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Book Review


Philip Ball, The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. 341. Bibliography and Index. $27.50 (cloth).


     From Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History (2003) to Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2015), a recent profusion of conceptual and thematic histories have appealed to general readers by exploring imaginative new topics. Whereas more traditional histories have used the nation as a guiding framework, this newer trend looks to both focus on a single commodity while also encompassing a broad geographical and chronological range. Ball's new book does both, as well as looking at the social influence of water on China's history. In particular, the book "seeks to show how the nation's philosophy, history, politics, administration, economics and art are intimately connected to a degree unmatched anywhere else in the world" (5).

     Ball himself notes that he is neither a historian nor a sinologist, but one who has been enthralled with China since he first visited in 1992. His interest in China inspired him to write the book, quite a departure from his normal work as a science writer and editor for Nature. Ball brings a fresh perspective to many aspects of Chinese culture and history, and his broad base of knowledge can be seen from his observation that "Chinese deities are often remote administrators who impose order by superhuman feats of endurance and will" (46) and that "[f]ew habits are more distinctively Chinese than this insistent enumeration of every cultural entity, facet or trait" (63). Ball's passion for Chinese culture, and his broad reading on history, myth, and culture rewards readers with fascinating insights distilled from these sources, along with his own experiences.

     The book is divided into ten chapters, which focus on geography (Chapter One), myths and religion (Chapters Two and Three), politics and history (Chapters Four through Eight), art (Chapter Nine), and look into the future (Chapter Ten). The first chapter sets the stage for China as a riverine civilization, where water management, natural disasters, and deforestation are all addressed and become themes revisited throughout the book. This chapter, like the rest of the book, contains information from roughly three thousand years of Chinese history, from Confucius to Mao Zedong. For a non-specialist, the jumpy character of the writing might be confusing and disorienting. For sinologists and historians of China, the main critique would be that it appears Ball's research is incomplete: including Mark Elvin's classic, The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1973) while leaving out his subsequent work, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China (2006), seems an odd omission.

     "Out of the Water" (Chapter Two) and "Finding the Way" (Chapter Three) are the most engaging sections of the book. In Chapter Two, Ball explores the mythology of dragons (as the source of the names of many of China's great rivers), the conflict between the civilized man of the valleys and the wild hermit of the hills (as later embodied in Confucianism and Daoism), the use of myths to rationalize social hierarchies and customs (in the person of Yu the Great), and the Yongle Emperor's practice of dredging rivers to enhance his legitimacy as Son of Heaven. For a reader with a background in Chinese culture and history, linking these concepts to a general theme of water and its importance shows considerable intellectual creativity and plasticity. Referencing Timothy Brook's masterful The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (2013), the first chapter of which focuses on dragons, would strengthen Ball's argument.  Ball's erudition and background take the reader on a fun ride through his source material, but when he falls short of bringing in important texts, it detracts from the experience for the educated reader. The third chapter spends a lot of text on Chinese characters, on the concept of the Dao of Daoism as a water-course instead of a road (cited as Sarah Allan's contribution), the roots of Confucian philosophy as a precursor to European Enlightenment ideas, the five elements and dynastic cycles, and the failure of legalism to take hold as the dominant philosophical system in Chinese thought. For students of the Chinese language, this chapter is particularly interesting, as it elaborates on the influence of water motifs on Chinese writing and philosophy.

     The chapters on history and politics are more limited in their content and often follow a chronological structure. "Channels of Power" (Chapter Four) focuses on the history of canals, dredging rivers, and political authority, and includes a valuable critique of Karl Wittfogel's concept of oriental despotism, rejecting it with reference to ideas of benign, largely laissez-faire imperial leadership, local irrigation projects, and the role of merchants in the Song and Ming. Voyages of the Eunuch Admiral (Chapter Five) details China's history as a people who regularly engaged in maritime trade, reaching an acme under Zheng He. Oddly, Ball remarks that "Zheng He seems to have been a devoted Buddhist all his life" (144) before later labeling him as a Muslim (155). "Rise and Fall of the Hydraulic State" (Chapter Six) opens with a classic quote from Elvin on the so-called high-level equilibrium trap, whereby China spent its energy and resources maintaining a hydrological system of dams and canals and dredging rivers, which enabled an efficient market-based economy but at the cost of tying up those resources such that they could not be used to invest in the labor-saving inventions of the industrial revolution. In discussing the Taiping Rebellion, Ball makes the novel connection that the occupation of Nanjing during this period led directly to the rise of Shanghai as the premier port on the Yangzi. "War on the Waters" (Chapter Seven) argues that China's wars have been decided not on land, but on water, from the Battle of Red Cliffs to the successes of the Communists in taking Nanjing in 1949. "Mao's Dams" (Chapter Eight) begins the shift of the book to more modern periods, detailing the Communist goal of energy production and stability through hydroelectric dams.

     "The Fluid Art of Expression" (Chapter Nine) opens with a discussion of the great Chinese poets Li Bai and Du Fu before switching to a brief history of Chinese painting and then bringing both together to show how art, both visual and poetic, provided the primary medium for political discourse and criticism. By ending on this note, Ball shows how contemporary Chinese artists are criticizing the Communist Party, in particular for large projects like the Three Gorges Dam and its issues with budget overruns, performance below projections of electricity output, and, most importantly, for the human cost demanded of citizens forced to relocate their homes. "Water and China's Future" (Chapter Ten) criticizes China for failing to protect its water resources, for its newest giant engineering project, the South-North Water Transfer Project, and for the extinction of the Yangzi River dolphin.

     For all its virtues, The Water Kingdom is more a series of vignettes on aspects of China and its interaction with water than it is a unified work. The early chapters would be of interest to scholars of Chinese language, culture, and history, while students concerned with the environment in China and government projects would gravitate toward the last two chapters. For teachers, this book provides interesting nuggets to add to existing lectures on Confucianism (such as the deep historical importance of water control and administration from Yu the Great on), Daoism (the hermit man of the mountains and the idea of Dao as water), or Chinese painting and poetry (looking at imagery and wording which might be critical of current rulers or policies). For advanced students with a background in Chinese history and culture, this book provides extensive food for thought, as well as a good bibliography of essential readings. For the general reader, however, there may be too much here, in terms of detail, scope, and information.

Reid Wyatt is a teacher of Chinese Language and Premodern World History at Brooks School, in North Andover, Massachusetts. He can be reached at


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