Chinese history

The Way of Water and Waterways in China

Chinese history

Michael Sheringham is a director of the Meridian Society and gave a talk in the 'Joseph Needham series' to SACU and the Meridian Society at the Lau Institute, King's College, London on 19th Nov. 2013. He very kindly agreed to write this account of his talk for China Eye.

Introduction: How I came to learn from Joseph Needham

Joseph Needham was the source and inspiration for my presentation, based on his research and work on Science & Civilisation in China (SCC). I began to study this topic for a dissertation I was writing in 1967 for Durham University, where I was studying Chinese. For my research I visited Needham's office library in Cambridge to read the manuscript of his as-yet unpublished work on water control and hydraulic engineering.

The next year, I moved to St John's College, Cambridge University to continue my Chinese studies, and during that year my father stayed with Needham to make an inventory of his books at his college of Gonville and Caius, where he was Master. Thus we were fortunate to get to know him not only as President of SACU, but also as an academic and extremely engaging and multi-faceted person.

Needham was an ideal scholar-gentleman, with his values of altruism and being a teacher-mentor in the mould of Confucius, but eclectic in his combination of beliefs in Taoism (Daoism), Confucianism & Communism, and also himself a devout Christian. In his study of China, his main theory was that China had pioneered or invented practical things long before Europeans - i.e. astronomical charts, compass, paper-making, printing, water control devises and irrigation systems. To 'prove' this, he embarked on his life-long study of China's history, traditional thought & philosophy, and science in every sphere (on the basis of his previous illustrious career as a renowned bio-chemist.

Confucians and Daoists

Both philosophies developed during the Warring States period of the later Chou (Zhou) dynasty (403-221 B.C.), when states were contending for supremacy, and various philosophers gave advice to rulers on how to rule a state and its people - a period of vying philosophies known as the Hundred Schools of Thought.

The main exponents of Daoism were Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi, 4th cent B.C. 369-286?), Lao Tzu (Lao Zi, 6th cent. B.C. or 5-4th cent.?) whose main work the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) -was translated as The Way and its Power.

The Dao De Jing was based on a in the Tao (Dao -Way) as the basic concept of nature and the universe, in which mankind was part of the integral whole. Incorporating such elements as yin/yang - two opposite, but complementary forces of Nature - light/dark, male/female, fire/water, sun/moon, hot/cold. Within Nature, water & rivers symbolised the yin - soft/yielding element which gains superiority over the hard and unyielding - yang element, represented by rocks & mountains.

Daoist thinkers advised rulers and others to follow the Way of the Dao, or the gentle way to overcome difficulties and generally as a philosophy of life. Humans were seen as small elements within the framework of Nature and a speck in the cosmos.

More pragmatic and worldly than Daoists, Confucius and his followers Meng Tzu (Meng Zi - Mencius, 372 - 289 BC), Mo Tzu (Mo Zi - ca. 470 -391 BC ) , were more interested in state-craft and order, with tenets concerning family as the basic unit of society. They aimed to cultivate the Gentleman (chun tzu - junzi) with ideal, correct values as pillars of the family in an elitist, hierarchical, male-dominated Society.

The ideals of Daoism and Confucianism could be combined, typically by scholars and poets, in their public role as officials, and as private persons, especially if dismissed from office and in exile when they could cultivate their inner beliefs and talents. Needham also embraced these beliefs eclectically as a public official and as a scholar who obviously had deep sympathies for both Confucian and Daoist values which he studied deeply.

Philosophy of Nature in Daoist terms, relating to mountains, rivers

The Daoists observed Nature and the elements which constitute Nature, defining their characteristics in proto-scientific ways. Fascinated by the nature of water and rivers, they applied these observations to a code of life guiding their own conduct and advocating it to others. 'Going with the flow (of Nature)' could be said to define the essence of their philosophy.

The configuration of the earth causes water to flow eastward. Nevertheless man can open channels for it to run into canals...The sages in all their methods of action follow the nature of things.

(Needham, SCC, Vol. 2, p. 68, quoting from the Huai Nan-Tzu (Huai Nanzi - 2nd cent. BC).

According to the Huai Nan Tzu, again quoted by Needham (SCC. Vol. 2, p. 51):

He who conforms to the course of the Tao (Dao), following the natural processes of Heaven and Earth, finds it easy to manage the whole world. Thus it was that Yu the Great was able to engineer the canals following the nature of water and using it as his guide.

Applied to the force of flowing water, the Dao De Jing explains:

Nothing under Heaven is softer or more yielding than water, but when it attacks things hard and resistant, there is not one of them that can prevail. (Waley, The Way and its Power, p. 238).

Daoist thinking actually influenced the way hydraulic engineers dealt with problems concerning water control and construction works. In ancient China there were two rival schools of thought relating to hydraulic engineering: one believed in building high dykes to control rivers and the other in digging deep channels. The Daoists believed that to build high dykes was to confine Nature instead of letting rivers take their natural course. Instead, they argued, digging deep channels accorded with the principles of Nature, the 'Valley Spirit' and the 'Feminine' characteristic of concavity and receptivity.

Thus the legendary water control engineer Li Ping (Li Bing - 3rd century BC,) is recorded to have instructed:

Dig the channels deep and keep dykes low. Where the channel runs straight, dredge it in the middle.

Another Daoist-inclined hydraulic engineer in the Han Dynasty, Chia Jang, produced a wonderful analogy, advocating the free-flow of rivers in a memorial to the Emperor in 6 BC:

Rivers are like the mouths of infants - if one tries to stop them up they only yell the louder or else are suffocated.

In another analogy based on wu wei (in action), Chia Jang stated:

Those who are good at controlling water give it the best opportunities to flow away;
Those who are good at controlling the people give them plenty of chance to talk.
(Needham, SCC, Vol. 4, Part 3, pp. 234-51)

Early beliefs and religious rituals relating to water & rivers

In China, where agriculture has been historically so dependent on water, it is natural that people would celebrate rivers and hope for their beneficial support. These festivities often took place at times of seasonal change, such as during the Chinese Spring Festival (Chun Jie, according to the lunar calendar) or mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie), which were traditionally celebrated in families and communities in the rural areas.

The Ch'ing Ming (Qing Ming) Festival has always been celebrated as the traditional festival to commemorate ancestors, as depicted in the famous scroll painting, the Ch'ing Ming Shang Ho Tu. Qing Ming Festival is held on the 15th day from the Spring Equinox around April 5th, also to enjoy the coming of Spring. The scroll shows the length of the river with the banks full of all kinds of houses and festive activities, with people making their way to markets in the town and carrying out their daily business.

Another famous festival, Duan Wu Jie, the Dragon Festival, is held every year on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. People hold dragon boat races and eat rice dumplings (Zong Zi) to celebrate the memory of a historical character, a patriotic hero - Ch'u Yuan (Qu Yuan - Warring States period in state of Chu, 403-221 B.C.). He who was an official exiled from his native place in disgrace (343-278 BC) and wrote an epic ballad expressing his grief, the Li Sao, or Laments/Encountering Sorrow, which was later incorporated into the Ch'u T'zu (Qu Ci) or Songs of the South, before drowning himself in the Mi Lo (Miluo) River (Jiangxi Province) in 278 BC. To commemorate Ch'u Yuan, people also float boats with candles lit down rivers and streams, guiding the spirits of all those who have drowned.

Geographical and historical factors

Climatic and physical geographic conditions in China are so varied, particularly the water supply. The major regional divisions were formed by the West-East flowing rivers, especially from the highest mountain ranges of the Himalayas in the north-west. The main geographic/economic areas are the region north of the Yellow River, between the Yellow and Yangtse Rivers and south of the Yangtse.

The earliest Chinese civilisation developed in the Yellow River Basin (The Lung Shan (Long Shan) and Yang Shao periods . c. 3800-1000 BC), but the key area shifted during the Qin (221-206 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C. - 220 AD) periods to the Wei, Fen and lower Yellow River valleys. During the Han Dynasty, in the 3rd Century AD, the capital was moved from Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) in the Wei River valley in the west to Luoyang in the Lower Yellow River valley in the east. The key area moved from Kuanchung (Guanzhong) to the Han and Huai River valleys. From the T'ang (Tang - 618-905) to the Ch'ing (Qing - 1644-1911) dynasties, the key area shifted to the Lower Yangtse Basin and then south of the Yangtse.

Subsequently, rulers were mainly concerned with river and canal transportation of grain supplies to the capital in the north from the fertile, well irrigated production areas of southern China. Grain tax was a major source of income for the Imperial court and when the Key Economic Area (a concept produced by Chi Ch'ao-ting) shifted from north to south, the flow of grain had to be ensured by great hydraulic engineering projects.

The three main river systems are the Yellow River, Yangtse and Huai and the Si Kiang (Sijiang) in the south. The Yellow and Yangtse Rivers are the longest, 3028 and 3494 miles respectively, both rising in the Himalayan plateau. Both rivers have always threatened the populations with floods and droughts, with the Yellow River, often called 'China's Sorrow', frequently changing its course causing widespread devastation. According to records, over the last 3000 years, there have been more than 1500 major floods and 26 changes of course of the Yellow River, 9 of which have been major catastrophes involving the river flowing to new exits to the sea.

Hydraulic engineering - water-control projects

With its great history of hydraulic engineering works, what were the purposes of these projects? They included irrigation for agriculture, transportation - canals and channels - for grain & military supplies, flood and drought control. However, the officials and engineers had changing priorities and put different emphasis on one or the other project at different times.

Each region has its own irrigation conditions and needs. The loess region of the northwest is short of water, so irrigation and silt removal and fertilisation with silt have always been of prime importance.

Hydraulic projects in the northern areas have involved building canals and ditches in the alluvial plains and river valleys to capture the mud-laden water and conduct it to the fields. The big silt-laden rivers in north China, such as the Ching (Jing), Wei (Shensi/Shanxi Province), Fen (Shensi/Shanxi), Lo/Luo (Honan/Henan) and Yellow Rivers have had such irrigation systems since the Early Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 9 A.D.). Flood control work and irrigation has historically preoccupied hydraulic engineers in the Yellow and Huai River valleys.

With the geological land table sloping from northwest to southeast and a much higher rain precipitation compared to the arid, drought-prone north and northwest, the south is well supplied with water. So the primary task in the south has always been the drainage of surplus water and the cultivation of drained swamps and lakes and river basins.

As early as 246 B.C. the Chinese were aware of the effects of silt from rivers. They made use of it for fertilisation, while preventing it from threatening crops. The Yellow River was particularly prone to silting and flooding. Its bed rose about 3 ft. per century, and as much as 5 ft. in some places. So it was necessary to raise dykes by 6 ft. a year to control the river.

Another feature which the Chinese hydraulic engineers realised very early on was the direct relationship between deforestation, erosion and flooding. They understood that it was necessary to preserve forests for moisture in the soil.

Even before gaining supremacy, and contributing to its success, the state of Qin (Ch'in) developed hydraulic engineering to its advantage. The Qin ruler, through astute officials, mobilised its population to undertake such large projects as the building of the Cheng-kuo (Zhengguo) canal in 246 B.C., which was used for both irrigation and transportation of grain in what is today's Shaanxi Province.

During the Warring States period (406-221 BC), people who lived along the banks of the Min River were plagued by annual flooding. The Qin governor Li Ping (Li Bing - c. 3rd century BC) investigated the problem and discovered that the river was swollen by fast flowing spring melt-water from the local mountains that burst the banks when it reached the slow moving and heavily silted stretch below.

After the construction was finished, no more floods occurred. The irrigation system made Sichuan the most productive agricultural place in China. On the east side of Dujiangyan, people built a shrine in remembrance of Li Bing.

In the first dynasty under the Qin Emperor canal transportation and irrigation as well as road building was vital to the development of agriculture and the economy as a whole.

These large-scale projects of hydraulic engineering were facilitated by changing social organisation and structure. They required great mobilisation of human resources and centralised control. The state of Qin used mass (also slave) labour to build roads and canals and work on other hydraulic projects, as well as building the Great Wall. The state of Qin was a highly organised military regime which unified the whole of China under the First Emperor and was most successful in marshalling its population for such vast projects. It created an autocratic and brutal system with draconian measures guided by their Legalist philosophy with strict laws and punishments.

Early in the following dynasty, the Han Emperor Han Wu-Ti (Han Wudi, 140-87 BC), continued to recognise the benefits of water control. So transport canals and irrigation channels both featured strongly during Wu-Ti's reign. The Lower Yellow River plain was well cultivated for grain, which was transported as tribute or tax on the Yellow and Wei rivers and newly-built canals to the capital, Chang'an (present Xi'an).

Another great feat of hydraulic engineering took place in the Sui Dynasty (589-618 AD): the extension of the Grand Canal from Hangzhou in the south to the capital in Chang'an (today's Xi'an) in the north. This involved linking up various previously-built sections of the canal to facilitate the transportation of grain from the south to the north, with many tributaries running west to east.

China's construction and maintenance of waterways impressed European travellers: in 1696 Louis Lecomte wrote:

Though China were not of itself so fruitful as I have represented it, the canals which are cut through it were alone sufficient to make it so. They are generally of a clear, deep and running water that glides so softly that it can scarce be perceived. There is one usually in every province, which is to it instead of a road, and runs between two banks, built up with flat course marble stones.

Mechanical devices and hydraulic innovations

In their techniques of water control and river and canal navigation, the Chinese were, according to Needham, pioneers way ahead of other civilisations. To harness rivers, they used dams, irrigation ditches and canals, reservoirs, dykes and spillways (for negotiating varying water levels on transport canals), flash locks, pound locks and sluice gates. Flash locks were used on transport canals, with boats being hauled upstream and shot downstream over the locks. Pound locks were first used at the beginning of the Sung (Song) Dynasty (960-1279 AD) to raise the level of water on transport canals and sluice gates used by the 1st century BC for irrigation canals and channels.

Chain Pallet Pump
Typical square pallet chain pumps (photographed in Sichuan 1943)

Chain pumps were used by at least the 1st century A.D. They were also called 'dragon backbones'. One of the earliest accounts was a description by the Han Dynasty philosopher Wang Ch'ung (Wang Chong) (27-97 AD) around 80 AD. Illustrations of such Chinese chain pumps show them drawing water up a slanted channel.

Recent history

Following the onset of the Japanese War in 1937, the Japanese marched rapidly into the heart of Chinese territory. By June 1938, the Japanese had control of all of North China, and Japanese success would have directly endangered the major cities of Wuhan and Xi'an.

To stop further Japanese advances into the western and southern part China, Chiang Kai-shek determined to open up the dikes on the Yellow River near Zhengzhou. Waters flooded into Henan, Anhui and Jaingsu provinces. The floods covered and destroyed thousands of square kilometers of farmland and shifted the mouth of the Yellow River hundreds of miles to the south. Thousands of villages were inundated or destroyed and several million villagers driven from their homes and made refugees. An official Nationalist post-war commission estimated that 800,000 were drowned, which may be an underestimate.

PRC hydraulic projects with mass labour

Like the Qin Dynasty, the New People's Republic used mass labour to carry out large-scale water-control schemes. To boost the rural economy and develop socialist agricultural policies, the population was mobilised through propaganda campaigns. These included posters exhorting the masses to cooperate in endeavours to prevent floods and tame the rivers for the benefit of society.

The Red Flag Canal - Hongqi Qu

In Henan, close to the border of Hebei and Shanxi, the Red Flag Canal diverts water from the Zhang River. The dam is located near the corner of the three provinces. The canal winds around the side of a cliff, through 42 tunnels and along the side of the Taihang Mountains. The main canal is 71 kilometres long with many branches to distribute the water, irrigating the fields of Linzhou district.

The canal was initiated during the Great leap Forward (1958) and was built in the 1960s, and the main channel was completed in 1965. 71 kilometers long. It was dug entirely by hand labour. Including the distribution branches, the irrigation system has a total length of 1500 kilometers.

Water wheel
Waterwheels lifting water for irrigation (1637 sketch)

Mao Zedong recognised the political power of rivers

In his poem After Swimming across the Yangtze River (May 1956), Mao describes the scene as well as mentioning the engineering works which have changed life on the river:

Having just drunk the water of Changsha;
Now I eat the fish of Wuchang.
Crossing the ten-thousand-li-long Yangtse River
I gaze at the unlimited sky of the southland.
Let the winds and waves batter me,
Still it is better than strolling in a quiet garden.

Building a stone wall to the west
Will cut off the rain fallen on Wu Mountain,
To create a towering dam above a mirror-like lake,
The goddess of Wu Mountain should be unchanged,
But only startled by the changed world.

Mao swam across the Yangtze again in 1966 to mark the start of the Cultural Revolution, impressing the population by his vigour and determination to embark on this last major political struggle of his life. In ages past, the famous T'ang (Tang) Dynasty poet, Tu Fu (Du Fu - 712-770), reflected more wistfully about the river scene: Climbing the Heights:

The Yangtse seems endless with its waters rolling on relentlessly.
So many autumns have I spent away from home.
With sickness as a companion do I climb high above the river alone.
Thinking over all my woes, which have made my temples grey,
Regretting that poor health even prevents the solace of wine.


Water and rivers have run right through Chinese history, thought, its land, life and culture as the blood-stream of its existence and survival. From the earliest times to the present, as Joseph Needham traced it, man's ingenuity has been forged to invent ways to harness the rivers for the benefit of life, which is reflected in ancient customs and philosophy and celebrated in art, literature and music. With the greatest scientific and technological knowledge and know-how now at its disposal, hopefully mankind, and particularly the Chinese, will heed their philosophical sages and pay attention to their environment and not further destroy their natural resources in the process of modernisation.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2014, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Eye Issue 41, 2014

Copyright © SACU 1965-2017. If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.