by Danielle Bermudez
Water can often be seen as a source of life, but it can also lead to loss. In this seminar, Ruth Mostern, Associate Professor of History at UC Merced, explores how water may have led to immense change of landscape and life in eleventh century China. While research is still being conducted, Mostern provides fascinating insights about the soil of the Yellow River and how this impacted the defensive strategies of the Song dynasty. These dynamics may have altered the environmental history of the region, based on the timing and scale of loess plateau fortification, leading to numerous disaster floods during the eleventh century.
The Yellow River, or Huang He, is the third-longest river in Asia, and is the sixth-longest river in the world, with an estimated length of 5,464 km. It flows through nine provinces, and empties in Shandong province. During the eleventh century, military strategy was important, and ambitious fortification with garrisons, as well as the presence of more than half a million soldiers, had an immense impact on an ecologically fragile region.
According to Mostern, the natural landscape of the Yellow River is prone to soil erosion without vegetation cover. Fortifications in Northern Song were strategically built near the edges of the Yellow River. The exposed erosion-prone sand and soil made its way into the Yellow River, and ultimately drove disastrous flooding downstream. This resulted in one of the most rapidly rising sedimentation rates in history.
Flowing with our ongoing theme of “water,” seminar participants agreed that the environment is not a fixed place, it has agency, is dynamic, and ever-changing, but what is the scale of that change? As the seminar came to a close, participants lingered on the following central question: how do humans shape the natural environment, and conversely, and how does the environment continuously shape us?