It is apparent to followers of Chinese environmental history that water is in the air. Recent work in the field has been devoted to following the course of some of China’s major river systems through the early modern period into the twentieth century. Ling Zhang’s The River, The Plain, and the State drifts further back along the Yellow River into the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a time when China was under considerable political and, as the author relates in detail, ecological pressure. Zhang’s revisionist skill in demonstrating the interdependency of these two critical elements to produce a more comprehensive environmental history of the Song is her award-winning book’s main significance. Song history, in both its northern (960–1127) and southern (1127–1279) dynastic incarnations, largely focuses on issues of politics, economics, and philosophy. Zhang’s book is the first monograph linking conventional Song political and economic narratives directly to the environmental narrative covering eight decades of Yellow River control that undermined political stability through what she calls a “hydraulic mode of consumption.” The state wasted political capital, labor, and other resources in a futile effort to maintain the “Yellow River-Hebei environmental complex.” The “environmental drama” began in 1048 when the Yellow River underwent one of its periodic and often drastic shifts. The river quickly moved almost 700 kilometers northeastward over the Hebei plain to end up near present-day Tianjin. After three more shifts to the north and east, it attained relative stability in 1128 once it permanently left Hebei after “an eighty-year occupation.” One million people—20 percent of Hebei’s population—were killed in 1048, and a disruptive legacy remains as persistent soil and ground cover degradation. The political implications were profound because Hebei was the key strategic territory separating China from Inner Asian steppe power to the north, the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) of mounted warriors. Authorities were compelled to maintain the ecological stability of the river in Hebei as the core of the Song security policy to ward off Jin invasion. The ensuing debates over resource allocation split the highest levels of the Song state into “hydro-politico” factions. The book itself is split into two parts of four chapters each. The first part provides the ecological context for the Yellow River and political context for the Northern Song Dynasty, which Zhang merges into the concept of a hydraulic mode of consumption, constituting a new environmental framework for Song history. In covering relations of both the river and the dynasty up to 1048, she emphasizes environmental historical processes that led to the formation of the Yellow River in Hebei as an anthropogenic construct that locked in an ultimately unsustainable amount of resources. The second part explores the consequences of the state’s increasingly unbearable burden of maintaining its construct under human and ecological pressures. State policy response, socioeconomic and demographic consequences, and long-term ecological legacies of salinization, sandification, and deforestation are all covered in detail to demonstrate that “human histories could not be made … without being bound up with non-human actors in a complex, chaotic and entangled environment world” (p. 19). The fact that the succeeding Jin state inherited the Song lock-in with little alteration in terms of policy and practice furthermore suggests an ecological continuity that may transcend social change and even shape it, without absolutely determining it. The River, the Plain, and the State is clearly a declensionist study emphasizing the unqualified catastrophic effects of human ecological interference on human society. This is, perhaps, the one plot in the standard narratives of Song and Chinese environmental history that the author does not set out to revise. Nevertheless, Zhang’s book is the furthest thing from a disaster imaginable under present historical circumstances. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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