How Ancient Chinese Philosophical Frameworks Dictated the Politics of Water
Giulio Boccaletti on the Confucian View of the Yellow River and the Unification of China
In antiquity, people’s relationship with water was total: it defined all aspects of daily life. The distribution of water influenced not just formal institutions, but also more intimate, abstract beliefs. Beliefs outlive infrastructure, and survive changed institutions. They are the most basic building blocks of a social contract. Philosophical and theological beliefs matter to the story of water because they provide people explanations for why things happen, and instruction on what people ought to do about them. It is easy to see how water would relate to such beliefs in the context of naturalistic pantheism, where environmental phenomena are manifestations or embodiment of the divine. But how does water relate to more abstract beliefs about the world? China and the Southern Levant offer answers to this question that are as different as their water environments.
The Chinese classical tradition of the first millennium BCE evolved alongside the water landscape. From the eighth to the third century BCE, during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, China’s political landscape was a fragmented, loose federation of local states often at war with each other. During its first three centuries, the so-called Spring and Autumn period, a growing number of local lords vied for supremacy, competing on military strategy, defense technique, and diplomacy.
It was during this period that the doctrine of the “Mandate of Heaven” emerged, the belief that a ruler held on to power because of Heaven’s consent. More often than not, Heaven spoke in natural disasters. In a country whose very heart was the destructive Yellow River, this belief inevitably connected power to water. But those beliefs evolved into far higher order abstractions.
In a seventh-century BCE text, the Guanzi, the duke of Huan, who ruled on the Shandong Peninsula, asked the philosopher Guan Zhong where to place his capital. In response, the philosopher argued this: of all the natural disasters a city should be protected from, floods were by far the worst and thus they should determine the location of a capital. Rivers were physical threats, he said. The physical threats would lead to social instability. Social instability would compromise power. The duke could not afford such a risk. Destructive floods, which in the Yellow River basin happened on average every four years, were a dangerous deterioration of the Mandate from Heaven. Of course, the legitimacy of a dynasty did not depend solely on their ability to manage the river—individual breaches did not necessarily result in catastrophic collapse—but uncontrolled failure undermined rule.
Guan Zhong went further. Aside from the inevitable levees and canals to control the river, he also recommended that the duke organize the state differently. He suggested that a bureaucracy of hydraulic engineers, brigadiers, commanders, and laborers should be established and organized by province, to maintain the dikes, inspect and repair walls and canals, and generally control the population to maintain the hydraulic works. This wasn’t just an institutional response. It was a conceptual leap: the environment required a different approach to the design of a state.
Such a conceptual leap did not imply that environmental conditions uniquely determined a philosophy of the state. But it did mean that any such philosophy would entail an approach to water management. The sixth and fifth centuries BCE were a period of great intellectual ferment in China. Daoism and Confucianism, the two principal systems that shaped Chinese philosophy, were among the many traditions to emerge at that time. These two schools are often represented in conflict: Confucianism as the formal, conformist system, focused on public affairs; Daoism as a private, contemplative practice seeking a balance with nature.
These philosophical frameworks translated into radically different interpretations of the relationship between the state and the water environment. The Daoist tradition emphasized adapting to the river, placing embankments far away and making room for its expansion during a flood. The Confucian tradition, on the other hand, was far more focused on powerful levees that could constrain and control the river, ensuring it would be managed into submission. In fact, both philosophical approaches had very real policy implications for the state. The Daoist approach mitigated the risks of catastrophic floods but created a set of challenging social problems. Floods between wide embankments would inevitably create a vast, fertile alluvial plain, which would then attract farmers. Avoiding a catastrophe under these conditions required, therefore, relocation policies and significant social control.
Confucians thought that constraining the river into ever higher dikes would lead the river to flow in place, scouring and deepening the channel bed. But in the case of catastrophic breaches, the damage to the population, which entrusted its safety to solid levees, could be unimaginable, posing substantial risks for the legitimacy of central power. These conceptual frameworks therefore implied a different relationship between people, the state, and the territory.
The Confucian view prevailed and evolved alongside the management of the Yellow River. From the fifth century BCE, agriculture in the middle Yellow River grew, and as irrigation works and farming increased, more and more artificial levees were needed to constrain the increasingly muddy river downstream. It was a Faustian bargain. If the levees withstood floods, the water would scour the channel bed, deepening the channel. But this would increase the river’s power, with greater chance of future breaches. But if the river did breach the levees, its speed would drop as water expanded and silt and mud would deposit downstream, lifting the channel even further, and once again increasing the risk that the state would have to manage a catastrophic failure in the near future. There was no way out: the river and the state were bound to each other.
Water choices and philosophical outlook were far more dependent on each other than even these risks suggest. Over the course of the fourth century, the state of Qin, at the western margin of the Zhou feudal system, fully centralized its government, enforcing direct taxation and conscription for all, becoming a powerful war machine. Qin had a waged army, which required feeding. The only way to feed it was to wrestle with China’s overwhelming rivers. Qin’s muscular approach to statecraft translated into some of the great early irrigation projects of China.
Qin invaded the southern states of Ba and Shu, in Sichuan, spilling over from the Yellow into the Yangtze basin to acquire the fertile Chengdu plain. There, in 256 BCE, Li Bing constructed the great irrigation system of Dujiangyan. The system, still in operation today, watered about 670,000 hectares of land. A similar story involves the spectacular Zhengguo Canal, described by the historian Sima Qian. The canal flowed along the foothills of the Beishan Mountains in the Guangzhong basin, the heart of the Qin state, and increased land available for agriculture to around four hundred thousand hectares. Production became so abundant, that, during the subsequent Western Han period, the state ran out of millet storage. The productivity of these lands boosted the power of Qin, giving it enough surplus to support an enormous army, and ultimately to unify “all under heaven.” Incorporating water in a bureaucratic philosophy of the state had turned it into an instrument of statecraft.
How a people choose to manage their water environment is tightly bound with how they conceive of their own social contract. The Confucian approach to statecraft stimulated state-led water interventions, which, encouraged by bureaucratic centralization, in turn fueled the unification of China. This story might seem to suggest that the most obvious philosophy to emerge in difficult water conditions must be one that encourages centralization. But on the other side of the world, the water experience of the southern Levant encouraged the development of a radically different set of beliefs.
Excerpted from Water: A Biography by Giulio Boccaletti. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Pantheon Books. Copyright © 2021 by Giulio Boccaletti.