American environmental historian William Cronon noted in his 2013 American Historical Association presidential address, good storytelling tells a story that government and the public will listen to, making environmental history relevant and accessible to a wider public audience.[5] Zhang’s book is such a story.


[1]. Cen Zhongmian, Huang He Bianqian Shi [A history of changes of the Yellow River] (Beijing: Renmin Publishing House, 1957); and Zou Yilin, Chunlu Shidi Lungao [Chunlu theses on historical geography] (Tianjin: Tianjin Classics Publishing House, 2005), 1-71.

[2]. For example, Han Zhaoqing, Huanghai Guanxi Jiqi Yanbian Guocheng Yanjiu [The relationship between the Yellow River and the Huai River and its evolution] (Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 1999); and Micah S. Muscolino, The Ecology of War in China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1938-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[3]. G. William Skinner authored five essays in his 1977 edited book to discuss the concept of “physiographic macroregions” and its significance to China’s regionalization. In particular, in his essay “Regional Urbanization in Nineteenth-Century China,” Skinner identified nine macroregions of nineteenth-century China based on watersheds and mountain ranges, analyzed the urban cores and peripheries of each macroregion, and argued that natural resource flows and socioeconomic exchanges exceeds the limit of provincial boundaries. G. William Skinner, ed., The City in Late Imperial China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1977), esp. 211-252.

[4]. Chen Mingsheng, Songdai Diyu Jingji [Regional economies during the Song dynasty] (Kaifeng: Henan University Press, 1992).

[5]. William Cronon, “Storytelling: Presidential Address,” The American Historical Review 118, no. 1 (February 2013): 1-19.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=48392

Citation: Zhaoqing Han. Review of Zhang, Ling, The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048–1128. H-Water, H-Net Reviews. April, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48392

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