Flood Management in Late Imperial China

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

How are people impacted by living beside water, and what impact do they exert upon water? What counts as disaster? Ruth Mostern explored these questions in a talk for the Center for the Humanities this fall, “Engineering Empire: The Theory and Practice of Yellow River Flood Management in Late Imperial China.” She noted that for people living near the river, who sometimes lost everything, flooding was a disaster. Yet for a water course, flooding is not a disaster, but rather is a part of the natural cycle and response to change.

Mostern described the Yellow River as “the most sediment laden river in the world,” and explained that erosion from the Loess Plateau on the watercourse leads to heavy silting, which eventually leads to flooding. People exacerbated this problem when they set out to build a series of fortifications and supporting settlements in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. “Human activity can have a very rapid and profound effect,” Mostern noted.

Mostern presented digital mapping of the Yellow River and its floodplain, which is part of her ongoing research into historical archives kept by bureaucrats in states along the Yellow River. She noted that the excellent record keeping of Chinese Imperial Officials makes it possible to study the Yellow River in this way.

A lively discussion followed on ecology, imperialism and how legends relating to water mastery persist today in China. The “legendary” Chinese figure of Yu the Great, who purportedly lived from 2200-2101 B.C., was famed for channeling all the rivers of China and establishing its first state in primordial times, supposedly devising a dredging system used on the Yellow River and other great watercourses in China. So important was Yu’s accomplishment that he was known in history as “Yu the Great Controls the Waters.”

Mostern responded to questions about highly visible research made public this summer in the New York Times indicating possible archeological evidence for the Chinese mythology of Yu and the first Dynasties.

For Mostern, interdisciplinary work in crucial to her project—her primary field is history but she also relies on the work of geographers, hydrologists and soil scientists.

We’d like to hear from other scholars and students who bridge the sciences and humanities: What has bridging fields meant to you in your own work? What have been the challenges and benefits?

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