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China and Inner Asia
Collaborating for Grand Peace: Farmers and Water Governance in Early Modern Jiangnan (1653-1821)
Individual Paper Presenter(s)
University of California, Los Angeles, United States
Scholars of early modern China have long acknowledged the importance of local water governance. However, maintaining hydraulic structures was perceived mainly as state or elite projects, while farmers — real agents of these hydraulic constructions — faded into the background. Farmers were seemingly too selfish and short-sighted to collaboratively craft water institutions for long-term benefits. Through the repairs of the Taiping River (literally the River of Grand Peace) in Jiangnan, China’s economic center, this essay instead stresses the importance of male and female farmers in water governance. It examines how farmers collaborated across village boundaries and responded to environmental and institutional challenges facing river maintenance between 1653 and 1821. Over the 169 years, the ten-mile Taiping River was dredged thirteen times. Little official supervision was involved; all these riverworks were completed under the collaboration of over three thousand farming households in the eighty-nine villages alongside the river. By juxtaposing locally circulated river records and genealogies of leading lineages, I explore how farmers mobilized and monitored labor, allocated water benefits, and (re-)structured leadership to continuously manage local landscape and pursue the grand peace. The study not only illustrates some shared elements of collective water control in early modern Jiangnan, but also demonstrates the achievements of rural coordination and qualifies the received wisdom against farmers and their capability to coordinate for the greater good.