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Book Review: The Water Kingdom – A Secret History of China



The Water Kingdom – A Secret History of China, by Philip Ball. 

Bodley Head, 2016. ISBN (hardback): 978147923547.

The following is based heavily on the review in ‘The Oldie‘ magazine, November 2016: 

Science writer Philip Ball examines what he calls ‘an intimate connection between hydraulic engineering, governance, moral rectitude and metaphysical speculation that has no parallel anywhere in the world’. But to call this a ‘Secret History’ is misleading since the role played by water in China has always been recognised.

‘Successive empires and countless officials have risen and fallen on the quality and effectiveness of their hydrology, and ambitious engineering has drained the coffers of many dynasties in a culture in which competence in water management is seen as a proxy for fitness to rule,’ wrote Isabel Hilton in The Guardian. Indeed, ‘one school of Chinese history has argued that the very shape and nature of the Chinese state was determined by the need for water control projects – dams, levees, canals and diversions – that demanded the coercive mobilisation of the labour of millions of people down the centuries.’

Ball’s book ‘traverses fascinating, endlessly fertile territory’ wrote Christopher Harding in the Gulf News. He found the book to be ‘strongest on technology, society and statecraft’, with Ball showing ‘rival Daoist and Confucian ideas about the nature of water and humanity spilling over into rival theories of hydraulic engineering’.

As Andrea Janku explained in her review in Nature, Ball’s book ‘is the portrait of a civilisation permeated by water, with patterns of thought influenced by the centrality of water to everyday life and, echoing that, practical affairs shaped by philosophical ideas based on the principal of flow’. From the late 1oth  century onwards, controlling the Yellow River ‘became tantamount to conrtolling the people’ and ‘state and society became trapped in an unsustainable hydraulic infrastructure’, while in warfare ‘rivers were harnessed as weapons’ [for example Chiang Kaishek’s bursting the levees of the Yellow River in 1937 to counter the Japanese army, and thus flooding 23,000 square km, killing 500,000 people and making at least 3 million homeless! (see page 215 in The Water Kingdom)].

See also the reviews of ‘The Water Kingdom‘ in The GuardianGulf News and Nature.